Protesters Target Joe Biden on Deportation and Bill De Blasio on Eric Garner During Democratic Debate

Direct action by protesters disrupted and energized the Democratic debate in Detroit, forcing Bill de Blasio and Joe Biden to defend their records.

Two activists from Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant rights group, were ejected from the Democratic debate in Detroit on July 31, 2019, for protesting former Vice President Joe Biden's record on deportations. Photo: Movimiento Cosecha

Activists disrupted and energized the Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit on Wednesday, calling on New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, to fire the police officer who killed Eric Garner, and on the former vice president, Joe Biden, to apologize for failing to stop the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants during the Obama administration.

The protests from the crowd highlighted two issues — the impunity for police officers that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and the frustration with Obama’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform — that CNN failed to make a priority in the previous debate. But on night two, some candidates tapped into the activist energy in the hall, pushing de Blasio and Biden on their criminal justice and immigration records.

Women’s March board members Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour and three other activists started the first protest from the audience in the hall, disrupting de Blasio’s remarks by chanting, “Fire Pantaleo!” They were echoing calls for de Blasio to rid the New York Police Department of Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2014. Attorney General William Barr ordered that the case be dropped two weeks ago, a day before the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death at the hands of police officers in Staten Island.

The protesters “made the decision to stand up for Eric Garner and the sanctity of Black life,” Mallory explained on Twitter.

After their protest, the activists fell quiet and intended to watch the rest of the debate, Mallory wrote. “Then minutes later after multiple candidates spoke, a police officer came over & showed us his cuffs & said if we didn’t leave we’d be arrested,” she added. “We stayed seated and then they forcibly removed us. We chanted ‘Fire Pantaleo’ & ‘I can’t breathe’ as we were being removed.”

That second disruption, which was not broadcast on CNN but captured on video by other members of the audience, took place as Sen. Cory Booker spoke, initially confusing some viewers as to why his time was also disrupted.

Mallory explained that the protesters did not intend to interrupt Booker, “it was the Detroit Police Department that interrupted Booker and the debate to intimidate peaceful protesters for standing up for the dignity of Black life that had already completed protest minutes ago. This is our right. We won’t be silent.”

Booker, or his campaign, tweeted his support for the protests against de Blasio minutes later.

Later in the debate, two other candidates, Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who served as Obama’s housing secretary, and Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York senator, returned to the Garner murder, urging de Blasio to fire Pantaleo.

“Officer Pantaleo used a chokehold that was prohibited by NYPD. He did that for seven seconds; 11 different times Eric Garner said that he couldn’t breathe,” Castro said. “He knew what he was doing, that he was killing Eric Garner, and he has not been brought to justice. That police officer should be off the street.”

The second protest came after Biden was asked about deportations during the Obama administration. “Vice President Biden, in the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly 800,000 immigrants were deported — far more than President Trump’s during the first two years. Would the higher deportation numbers resume if you were president?” CNN moderator Don Lemon asked.

“Absolutely not,” Biden replied.

As Biden was pressed on the issue by Castro, two activists from an immigrant rights group, Movimiento Cosecha, stood up in the audience, unfurling banners that read “Stop All Deportations on Day One” and chanting “Three million deportations!”

The news breaking out during the debate was, again, not covered by CNN — and Biden was encouraged to ignore it by Lemon — but was reported by a student journalist, Claire Hao of The Michigan Daily, an independent, student-run newspaper.

After the protest, Booker called out Biden for echoing Republican plans to welcome only highly educated immigrants. “That’s playing into what the Republicans want — to pit some immigrants against other immigrants,” Booker said. “Some are from ‘shithole countries,’ and some are from ‘worthy countries.'”

In response to Bill de Blasio asking Biden if he had pressed Obama to stop the deportations, Biden said that his advice to the president was confidential.

Movimiento Cosecha, which has previously confronted Biden to demand that he apologize for his role in the huge numbers of deportations during his two terms as vice president, identified one of the protesters as Ofelia, an immigrant leader in Detroit, who declined to use her full name “due to immigration related concerns.”

“I did this because the immigrant community in Michigan is facing a crisis and we need our voices and our demand to be heard: any candidate who claims to be against Trump’s raids and family separations needs to make a real commitment to protect all 11 million undocumented immigrants from detention and deportation,” the activist said in a statement. “That means using executive authority to stop all deportations on day one in office. We won’t accept empty promises of immigration reform. Obama promised immigration reform and then separated 3 million families. We cannot allow history to repeat itself.”

Earlier this month, immigrant families affiliated with the movement staged a sit-in at Biden’s headquarters in Philadelphia, demanding an apology for the separation of families during the Obama administration.

Two weeks ago, students in New Hampshire and an undocumented immigrant activist from Guatemala — whose brother was detained in 2016 and later deported — confronted Biden, asking for an apology and a commitment to end mass deportation.

The immigrant activist who spoke to Biden was also separated from his 3-year-old daughter this past May.

Biden told the activists in New Hampshire that he would not apologize for deporting those with felony charges.

“The Obama/Biden administration had a choice,” Movimiento Cosecha said after that conversation. “And they chose to reinforce policies designed to criminalize our community. Ramping up the use of felony charges to expedite deportations on mothers and fathers trying to reunite with their families.”

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