A Conversation With NYC's Most Prolific Political Heckler

Andy Ratto heckling Howard Schultz at Barnes & Noble on January 28, 2019
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Andy Ratto heckling Howard Schultz at Barnes & Noble on January 28, 2019 Kathy Willens/AP/Shutterstock

Howard Schultz is entering his fourth day on the prospective campaign trail, after announcing on 60 Minutes this weekend that he’s “seriously thinking” about a third party bid for the presidency.

Already, the former Starbucks CEO has some Democrats panicked about a spoiler candidate, while earning plenty of scorn from the left for his attacks on newly-emboldened progressive priorities; Schultz is anti-universal health care and cites Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed hike on marginal income tax for the ultra-wealthy as his reason for running. As he vows to find out whether there’s an appetite for a “centrist independent” in 2020—his advisors say: maybe—Schultz is already offering a somewhat amusing answer to the question of how Americans in 2019 will react to an unabashed billionaire candidate.

It’s going about as expected. During a stop at Union Square Barnes & Noble earlier this week, Schultz was viciously and virally heckled by an audience member, deemed an “egotistical billionaire asshole" and urged not to help re-elect Trump. “Go back to Davos with the other billionaire elite who think they know how to run the world,” the man shouted, as security removed him from the bookstore. “This isn't what Democracy needs right now!"

In form, at least, the incident immediately called to mind a similar takedown of Sean Spicer, who was labeled a "garbage person" while promoting his memoir at the same Barnes & Noble this past summer. On Wednesday, Brooklyn-based activist Andy Ratto emailed Gothamist taking credit for both heckles, which he says are just the latest in a string of verbal grenades that he’s lobbed at politicians in recent years. After confirming his involvement in the Spicer and Schultz disruptions, we spoke by phone with Ratto, 34, about his passion for heckling, his hatred of billionaires, and the one Trump official most deserving of ridicule.

What inspired you to confront Howard Schultz?

When a billionaire throws his hat in the ring and says 'I need to protect my money and my status and my power so we cannot have things like universal health care,' I think that needs to be called out. When someone accumulates billions of dollars on the backs of the labor of their employees and then turns around to say they want to become president to protect their own interests at the expense of others, we should be clear about what's happening.

The main persuasive argument that I've seen from him so far is that he has a lot of money and he wants to do what he can to prevent Democrats from taking any of that money, via taxation, to help the greater good. He's explicitly saying that as the winner of the presidency he would oppose those efforts, and I think he's implicitly saying that he can run as a spoiler candidate in order to help re-elect Trump purely as a means of class interest and defending his own money.

How did you get into heckling in the first place?

I used to work in the same building as Cuomo. I bumped into him on the street one time and started yelling at him about the IDC and telling him he had to do something about it. He said something like "I'm doing what I can," and that made news, because he was previously attempting to take a hands off approach, at least in public.

That was my first moment in NYC where I realized there's an approach that politicians and journalists sometimes take when interacting with each other and that it can be useful to disregard that approach. Sometimes that means speaking truth to assholes and sometimes that means challenging people in a way that they're not normally challenged. I understand for the most part why journalists might not be doing that, but if there are things they're not going to say or do, then I think it's incumbent on the rest of us to take the opportunity when we can do to say and do those things.

Wait. Were you the one who grabbed the governor by the lapels and convinced him to cancel the L train shutdown?

No. Not me, if that guy exists.

I was at the rally he did the night before the primary, which was right in the middle of the scandal surrounding the mailer attacking Cynthia Nixon, and the cover up. I happen to be Jewish and I was particularly annoyed that she was being called anti-semitic. I also do a lot of activism around accessibility on the subway, and I'm a part of a group, Rise & Resist, that's for years been working on pressing politicians to make that more of a priority. So I jumped up at the rally and yelled that he needed to apologize to Cynthia Nixon and that he'd spent years failing to fix the subway.

Do you usually have some outline of what you're going to say? Or do you wing it in the moment?

I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to say to Sean Spicer, and it was a slightly longer and more developed statement. I got there and I looked at how sparse the crowd was, and I realized that they were going to grab me almost immediately so I wouldn't have time to get off anything that was more than a sentence. I wasn't able to put a lot of thought into planning out what it was going to be, but I’d recently realized that garbage works really well as an insult. It happens in America that a lot of our insults tend to be gendered or ableist or problematic in other ways.

In the extended clip I'm heading down the escalator and I'm still lobbing insults at him, which was enjoyable. That was all just off the cuff. Part of what can and should sustain us in activism is a recognition that it doesn't need to be dreary or soul-sucking or something we view as sacrifice. Being able to see Sean Spicer and call him garbage to his face was enjoyable.

For Schultz, I had planned the first line — "egotistical billionaire asshole." That was something I knew I wanted to say, that captured in my mind a lot about what is wrong with his approach to politics. The rest of it was off the top of my head. I could've continued for awhile. There's really no shortage of ways to criticize an out-of-touch elite billionaire who thinks he should step in and assume the presidency.

What happens post-heckle? Have you gotten banned from Barnes & Noble? Any interaction with police?

The experiences I've had at Barnes & Noble, in terms of heckling, I have no complaints. They've treated me very nice. I believe it's been private security — I'm not sure if it's been security from the Spicer and Schultz people or the Barnes & Noble people, but they've moved me out of there as gingerly as possible, so I do appreciate that. As of yet I don't think they know my name or identity, though I guess they will now.

I do have one complaint: I bought the Howard Schultz book [From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America] that day because I didn't have the ticket. There was an advanced registration, but I'd decided only that morning that I was going to do this, so I had to buy the book. I'd staked out a spot near the journalists that I thought would be the best place to deliver a heckling of Howard Schultz. But at showtime there were still empty seats, so I walked up to the entry area and I showed them my copy of the book and they waved me right in. That worked out well because it positioned my closer to the cameras and it bought me a little extra time. My one minor complaint is that they pulled me out so quickly that I left my book behind. At some point I may bring my receipt back and ask for an additional copy of Howard Schultz's book — not that I'd ever plan on reading it, but just as a souvenir.

Do you have a dream heckle?

Well, Trump is the obvious cliche, but he gets yelled at all the time, so it's not the same status. I'd probably say [Secretary of Homeland Security] Kirstjen Nielsen. Early on, when tasked with implementing extreme cruelty on behalf of President Trump, she could have taken the barest moral action and instead repeatedly has attempted to cover up and defend abuses by the Department of Homeland Security and the abuse by ICE and Customs & Border Patrol. Eventually she'll leave the administration and she'll move into some sort of consulting or lobbying or media position, and hopefully she finds herself in New York City at some point. I would love to express to her what an awful human being she is.

What's the point of this? Besides the fact that you enjoy yelling at these people, do you feel as though you're accomplishing something larger here?

In theory there could be some sort of deterrent from the public about these egregious actions that people are committing. But that wasn't what I was trying to do with Howard Schultz. I was trying to help interfere with the media rollout of his prospective presidential campaign. I've worked in politics in the past, so I can imagine what it was like for the consultants and staffers he's working with to see headline after headline calling him an egotistical asshole. I think that landed as an insult and a heckle in part because it was a truth that a lot of people were feeling.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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