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Politics & Government

When It Comes To Protesters, Politicians Don't Always Handle Them Well

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've all seen it. A politician is trying to have a moment when they suddenly get interrupted by protesters. In those moments, what's a politician to do? Here's NPR's Sam Sanders.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Black Lives Matter protesters stormed the stage at a Bernie Sanders event last year.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you do not listen to her, you are going to be shut down right now.

SANDERS: Sanders ended up leaving the stage mid-speech. Protesters in Chicago last month managed to get Donald Trump to call off one of his rallies right before it started.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tonight's rally will be postponed until another date.

SANDERS: Last week, Bill Clinton - campaigning for his wife - got into an argument with a protester that lasted 10 minutes.

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BILL CLINTON: I like protesters, but the ones that won't let you answer are afraid of the truth.

SANDERS: Lara Brown directs the political management program at George Washington University. She says politicians usually respond to protesters in three ways. What Bill Clinton was doing, that's tactic one.

LARA BROWN: To engage in the argument, right, to show that the protesters' logic was flawed.

SANDERS: Tactic two.

BROWN: Try to get the crowd to turn on the protester for them.

SANDERS: And tactic three.

BROWN: They'll usually say something like, OK, if I give you a minute to say your piece, will you say it so then I can go back to my work?

SANDERS: Brown says in the past the public only learned about these protests and these reactions if the media covered it.

BROWN: But in today's world, it is a matter of, you know, just snapping a picture or recording a video and immediately engaging the whole world.

MATTHEW MILES GOODRICH: We're trying to illicit moments right? I'm someone who pursues moments that will gain traction, that will force dialogue in the national discourse.

SANDERS: That's Matthew Miles Goodrich. He's an organizer with 350 Action, an environmental group. He's protested at lot of candidates.

GOODRICH: John Kasich and Chris Christie and Ted Cruz.

SANDERS: He's not picky, though. Goodrich has also protested Sanders and Clinton. He was the guy shooting the video of Hillary Clinton on a rope line that made for this testy exchange between Clinton and a protester.

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HILLARY CLINTON: I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me. I'm sick of it.

SANDERS: Goodrich is less concerned with actually engaging the candidate right there. What he really wants is to create viral moments like that one. I asked him what he would do if he were the politician being interrupted.

GOODRICH: Give us the microphone and let us speak.

SANDERS: So that's probably not going to happen. I wanted to talk to someone who could give me some more practical advice.

LAURIE KILMARTIN: Oh, I've been heckled many times (laughter). I've been heckled my entire career.

SANDERS: Laurie Kilmartin is a comedian and she writes for Conan O'Brien's TV show. She says sometimes with hecklers you have to wait.

KILMARTIN: The best thing I found is to let them ruin your show a little bit so the audience gets very aggravated and, like, oh, will she just do something about this guy? And then when you do - then when you do slam them they are cheering and they're completely behind you.

SANDERS: But here's the thing - campaign events, they aren't comedy clubs. And protesters are usually trying to get attention for some very serious issues.

PHOEBE ROBINSON: I just don't think a president can roast somebody. I think that looks, like, opposite of presidential.

SANDERS: Phoebe Robinson co-hosts the comedy podcast "Two Dope Queens." She says there's another challenge for politicians - they're not comics.

What would you tell them to do when someone's, like, yelling at them?

ROBINSON: I mean, it's hard because none of them are funny.

SANDERS: Funny or not, both comics say some advice works for comedians and politicians alike. Try and keep your cool and if at all possible stay on stage. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.