If you thought the onslaught of racist vitriol directed at former first lady Michelle Obama was difficult to read and hear about, imagine how it felt to be helpless when tasked with protecting her. This week, excerpts from former Secret Service agent Evy Poumpouras’ 2020 memoir Becoming Bulletproof resurfaced, detailing how Poumpouras felt “outraged” but unable to intervene during nonviolent racist attacks while on Mrs. Obama’s detail.
“As the first Black First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Obama had to withstand certain kinds of disparagement that none of her predecessors ever faced,” Poumpouras wrote, Insider reported. “I was on her protective detail when we were driving to a school to deliver a speech; we passed someone on a bridge holding up a shockingly racist sign directed at her.
“I remember feeling outraged—after all, it was part of our job to protect the first family mentally as well as physically,” she continued. “But if the First Lady saw the sign, she gave no indication of it.”
Poumpouras was a veteran member of the Secret Service, reportedly having also protected George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush before joining the presidential protective division for the Obamas. But despite her experience, she was on new ground with the first Black presidential family, telling Insider “there was no protocol in place for dealing with spoken or written forms of racism.”
“I could do nothing,” she said, citing the First Amendment as the primary impediment to intervention. “There’s freedom of speech in the United States, and even if I personally feel that speech is wrong, the law doesn’t give me the power to take that person’s speech away.
“When it came to speech, they could call them names,” she added. “They could say whatever they wanted so long as there was no imminent threat of harm.”
The Secret Service may be the first line of defense when it comes to protecting the first family, but they were often reliant on organizers and proprietors to sanction or remove anyone “heckling” them, no matter how racist the rhetoric.
“I could not step in and say, ‘Hey, don’t say that,’” said Poumpouras. “But the staff could say, ‘We don’t accept that type of language here. This is our private property. Please leave.’ Only then could someone do something, but as painful as it was, I had to abide by the law.”