Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and city councilmen Ravi Bhalla and Ruben Ramos released statements on Monday, May 8 condemning a local business owner who was captured on video tape shouting epithets on Washington Street last week after an apparent parking dispute with a duo from out of town.
A family friend of the duo, Alan Slaughter, posted a video on Facebook over the weekend. It appeared to show Joseph Ruggiero, the owner of the 9th Cloud Vape Van – a roving ecigarette business frequently spotted around Hoboken – apparently telling two people to "go back to your country" and calling them “immis.” Sources said they had had a dispute over a parking spot.
The video racked up more than 180,000 views by the middle of the week.
Although Ruggiero did not respond to three messages by press time last week, he acknowledged to ABC Eyewitness News that it was him in the video, but said it doesn’t capture the whole story. His company said the same on social media.
"It was a good at least seven to eight minutes of argument, things being told back and forth, I was being called certain things," Ruggiero told ABC. "He actually got in my face two times, he put his hand in my friend's face. I'm not sure what he was looking to do at that point."
He also apologized, stating, "I just want to say that anything that I've said was out of anger, and when people get upset they say things that they really don't mean. My whole family comes from mixed background. My two children are biracial."
"As a vendor licensed by the city of Hoboken, they are obligated to follow all of our rules and regulations." —Mayor Dawn Zimmer
“The incident on Saturday further brought to our attention the actions of the Vape Van and caused us to thoroughly review their record,” Zimmer said in an interview last week.
Earlier in the week, she had said in a statement, "The hate speech by the Vape Van owner is reprehensible and does not represent Hoboken’s diverse and inclusive community.”
The Police Department was investigating the incident, she said.
In the statement she added, “As a vendor licensed by the city of Hoboken, they are obligated to follow all of our rules and regulations, and clearly they have not. Therefore, I am asking the City Council to revoke their vendor license, and I thank Councilmen Bhalla and Ramos for agreeing to cosponsor the resolution.”
“The council previously adopted a resolution condemning the recent rise in hate incidents nationwide,” she said, “and this repulsive act presents an opportunity for our local government to take tangible steps to put our words into action. Leaders at all levels of government need to speak out, and we need to stand together as a country against this hatred.”
According to the joint statement issued by Bhalla and Ramos, they will sponsor a resolution to revoke the vendor license, which allows the Vape Van to operate within city limits.
“As proud sons of immigrants, we write to express our complete disgust with the hate incident involving the owner of the Vape Van vendor truck in Hoboken, New Jersey," wrote the councilmen. "This conduct has no place in Hoboken. This individual’s actions do not reflect the views of businesses or residents in Hoboken. Hoboken is a city of immigrants, and we take great pride in this tradition."
According to the statement, the council approved on Dec. 7 2016 a resolution that commits to "creating a community that is free of bias and prejudice,” and “pursuing a policy agenda that affirms that those targeted on the basis of race, religion or immigration status can turn to government without fear of recrimination.”
"The forthcoming resolution revoking the Vape Van’s vendor license is an opportunity to implement the policy expressed in the council’s December resolution," wrote the councilmen in the joint statement.
Zimmer and Bhalla are up for re-election this year. Ramos sometimes opposes them on issues.
Bhalla and Ramos also urged local businesses to join the Business Against Bigotry campaign in which businesses, schools, places of worship, and nonprofits can get free window decals that state, "We Welcome Everybody/Diversity Strengthens Our Community."
Officials aren’t the only people calling for the business’s removal from Hoboken.
An online petition has begun gathering signatures from all over the area amassing 379 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.
Free speech issue?
Some have questioned if the council really has grounds to revoke the license when free speech is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
According to Zimmer, the city doesn’t view revoking the license as a First Amendment issue.
“The hateful language that was used by the Vape Van owner is reprehensible and the courts will decide the resolution of any charges that may result from the incident,” said Zimmer. “The city’s decision to consider revoking the license is not about free speech…The resolution that the council will consider to revoke the license will outline the full record of violations by the Vape Van consistent with §146-12 of our city code.”
The city code about revocation and suspension states that a license can be revoked by the council “by reason of the violation of the terms of the license, the violation of any municipal ordinance, state, or federal statute or falsification in applying for a license.”
When asked for details on the “full record of violations” by the business, city spokesman Juan Melli said, “They will all be outlined in the resolution. It’s being finalized.”
Members of Vape Van posted an apology on Facebook for the incident last weekend, although some who commented on it felt it did not go far enough.
"We regret to admit insulting racial slurs were made by a member of our team," states the Facebook post. "The exchange from start to finish went on for about 10 minutes, the recording shows the last few minutes. We sincerely apologize to all and anyone who is a part of the family, and to all who may have found our actions offensive. This public statement is in no way a justification for any of our actions."
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.