The second Democratic primary debates in Detroit, Michigan, opened on July 31 with considerable drama: protestors interrupted the opening statements of two contenders to call for the firing of Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who did not face federal charges connected to the death of Eric Garner.
Pantaleo was put on administrative leave after Garner's death in July 2014, and has remained in that position in the five years since. In August 2104, the New York City medical examiner's office had ruled Garner's death a homicide; Garner died after a chokehold deployed by Pantaleo triggered a fatal asthma attack. His last words were "I can't breathe," repeated 11 times; that statement became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter activists protesting police brutality against Black people.
So, during the debate's first minutes, protestors made themselves heard: Once when New York City mayor Bill de Blasio issued his opening statement, and again, more clearly when New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke. The chant became so loud during Booker's statements against President Donald Trump's recent racist attack on Representative Elijah Cummings and his city of Baltimore, Maryland. Booker paused his delivery for a few seconds before completing his thoughts.
The protestors were later revealed to be Tamika D. Mallory, Elder Kirsten John Foy, rapper Mysonne, Angelo Pinto, and Linda Sarsour. "We did NOT interrupt Cory Booker," Mallory explained on Twitter. "It was the Detroit Police Department that interrupted Booker and the debate to intimidate peaceful protesters for standing up for the dignity of Black life that had already completed protest minutes ago." She says a police officer told the group that if they did not leave the venue, they would be arrested. "We stayed seated and then they forcibly removed us. We chanted 'Fire Pantaleo' & 'I can’t breathe' as we were being removed."
"This is our right," she added. "We won’t be silent."
About thirty minutes after the interruptions, de Blasio's team tweeted: "To the protestors in the audience today: I heard you. I saw you. I thank you. This is what democracy looks like and no one said it was pretty." It's important to note that the message did not say the mayor would make any new decisions about Pantaleo.
Later in the debate, when Julián Castro brought up Eric Garner's death during the debate, de Blasio addressed the debacle in a rather oblique way: He said the city of New York would be addressing the inquiry within the next 30 days, and that they had been held back from acting by the Justice Department. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand later chimed in, saying unequivocally that Pantaleo should be fired.
Multiple people — including New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, public advocate Jumaane Williams, and Garner's family — have called for Pantaleo's dismissal.
"Do something, or don’t mention Eric Garner’s name ever again," Williams told theNew York Times about de Blasio. “You cannot be president, you cannot be the Democratic nominee, if Daniel Pantaleo is still on the force.
Ellisha Flagg-Garner, Eric's sister, agreed. "Do your job. Stop trying to be a president when you can’t even be a mayor," she told the Times, also addressing the mayor.
As for Booker, it seems he didn't mind the interruption. While he was still standing on the stage, his team tweeted: "To the folks who were standing up to Mayor de Blasio a few minutes ago – good for you. That's how change is made." As of publication, de Blasio's social media has yet to address the incident.
This story has been updated as more information was made available.