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Protesters interrupt Democratic debate calling for Daniel Pantaleo, NYPD officer in Eric Garner case, to be fired

Hecklers at Democratic debate

Protesters interrupted the first minutes of the second Democratic debate with calls to fire the NYPD officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold. The chants appeared to be aimed at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — who did not discuss the issue on stage until another candidate brought it up.

Shouts of "Fire Pantaleo!" broke out during de Blasio's opening statement, and then continued for a longer time during New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's opening statement, briefly bringing the debate to a halt. The chant references Daniel Pantaleo, who remains in the NYPD more than five years after Garner's death. de Blasio and Booker did not acknowledge the protesters from the stage.

Pantaleo was caught on camera putting Garner, an unarmed black man, in a chokehold on a Staten Island street in July 2014. Garner was seen repeatedly saying "I can't breathe" before he lost consciousness, which became a national rallying cry in police brutality protests. A medical examiner later ruled Garner's death to be a homicide.

A grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, and the Justice Department announced this month that it would not bring federal charges against him. de Blasio did not order the NYPD to fire Pantaleo, saying he would wait for federal prosecutors to finish their investigation, although there was no rule requiring him to do so. He has also not said if he believes Pantaleo should be fired. 

Soon after the chant, de Blasio's Twitter account posted four tweets responding the protesters and saying Garner's death "fundamentally changed" New York City.

"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," de Blasio's account tweeted.

"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."

Booker's Twitter account also replied during the debate, writing, "To the folks who were standing up to Mayor de Blasio a few minutes ago—good for you. That's how change is made."

But former HUD Secretary Julian Castro was the first candidate on the stage to bring up Garner and Pantaleo, challenging de Blasio to answer for the officer remaining on the force. 

De Blasio said Garner's death led to New York City "changing fundamentally how we police," and he claimed the Justice Department told the city it could not take action against Pantaleo. De Blasio also said Garner's family would get justice "in the next 30 days," though he did not explain what that meant. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York later said de Blasio's answer wasn't sufficient. "He should be fired," she said about Pantaleo. "He should be fired now." 

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