Protesters quickly interrupted the second night of CNN’s Democratic debate, demanding that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio fire New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, with a banned chokehold five years ago. Chants of “Fire Pantaleo!” interrupted both de Blasio and Sen. Cory Booker’s opening statements before the protesters were led out of the Fox Theatre.
On July 16, the Justice Department declined to bring charges against Pantaleo, with U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordering that the case be dropped.
Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, and the aftermath of his death has become an example of how it is nearly impossible for families to receive justice from the state. Pantaleo has remained on paid desk duty in the five years since Garner’s death, which has caused activists and Garner’s family to sharply criticize de Blasio for not firing the officer. The mayor also waited until May of this year before pursuing formal disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo.
De Blasio has noted in the past that he can’t legally fire Pantaleo. The law does state that the mayor cannot fire the officer, but he failed to intervene in other ways — mainly delaying an NYPD departmental trial until last year.
“In the case of Eric Garner, the Justice Department controls that situation right now,” de Blasio said in 2016. “That’s appropriate, and we yield to that.”
Later in the debate, following a contentious exchange between Booker and former Vice President Joe Biden on their equally unimpressive criminal justice histories, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro asked de Blasio, “Why is that police officer still on the force, the one who killed Eric Garner?”
“I know the Garner family,” responded de Blasio. “They’ve gone through extraordinary pain. They’re waiting for justice and they’re going to get justice. There’s going to be justice. I have confidence in that.”
The mayor ended by saying that his administration was working to ensure that there “will never be another tragedy because we’re changing fundamentally how we police.” He also asked Biden if he had raised Garner’s case with President Barack Obama during his time in the White House. Biden didn’t directly answer the question but pivoted back to defending himself against Booker’s remarks on his role in fueling mass incarceration.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) kept the crux of her response short: “He should be fired. He should be fired now.”
And Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) accused the Justice Department of thwarting the efforts of its civil rights division on the Garner case.
“That president didn’t want those charges to go forward,” said Harris. “Under my administration, the Civil Rights Division will reign and there will be an independent investigation.”
This story has been updated with additional remarks from the debate.