DETROIT — CNN is a special-events company with a sideline in televising panel discussions. Debates, conventions, town halls — everything: This news organization of 3,000 worldwide employees prides itself on nailing every logistical detail, from the WiFi to the candidate intros to the candy boxes that greet journalists in the media filing center.
So how does an events-planning behemoth protect against heckling protesters?
It doesn’t. At two points in Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate here at the Fox Theatre, outbursts from activists disrupted the proceedings. The first came from protesters screaming “Fire Pantaleo,” a reference to NYPD officer Joe Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold in July 2014. The shouts interrupted the opening statements of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Cory Booker.
This was a timely protest, considering that earlier this month the Justice Department announced that it wouldn’t be filing charges in the killing. Also: The New York Police Department this month charged Pantaleo with violating department rules, which prohibit chokeholds. De Blasio used Twitter during the debate to recognize the protest:
Shortly after their outbursts, the “Fire Pantaleo” protesters were on the sidewalk in front of the Fox Theatre, speaking to media about their activities. One of the protesters declined to say how he’d gotten tickets to enter the event.
The night’s heckling wasn’t done.
As former vice president Joe Biden defended his record on immigration, shouts of “3 million deportations” punctured the onstage dialogue. The protest referenced calls for Biden to apologize for the Obama administration’s deportation record. The interruption was the work of Movimiento Cosecha (Harvest Movement), an immigrant-protection advocacy group that is asking that candidates pledge to stop deportations on their first day in office. A spokeswoman for the group told the Erik Wemple Blog that the activists who’d shouted at the debate were longtime Michigan immigration activists who used their connections to get tickets to the debate.
After their abrupt departure from the Fox Theatre, the activists handed out small fliers spelling out their position. “We won’t accept empty promises of immigration reform,” the fliers read, in part.
Twitter and other social media platforms allow people to deploy the "@" symbol to blast the world’s most powerful people, with some reasonable expectation that the targets will see the commentary. So is it any wonder that they’ll also shout their grievances from balconies? As one expert told NPR seven years ago, social media has “increased individual beliefs in the ability to speak up, be heard, and to expect not just a response but a two-way exchange.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked both CNN and the Democratic National Committee how tickets for the debate were distributed. We haven’t heard back from either. Whatever the ticket scheme, these organizations allowed in groups of people who combined strong lungs with news instincts.