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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On November 5, an activist known for his sharp criticisms at City Council meetings directed a derogatory ethnic slur at the Council President, a Latina woman, just after boasting about an award he received from a city-based Latino organization.
The bizarre scene played out after City Council President Rebecca Escobar tried to enforce an unpopular rule that until recently went unenforced, limiting public comments to five minutes.
That sparked a fierce confrontation between her and Tormel Pittman, the first and only speaker during that evening's public comment period.
"If I go over that [five-minute limit], then if you don't like what I say, you can get up and walk out. And I'll continue talking," Pittman said after Escobar gave him a one-minute warning.
Escobar prematurely ended the Council's bi-monthly public meeting after Pittman refused to give up the floor, sparking a biting back and forth that eventually caused another elected official to erupt in anger upon Pittman's use of the pejorative term.
The name-calling led Councilman Kevin Egan to shout at the activist and move towards him, as he demanded a police Captain remove Pittman from the room.
Then, just as New Brunswick Police Captain Vincent Sabo forced his way between Egan and Pittman, another man got up from his seat in the back row to heckle Egan.
Frank Bright, a former Republican Party official who once ran for Mayor, stood up from his seat in the back of the Council Chambers and began heckling Egan and mentioning his father, a former City Councilman and current NJ Assemblyman.
Bright shouted that Egan's father would go to jail, and Egan shouted back, as the room of befuddled city workers and other residents stared in stunned amazement at the out-of-control series of events they had witnessed.
Eventually, Sabo escorted both Pittman and Egan away from the second floor of City Hall.
While this reporter failed to capture the meeting's aftermath on video, City Hall's camera was still rolling and captured the slur, as well as some but not all of the aftermath.
It was the second time a conflict between Pittman and the Council led to a meeting ending prematurely in just three months.
On August 6, after both men told each other to "shut up," Escobar asked for a motion to adjourn the meeting.
"Listen, that's it. This meeting is not going anywhere," Escobar said.
"You're a coward and you're a puppet," Pittman shot back in the aftermath. "You're a latino puppet! That's what you are."
In another incident this summer, the Council prematurely voted on a controversial water privatization deal after hearing from only a fraction of the contingent that had come out to the meeting to speak on that issue.
On November 5, Pittman's remarks began with his acknowledgment of a recent award he had been given by the New Brunswick branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also cited an award from the city-based Latino Leadership Alliance of NJ.
"I missed the last meeting. Fortunately, I was being honored… I'm moving up now," Pittman said. "So far I've been honored by a Latino organziation, I've been honored by NAACP, and maybe one day I'll be honored by someone here who respects what I do."
After criticizing the city's police department for their handling of a shooting case, as Pittman's five minutes came to an end, he shifted his focus to the Council's only African-American representative.
"And Councilman Fleming, I'm not going to allow you to sit idle any more," Pittman said.
"Time is up," said Escobar, but Pittman did not stop. "Thank you Mr. Pittman," she tried to say over him.
"Either you're going to be a slave for these white supremacists, or you're going to be a black liberator," Pittman exclaimed. "But you're not going to be both!"
"Mr. Pittman, either you stop or I'll stop the meeting," said Escobar before calling for a motion to adjourn.
After the vote to end the meeting, Escobar continued to engage with Pittman: "Because of you, the public doesn't have a chance to talk," she said.
"You're an award winner," Egan chimed in.
"That's right. And it wasn't solicited!" shouted Pittman.
"Follow the rules," Escobar says.
"Tell him to stick his hand from up under your back and stop pullin your strings," Pittman shoots back.
"Thank you Mr. Pittman. Have a blessed day and congratulations on your award," said Escobar.
"You won't get one!" shouted Pittman. "Your latino people won't even– They gave me an award before they gave you one, you house s**c!"
The offensive term set off Egan, who was already starting to ask for police to remove Pittman from the Council Chambers.
"Hey what? Throw him out of the room!" shouted the Council Vice President. "I want him escorted out of the room!"
"How dare you call her that!" Egan shouted no less than three times.
Escobar told New Brunswick Today, "It is unfortunate, that a situation, such as the one that occurred at the end of last Wednesday’s council meeting, took place… When working towards a better New Brunswick, there is no room for discrimination."
"The actions and derogatory words of one individual will not deter the fulfillment of the job that was entrusted to me by our residents. On the contrary, my fellow council members and I will continue to move New Brunswick forward for the benefit of ALL the residents of our wonderful city."
New Brunswick Today asked Pittman whether he stood behind his remarks.
"I apologize for the language I used but I stand behind my feelings," Pittman said.
Bruce Morgan, head of the New Brunswick branch of the NAACP, told NBToday, "I cannot and will not I address Mr. Pittman's choice of words because his remarks were that of a private citizen. He was not speaking for me nor the New Brunswick Area Branch NAACP."
"As to the slur heard on the video, I can say without equivocation that I as well as the NAACP never condones or endorses any language which demeans or degrades any individual or group."
"Personally when I hear such language or know of any individual using such language I will take it upon myself to speak to that person and attempt to educate, but not chide them on the harm such language can cause," said Morgan.
Martin Perez, head of the Latino Leadership Alliance, did not respond to a request for comment about the incident.
Ironically, Pittman helped to make headlines in New Brunswick Today when he brought up an issue related to a racial slur allegedly used by a housing inspector in March.
The inspector, Ronald Bellafronte, had allegedly referred to Assitant City Attorney Charly Gayden, an African-American, with a racial slur while off-duty with other city employees.
Pittman's wife works in the Division of Inspections, and Pittman helped raise concerns about Bellafronte's language, leading to a three-month suspension without pay for Bellafronte.
Bellafronte was eventually transfered to a desk job at the city's Water Utility, after being deemed "medically unfit" for the meter-reading job he was initially assigned after the supsension.
"The conduct that Mr. Bellafronte is alleged to have participated is hurtful and it's ignorant and it's not tolerated by this administration," Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin said at the time.
According to a May 23 article by New Brunswick Today's Lin Lan, Pittman stood up for the city attorney he said was "victimized" when Bellafronte used a racial slur against her.
In front of the packed City Council meeting, activist Tormel Pittman challenged Council Vice President Kevin Egan to resign his post and attacked the ethical principles behind the decision [not to fire Inspector Ronald Bellafronte].
Tensions rose between Pittman and Egan, escalating into a heated back-and-forth dialogue before Egan repeatedly told Pittman that his allotted five minutes for speaking were over…
“Why would I resign?” Egan asked, dismissing Pittman’s challenge.
Dissatisfied, Pittman pressed the Council members and questioned their views.
“My character couldn’t allow me to work alongside this person,” Pittman said…
Pointing to Gayden, Pittman declared that a highly-educated woman of color should not have to feel victimized by Bellafronte, who is “getting a city check” as a government employee.
“She’s my sister, and I’m here to support her,” Pittman said, adding that no one should be complicit in the reinstatement of someone who was suspended for using a racial slur.
He argued that Bellafronte’s presence would harm all other city employees who felt like targets of his discriminatory statements, and who would still have to work with him.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.