During the second night of the second round of Democratic presidential debates this week in Detroit, Michigan, candidates were interrupted at various points by protesters making demands largely unintelligible to TV viewers. The candidates waited and then continued broadcasting their policy spiels, visions, and pointed arguments as the unrest continued further back in the theater.
The first group of protesters targeted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his failure to fire New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who has been accused of choking and killing Eric Garner. Last month, the Department of Justice concluded a years-long investigation and did not charge Pantaleo with civil rights violations. NYPD disciplinary proceedings are ongoing, and could potentially end with Pantaleo losing his job. De Blasio has refused to take a stance on whether Pantaleo should be fired.
One leading figure behind this protest was Tamika Mallory, a co-chair of the Women's March who was embroiled in controversy earlier this year over her ties to the leader of the African-American political and religious group the Nation of Islam after she attended an event where the leader made anti-Semitic statements.
Mallory published a Twitter thread narrating the course of events that took place during the debate on Wednesday evening. She and four others (fellow Women's March co-chair Linda Sarsour, Reverend Kirsten John Foy, rapper Mysonne, and lawyer and civil rights activist Angelo Pinto) stood up "for Eric Garner and the sanctity of black life," she said: They couldn't stay silent while de Blasio continues to employ Pantaleo and other officers involved in Garner's death. Mallory also said de Blasio "misrepresented" his positions on stop-and-frisk, a practice the NYPD uses to temporarily detain pedestrians and pat them down to search for weapons (an American Civil Liberties Union report found that, while stop-and-frisks have gone down 98 percent under de Blasio's tenure, police officers still disproportionately target black and Latino men who are often innocent).
The protesters shouted "I can't breathe" and "Fire Pantaleo" after de Blasio made his opening remarks. According to Mallory's account, a security officer told the protesters they could remain in the audience as long as they stayed silent, but minutes later, another police officer forcibly removed them from the venue. They resumed their chants as they made their exit, interrupting New Jersey Senator Cory Booker's opening remarks. One Twitter user caught their removal on video.
Mallory clarified that she and her fellow protesters did not intend to interrupt Booker—instead, she said in a tweet that it was the fault of the Detroit Police Department for "intimidat[ing] peaceful protesters for standing up for the dignity of black life."
Booker later applauded the protesters for standing up against de Blasio.
Later in the evening, two protesters from immigrant rights group Movimiento Cosecha interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden, yelling "three million deportations" to draw attention to the quantity of deportations that occurred under the Obama-Biden administration. They also unrolled banners calling for the candidates to "Stop all deportations on day one." These protesters were removed from the venue as well.
"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 [President Donald] Trump's raids and family separations needs to make a real commitment to protect all 11 million undocumented immigrants from detention and deportation," one of the protesters said in a press release.