Bill de Blasio and Joe Biden square off over chokehold death of Eric Garner at Democratic debate

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was less equivocal on the subject than either of her male counterparts on stage

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 1, 2019 10:44AM (EDT)

Former Vice President Joe Biden; New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (Getty/Jim Watson/Scott Olson)
Former Vice President Joe Biden; New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (Getty/Jim Watson/Scott Olson)

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Vice President Joe Biden exchanged heated words at Wednesday night's Democratic debate over the chokehold death of Eric Garner — even as protesters called out de Blasio for his alleged inaction on the controversy.

After moderator Jake Tapper of CNN asked de Blasio why Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who put the unarmed black man in a fatal chokehold, remains on the force, the New York  mayor promised that Garner's family was "going to get justice" within "the next 30 days."

"For the first time, we are not waiting on the federal Justice Department, which told the city of New York that we could not proceed because the Justice Department was pursuing their prosecution," de Blasio said.

The mayor then turned to the former Vice President and asked, "What did you do to try and spur on the Justice Department to act in the Garner case?"

Garner's death was caught on tape, and the video of the fatal encounter appears to show Pantaleo holding him in a chokehold for 15 seconds. Garner's last words — "I can't breathe" — became a rallying cry for protests across America against the use of excessive force by police.

De Blasio's role in Garner's case is complicated. Although he has not directly called for Pantaleo to be fired, he also does not have the legal authority to fire an officer, according to the New York Times. However, de Blasio did wait until the completion of a federal investigation before commencing with municipal disciplinary hearings, as well as argued that Pantaleo deserved due process in spite of the video evidence in the case.

Biden did not answer de Blasio's question, instead describing how the federal inmate population was reduced under former President Barack Obama, and body cameras were provided to certain police officers.

"The fact is that we're talking about things that occurred a long, long time ago," Biden said. "And now, all of a sudden — you know, I find it fascinating. Everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues. Barack Obama knew exactly who I was — he had 10 lawyers do a background check on everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties, and he chose me. And he said it was the best decision he made. I'll take his judgment."

Not everyone at the debate thought de Blasio was blameless. At one point, protesters supporting Garner's family began to chant "Fire Pantaleo" as the mayor spoke. They were escorted out of the auditorium.

And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who represents New York, was less equivocal on the subject than either of her male counterparts on stage.

"He should be fired. He should be fired now," Gillibrand said about Pantaleo, to thunderous applause. "I sat down with Eric Garner's mother. And I can tell you, when you've lost your son. When he begged for breath. When you know, because you have a video. When you know he said, "I can't breathe" so many times — over and over again. When you know he used an illegal chokehold, that person should be fired. And as — if I was — if I was the mayor, I would fire him."

Garner was not the only topic Biden and de Blasio squared off over during the debate. After Biden dodged a question from de Blasio about whether the former vice president had attempted to curtail Obama's deportation policy, the New York City mayor asked, "Vice President Biden, I didn't hear your response when the issue came up of all those deportations. You were vice president of the United States. I didn't hear whether you tried to stop them or not, using your power — your influence — in the White House. Do you think it was a good idea? Or do you think it was something that needed to be stopped?"

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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