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Protests during the Democratic debate called out the handling of the Eric Garner case

By Michael Stahl

The seats in the Fox Theater in Detroit were hardly warm before Wednesday night’s Democratic debate was halted by protests. As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the first candidate to speak, closed out his opening remarks, screaming chants of “Fire Pantaleo” briefly broke out in the crowd. Eight minutes later, during New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s introductory statement, the protesters — upset that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo won’t face criminal charges in the death of Eric Garner and remains employed on desk duty — revived the chant.

After Booker paused his speech, he looked on as police removed the demonstrators — five in all, as reported by Fox News. Tamika D. Mallory, who in her Twitter bio describes herself as a “freedom fighter” and “fashionable protester,” identified herself as one of the demonstrators in a tweet Wednesday night.

“[A]fter multiple candidates spoke, a police officer came over & showed us his cuffs & said if we didn’t leave we’d be arrested,” Mallory tweeted. “We stayed seated and then they forcibly removed us. We chanted ‘Fire Pantaleo’ & ‘I can’t breathe’ as we were being removed.”

She later explained in another tweet that the passionate protesters only interrupted Booker because that was when the police began intimidating them. As far as they were concerned, they’d gotten their licks in while their true target, de Blasio, spoke.

Wednesday night’s commentary on de Blasio’s perceived laissez-faire handling of the police brutality case (the city’s mayor does not have the authority to fire the officer) didn’t end there. When criminal justice reform was brought up later in the debate, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro seized the opportunity to discuss Garner's death, draw applause, and damage de Blasio.

“Officer Pantaleo used a chokehold that was prohibited by NYPD. He did that for seven seconds. Eleven different times Eric Garner said he couldn’t breathe,” Castro said. “[Pantaleo] knew what he was doing, that he was killing Eric Garner, and yet he has not been brought to justice. That police officer should be off the street.”

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also called for Pantaleo’s firing and said as president, she would have launched a “full investigation” into Garner’s death and provided a report to the public.

When debate moderator Jake Tapper of CNN asked de Blasio why Pantaleo is still on the NYPD force, the mayor said that he knows the Garner family and understand the pain they’ve experienced. “They’re going to get justice … in the next 30 days in New York,” he predicted.

Though he did not specify a course of action, de Blasio said the federal justice department had told “the city of New York that we could not proceed” because they were “pursuing their prosecution.” That process ended two weeks ago with no charges filed. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city has been working on “changing fundamentally how we police” and ensuring “there will never be another tragedy” like that of the Garner case.

After the debate wrapped, Booker, nonplussed as the demonstrators chanted during his designated mic time, and even offered a quick smile while he waited, tweeted out, “To the folks who were standing up to Mayor de Blasio a few minutes ago — good for you. That’s how change is made.”

Mayor de Blasio also chimed in on social media, tweeting, “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.” He soon added that Garner “NEVER should have died.”

We’ll see what the city comes up with this month to perhaps appease protesters, past, and present.