The death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man killed in 2014 after an encounter with police, hung over the Democratic debate on Wednesday, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Vice President Joe Biden’s roles in the aftermath were called into question.
In 2014, Garner died after being confronted by police in Staten Island for allegedly selling untaxed loose cigarettes. One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, put him in a department-prohibited chokehold — in footage of the incident, Garner can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times. The Department of Justice has decided not to file charges against Pantaleo, who remains on paid desk duty at the NYPD and underwent a NYPD departmental trial earlier this year that could result in his termination. In the meantime, de Blasio has declined to fire Pantaleo, saying that it’s up to the police commissioner to do so.
It was evident from the start of the debate Wednesday that the topic would become unexpectedly noteworthy. Hecklers interrupted de Blasio’s opening statement, the first one of the night, with shouts of, “Fire Pantaleo!” They interrupted Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) opening statement as well, though it’s not clear why.
Both Booker and de Blasio responded on Twitter — or, since they were on the debate stage, their campaigns did.
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. #DemDebate
— Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio) August 1, 2019
Garner’s tragic death, as well as the circumstances surrounding it and the fact that it took the Department of Justice five years to announce a decision, was invoked by multiple candidates as part of a larger discussion about criminal justice and policing — two important issues in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro noted that when the officers attempted to arrest Garner, he said on 11 different occasions that he could not breathe. “He knew what he was doing, and yet he has not been brought to justice,” Castro said of Officer Pantaleo. “That police officer should be off the street.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, also from New York, also said that Pantaleo should be fired. “I sat down with Eric Garner’s mother, and I can tell you when you’ve lost your son, when he begged your breath, when you know because you have a video, when you know he said, ‘I cant breathe’ so many times, over and over again, when you know he used an illegal chokehold, that person should be fired,” she said. Gillibrand said that if she were president, she would ensure there was a “full investigation” into the incident, and a report on it would be made public.
De Blasio said that he knows the Garner family and that they’ve gone through “extraordinary pain.” He promised that they would get “justice” within the next 30 days in New York.
The mayor sought to shift attention to the United States Justice Department, which in mid-July announced it would not file charges against Pantaleo. Frustrated over the pace of the DOJ investigation, de Blasio and other city officials announced in 2018 that disciplinary hearings against Pantaleo would take place this year.
The mayor has also noted that before the case landed with the Trump administration, it had been under the Obama administration’s Justice Department for two and a half years, using that fact to tie the case to Biden. “Mr. Vice President, tell us, what did you do to try and spur on the Justice Department to act on on the Garner case?” he asked.
Biden responded with a defense of the Obama administration’s criminal justice record.
If de Blasio’s debate pledge of “justice” means that Garner’s family will finally see a resolution to the case, that will be a positive — but long overdue — development.
The Eric Garner case has loomed over de Blasio’s presidential bid
Due to a five-year statute of limitations on the case, the DOJ had until July 17 — the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death — to announce what charges Pantaleo would face. The agency ultimately decided that there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that Pantaleo intentionally harmed Garner when he allegedly placed the 43-year old father of six into an NYPD-prohibited chokehold.
De Blasio has since blamed the Department of Justice for how Garner’s case was handled. “Years ago, we put our faith in the federal government to act,” he said in a July 16 statement. “We won’t make that mistake again.”
De Blasio has also said that he cannot fire Pantaleo. And legally, he is right: the power to terminate the officer rests with O’Neill, who is currently waiting for an administrative judge to submit recommendations on if Pantaleo should be fired. (City officials say O’Neill will make a decision on Pantaleo’s employment by August 31.) Even so, some New Yorkers continue to argue that de Blasio’s office could pressure the NYPD to make the call sooner.
While several candidates raised a similar point on Tuesday, arguing that the officer should be fired, they also had a bigger debate about the importance of police reform, an issue that has been overlooked in the race to this point.
The 2020 candidates have rarely discussed policing. At the second Democratic debate, they finally started to.
De Blasio wasn’t the only candidate to face criticism for his record on policing. As he defended his own record in authoring the 1994 crime bill, former vice president Joe Biden criticized Sen. Cory Booker for police violence and use of force in Newark, New Jersey, during his tenure as the mayor of the city. Biden also argued that Harris had failed in police oversight during her time as California attorney general.
It’s a reminder that several candidates in the 2020 race have records on policing that they will need to explain. And the topic is one that is particularly important to black voters, a crucial part of the democratic electorate.
But until Wednesday night, there hadn’t really been a serious discussion of policing in the 2020 primary. So far, only one candidate, Castro, has released a comprehensive standalone policing platform. Other candidates, like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Biden, have briefly touched on policing in their larger criminal justice reform plans.
Before the debates, experts and activists told Vox that policing needed to be treated as a bigger policy issue by the candidates. They argue that at a time where police violence and fatal officer-involved shootings continue to occur, the federal government can play an important role in creating national standards for policing, and reforming policing practices that have disproportionately harmed communities of color.
The Wednesday debate offered a glimpse into how some of the candidates are thinking about the issue. Hopefully they’ll continue that discussion in the coming months.