Protesters briefly interrupted Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Cory Booker’s opening statements at Wednesday night’s CNN Democratic presidential debate, chanting “Fire Pantaleo”—a reference to Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer involved in Eric Garner’s death. The chants began toward the end of de Blasio’s statement, but Booker was forced to pause his as the protest continued.
While it’s obvious why protesters would target de Blasio, who oversees the NYPD, it isn’t totally clear why they were chanting at Booker, who represents the neighboring state of New Jersey. The Department of Justice earlier this month—a day before the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death—said it would not be moving forward with federal charges against Pantaleo, prompting calls for de Blasio to fire him. Booker has criticized the DOJ’s decision not to charge the officer. “It’s difficult to put into words how deeply alarming it is that a NYPD officer used a violent and prohibited practice in arresting a man who was thought to be selling untaxed cigarettes,” Booker said in a letter after the DOJ announced its decision.
Update, 10:50 p.m.: Tamika D. Mallory, an activist who identified herself online as one of the protesters who chanted during de Blasio and Booker’s statements, said on Twitter that they only interrupted Booker because police officers told her and other protesters to leave or be arrested. “We stayed seated and then they forcibly removed us. We chanted ‘Fire Pantaleo’ & ‘I can’t breathe’ as we were being removed,” she tweeted.
Pantaleo remains on desk duty, collecting regular pay and pension benefits while he awaits a verdict from an administrative judge in his NYPD disciplinary trial. After that verdict, Police Commissioner James O’Neill will have the opportunity to fire him or punish the officer in another way. De Blasio has been facing increasing pressure as Garner’s mother, the city comptroller, the city public advocate, and the New York City Council speaker have called for Pantaleo to be immediately fired. Though as mayor he has influence over the police department, de Blasio can’t directly fire Pantaleo as a legal matter, according to the New York Times. That will have to be O’Neill’s decision.
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While Booker was on the debate stage, his campaign account tweeted a response to the chants. “To the folks who were standing up to Mayor de Blasio a few minutes ago—good for you. That’s how change is made,” Booker’s campaign tweeted.
About 20 minutes later, de Blasio’s campaign responded with a Twitter thread of its own. “While I believe that respecting the process is the best way to get justice for Eric Garner’s family, I recognize and identify with the pain people across this country are feeling,” one of the tweets reads. He also responded during the debate. “There is finally going to be justice. I have confidence in that in the next 30 days in New York. You know why? Because for the first time we are not waiting on the federal Justice Department, which told the city of New York we could not proceed because the Justice Department was pursuing their prosecution, and years went by. A lot of pain accrued.” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also jumped in, saying Pantaleo should be fired immediately.
Booker and de Blasio were not the only ones who faced chants. Later in the debate, protesters interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden, shouting “3 million deportations,” the number of immigrants deported under President Barack Obama’s administration. Biden was forced to pause answering a question about whether he would continue the Obama administration’s deportation policies.