Sometimes a Milkshake Is Just a Milkshake

I’ve spent more time than most worried about stuff being poured on or thrown at politicians.

Nigel Farage gestures after being hit with a milkshake.
Nigel Farage was hit with a milkshake while arriving for a Brexit Party campaign event on May 20, 2019. (Scott Heppell / Reuters)

Here in the United Kingdom, milkshakes have replaced eggs as the protest projectile of choice. Activists have poured milkshakes on right-wing candidates for the European Parliament, resulting in some heated rhetoric. The Brexit Party leader and milkshaking victim Nigel Farage, for example, characterized the fad as a sign that “civilized democracy” no longer works. Police asked a McDonald’s in Edinburgh to stop selling milkshakes; angry pundits online accused Burger King of endorsing violence because it refused to stop selling them.

This is not a new phenomenon. Political figures have long been the target of tossed foodstuffs. Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes was egged in 1917. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was egged in 1970. The list of political figures egged, pied, caked, or tomatoed is not short. Most have taken it with good humor. Of course, one should never throw anything at anyone; that could easily amount to assault. But the idea that these acts are “mock assassinations” that could, perhaps, lead to actual assassinations, as the commentator Sam Harris seemed to suggest, is just a bit far-fetched.

I’m not sure if anyone can claim to be an expert in this exact niche, but I’ve spent more time than most worried about stuff being poured on or thrown at politicians. From 1996 to 2002, I worked for the White House Military Office as an adviser on chemical, biological, and radiological threats; and from 2002 to 2008, I was a physical-security specialist at the U.S. Secret Service, where it was my job to directly react to physical threats to the president, the White House, and other protected persons and places. I was assigned to the Hazardous Agent Mitigation and Medical Emergency Response team for more than four years, much of that as a team leader. I was the lead specialist for detection and identification equipment for most of that time.

I was trained to deal with a wide variety of scenarios. Unknown material thrown at the president or “the Beast”—his limo—figured high in our drills and training. Stuff happened. Not every day or every week, but on occasion. Eggs. Water balloons. Shaving cream. Someone tossed a Frappuccino at our van once. We spent a lot of money on equipment and capabilities, which I should not describe in any detail. But I can say that the first priority was to rapidly assess the situation. Was the thing being thrown actually a hazard? Was it a powder or a liquid? (We had different protocols for each.) Stuff on the limo was less urgent than stuff on a body. Was the protectee’s health affected? We used both snap judgment and technology. I messed around with eggs in our lab to see what happens if you put bad things in an egg. (Spoiler: It stops looking like an egg.)

The second priority was to help the protectee return to business as usual. Move on quickly, unless he or she actually needed medical care. President George W. Bush always had a spare set of clothes in the motorcade. If we were going to faff around testing liquid on a suit, we’d do it quietly out of sight and let the show go on. We wouldn’t stop the limo to test an egg; that’s silly. We’d quietly have a look at the next stop. Methodical discretion was better than overreaction.

Most of the time, we saw food projectiles as a form of protest or a juvenile misdeed, not as a serious act of violence. For all the paranoia among some of my colleagues about hydrofluoric acid inside of eggs, I never found any. The water balloon was a water balloon. The apparent Frappuccino contained coffee, milk, and sugar when I tested it, leading me to assess that it was, in fact, a coffee drink.

Let’s not lose perspective. Acts of political protest happen. Acts of political violence happen. There is some overlap between the two. But throwing a milkshake, while fundamentally inappropriate, uncivil, and possibly criminal (depending on the jurisdiction), isn’t the same thing as throwing a brick or shooting a rifle. Criminal law has degrees of offense ranging from simple assault to attempted murder and terrorism. The law has degrees of sanction ranging from strong words from a magistrate and a token fine all the way to life imprisonment or the death penalty in some places. “Milkshakes today. Bricks tomorrow. Petrol bombs next week,” as the soccer player Joey Barton put it on Twitter, takes all of this knowledge, experience, and jurisprudence—and shreds it.

Intent is an important element in assessing such a situation. Obviously, the perpetrator’s thoughts can be inscrutable. But we can infer much intent from the physical circumstances. One cannot construe intent to injure or kill from a milkshake. One could infer intent to cause damage to a suit, possibly. But not intent to cause actual bodily harm. A cold cup of coffee likewise. But a boiling hot cup of coffee? One can infer intent to harm in such a situation.

Let’s not go turning milkshakes into boiling coffee, let alone Molotovs. Sometimes a milkshake is just a milkshake.