Secret Service Agent Details Racist Abuse She Witnessed Former First Lady Michelle Obama Endure
In a new book, Secret Service veteran Evy Poumpouras said the former first lady "had to withstand certain kinds of disparagement that none of her predecessors ever faced"
One of the Secret Service agents on Michelle Obama's detail when she was first lady says she was the target of "shockingly racist" actions during husband Barack Obama's two terms in the White House, writing in a book that people could "say whatever they wanted so long as there was no imminent threat of harm."
Becoming Bulletproof, by 12-year Secret Service veteran Evy Poumpouras, details life as an agent in the presidential protective division for Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Obama.
The 2020 memoir also goes into detail about what it was like protecting Mrs. Obama, who Poumpouras says was at times subject to harsh criticism when out in public.
"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 writes in her memoir, according to an article published by Insider this week. "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."
Poumpouras continues in the book: "I remember feeling outraged — after all, it was part of our job to protect the first family mentally as well as physically. But if the First Lady saw the sign, she gave no indication of it."
Speaking to Insider, the former agent said that she "could do nothing" when it came to protecting Mrs. Obama, 57, from racist language.
"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," she said, later adding: "They could say whatever they wanted so long as there was no imminent threat of harm."
Poumpouras told the outlet that those who organized events featuring the first lady were often the only ones who could have hecklers removed.
"I could not step in and say, 'Hey, don't say that,' " she told Insider. "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."
Both Michelle and Barack Obama spoke to PEOPLE in 2014 about racist experiences each had endured, with the former first lady recounting a story about being mistaken for a staffer while on a Target run.
"I tell this story — I mean, even as the first lady — during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf," Mrs. Obama said then. "Because she didn't see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn't anything new."
Mrs. Obama also recounted a separate instance involving her husband, saying: "He was wearing a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and somebody asked him to get coffee."
The former first lady recently spoke openly about her fears for the racism her own daughters might face as they venture into adulthood, noting to CBS This Morning's Gayle King earlier this month that many in the Black community "still live in fear as we go to the grocery store or worry about walking our dogs or allowing our children to get a license."
"They're driving, but every time they get in a car by themselves, I worry about what assumption is being made by somebody who doesn't know everything about them: The fact that they are good students and polite girls, but maybe they're playing their music a little loud. Maybe somebody sees the back of their head and makes an assumption," she said.
Mrs. Obama continued: "I, like so many parents of Black kids ... the innocent act of getting a license puts fear in our hearts. So I think we have to talk about it more and we have to ask our fellow citizens to listen a bit more and to believe us and to know that we don't want to be out there marching."