A better way to handle protestors

The spectacle of protestors interrupting staged events is all too common. How the event organizers should respond is tricky, especially if the event is a political one where there may be strong passions on all sides and some groups may feel their views are not being represented adequately. How do you balance the need to let the protestors make their point and continue with the scheduled program without resorting to brute force and having the protestors physically silenced and removed? Event organizers may want to take a lesson from Stephen Colbert.

Apparently there were protestors who disrupted his show last night when he was interviewing the co-founder of Uber Travis Kalanick. The protestors were New York City cab drivers in the audience who got up twice and yelled that Kalanick was lying. Rather than have the protestors removed, Colbert treated them respectfully, letting them speak while listening to them, and then rephrased their questions to Kalanick in a more polite way. The segments were however cut from the final show that was broadcast.

A woman who was at the show gave a detailed description of how it went down.

Two separate times during the interview with Uber guy, some cabbies in the balcony yelled stuff and interrupted the conversation.

They were criticizing Uber’s disruption of the NYC cab system, and they were very aggressive and made everyone rather uncomfortable.

I mean, I don’t blame them, their argument is valid. But I initially thought it was a bit, but the crew started looking around frantically.

Instead of having the men removed, Stephen acted with complete respect and control. He listened intently to what they had to say.

When the guy finished, Stephen said that he was planning on asking a similar question, and politely asked the man to be seated.

He then turned back to the interview and addressed exactly what the man had yelled about. It was very smooth. The whole thing was cut, tho.

Then five minutes later, another man got up and yelled something else. The Uber guy started to talk back to him, but Stephen calmly touched his arm and quieted both him and the cab driver in the balcony. He said that he would ask the man’s question “in a more respectful way.

Then he again respectfully asked the man to sit down, and he asked exactly what the man had yelled about. Very, very smooth transition.

Both encounters and all references to them were cut for the air.

The Uber man actually had some decent (prepared) answers to the questions, & Stephen was able to make it funny, but Biden deserved more air.

But – it was truly remarkable to see how Stephen handled the whole interview. He easily could have had the men removed.

But instead, he truly listened to what they had to say and directly incorporated their concerns into the interview, completely smoothly.

It was incredible to see how well Stephen handled it all. Absolute class and respect, the whole time.

And he had complete, *complete* control over the entire theatre. The audience, the band, the crew – we were all confused/a little scared, but Stephen calmed and quieted everyone. He didn’t call for security, he just dealt with the men and then continued an excellent interview.

It was a fantastic thing to watch happen. He handled it with class and earnestness & showed just how skilled he is as a performer and host.

I put it down to Colbert’s background in improvisational theater. It enables people to go with the flow and not get rattled by the unexpected. I have a colleague with a theater background who tries to teach faculty some of those skills so that if something unexpected and disruptive happens in their classes, they are better able to handle it smoothly.


  1. Numenaster says

    One more entry in the long log of why Stephen Colbert is awesome. He assumed that the protestors had something serious to say and gave them a chance to say it, and then brought their input into the discussion. The fact that he already had intended to raise at least one of the protestors’ points himself is just one MORE entry in the log.

    This contrasts starkly with the “free speech zone” approach taken by political parties at their nominating conventions, in which free speech is corralled somewhere far away from the real discussion and cannot meaningfully influence it. That approach presumes that protestors have nothing to say that is worth hearing. It’s profoundly dismissive of the reason free speech is protected.

  2. Mano Singham says


    I totally agree. Colbert acted as if everyone was occupying a shared space over which he had some authority that should not be abused. This is a contrast from thinking of it is my event and my space and any attempt by anyone to take things out of my complete control is an affront that must be immediately crushed using raw power.

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