Questioning authority – meaningfully and with the potential for real results – takes thought and purpose, which is part of the reason why I’m sort of disgusted with Ellen Sturtz. Ms. Sturtz, for those who have not yet heard, is the 56-year-old LGBTQ activist who interrupted a speech given by First Lady Michelle Obama at a private Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Washington D.C. on Tuesday evening.
Normally, I’m all for non-violent demonstrations and civil disobedience – speaking truth to power is a tactic and a tradition that’s reinforced some of this country’s greatest and most revolutionary social movements. But I also believe that protest needs to have a logical purpose, an end game beyond the petulant desire to make a scene. As the stunt she pulled on Tuesday demonstrated, Sturtz and her allies — she’s a member of GetEQUAL, which, as part of its fight for “full legal and social equality” for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer citizens, has been agitating for President Barack Obama to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against Americans based on their sexual orientation — are apparently ignorant of the fact that successful activism also requires a good sense of how and when to pick your battles. Not to mention an understanding of precisely who in the White House wields power.
Despite her considerable public profile, high favorability ratings and activism on behalf of military families and American youth, Michelle Obama is not an elected or appointed official. Nor is she obligated to answer to anyone on matters of national politics and policy. Did Ellen Sturtz or any of her colleagues—who have defended the activist in the days since the event—really believe that hollering at the First Lady would result in anything meaningful or impactful? That there is a straight line from the ears of the chief executive’s wife to the muscles of her husband’s dominant hand and his fountain pen?
In addition to issues of impracticality, Sturtz’s eruption also demonstrated a blindness to or nonchalance about reality and optics. The office of the first lady has long been a complex and fraught one, with its occupants unwittingly caught in a sort of limbo between private citizen and public official. And for Michelle Obama in particular, there are the longstanding racial resentments that burst forth following the historic election of Mrs. Obama’s husband in 2008. Anyone who was been paying attention would have recognized in Sturtz’s outburst a petulance and sense of entitlement that echoes some of screechiest, bigoted and most resentful critics of the President himself, who have spent the past 6 years questioning Mr. Obama’s – and, by extension, black Americans’ – legitimacy to lead, have an opinion, or even exist. (Remember Joe Wilson?) To make matters worse, Sturtz’s description of Mrs. Obama’s reaction – that she was “pretty aggressive,” that she “got into my face” – was breathtaking bit of projection and entitlement that also tiptoed dangerously close to the “angry black woman” stereotype that Mrs. Obama has been dogged by for years. The implication by the Sturtz, a self-described “old abrasive lesbian” was this: That despite being interrupted during her delivery of a particularly passionate appeal for the support of at-risk American children, it was Michelle who was the asshole.
Readers can, of course, judge for themselves. Or rather, listeners and viewers. As of Wednesday afternoon, audio of the event had surfaced online and an audience-caputred video of the confrontation aired on CNN. “Wait, wait, wait,” Mrs. Obama can be heard telling Sturtz, to a round of applause. “One of the things I don’t do well, is this.” Although we don’t get a clear sense of how the tone and tenor of the exchange progressed — the assorted voices became a cacophony, rising in volume and urgency—according to the pool report, Mrs. Obama told both Sturtz and the assembled crowd, “[you can] listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
Sturtz, who, along with her colleague, GetEQUAL activist Autumn Leaf, later said that she was “disappointed” in the first lady’s response to her, had one chance to try to publicly engage the issue with nuance, an understanding of history and respect for the target of her displeasure. She blew it.