Benjamín Ramirez says he started filming with a cellphone the moment he saw a familiar antagonist approach.
Ramirez, 24, is an immigrant from Mexico who operates a food cart in Hollywood. But these days he is better known as the Elote Man, after he filmed and posted a video on social media of an assailant turning over the cart from which he sells the Mexican snack of fresh ears of corn lathered with mayonnaise, chili pepper and grated cheese.
Ramirez says he has crossed paths before with the man in the video, identified as Argentine metal musician Carlos Hakas. He says that on three separate occasions Hakas confronted him about the cart. "He’s said things before," Ramirez says. "Telling me I couldn’t sell here or block the sidewalk, and that I didn’t have permits to sell. I ignored him and left."
On Monday, July 17, Ramirez was standing beside his cart at the corner of Romaine and El Centro in Hollywood when Hakas and his girlfriend, Holly Covella, were out walking their dog. The video begins as Hakas, complaining the cart is blocking the sidewalk, delivers an ultimatum in Spanish: "Move the cart or I’ll move it for you."
When Ramirez stands his ground, Hakas hands the dog leash to Covella and moves to accost the vendor. The video shows that Hakas brandishes a pink object in his right hand that is difficult to identify; Ramirez says he believes it was a stun gun. The elote vendor says he reached for the nearest object in self-defense — a small container of chili powder — and tossed it at Hakas, the red powder landing on his face and chest.
The video shows that as Ramirez retreats into the street, Hakas seizes hold of the cart and overturns it, spilling utensils, coolers and food items onto the sidewalk and into Romaine Street, including plenty of fresh ears of corn. Ramirez grabs a metal pole and waves it in Hakas' direction but does not swing. (Covella shouts, "Don't you fucking try it!")
Ramirez then turns the camera on himself and says he was attacked by a racist. "I'm no racist," Hakas responds. "I'm Argentinian, you retard." Ramirez says the cart's umbrella was damaged, along with the bottles of flavors for the shaved ice and a day's worth of ice and food supplies.
The video has received 4.7 million views, 69,000 shares and 20,000 comments since Ramirez's mother uploaded it onto Facebook on July 24.
A GoFundMe page set up to compensate Ramirez for the damage to his cart and loss of supplies has raised nearly $4,000. A separate fundraiser called Community in Support of the Elote Man will be held in Boyle Heights on Thursday, July 27. The activist group Unión del Barrio has called for a rally on Thursday at Romaine and Vine.
"Chili pepper was my defense," says Ramirez, telling the story for the umpteenth time to reporters literally waiting in line to interview him. Supporters held a rally for Ramirez on Tuesday morning at the scene of the altercation. He was wearing a promotional T-shirt given him by a producer for the Spanish-language morning program El Show del Mandril on FM 93.9. The radio station sent a broadcast truck to the rally and interviewed Ramirez live on the air.
Hakas, meanwhile, has become the object of fury online. The Facebook comments under the original posting of the video are a vitriolic flurry of insults and even physical threats. Hakas has reportedly been doxed, his address, phone number and place of employment posted on Facebook. A call to the phone number for Hakas went directly to voicemail (the mailbox was full). According to a bio on Everipedia.com, Hakas was born and raised in Buenos Aires and is the frontman of an electronic metal project called Reality Motion.
Los Angeles police were summoned to the scene but made no arrests. Ramirez's mother, Imelda Reyes, says it was partly out of frustration with the police that she uploaded the cellphone video onto Facebook.
“I don’t think they’ve advanced on the case one bit," Reyes says. "We filed a report with the police, we hadn’t heard back, so we returned to follow up.
"I figured I'm going to upload the video, come what may, and that's how they're going to do things right."
A spokesman for the LAPD, Tony Im, says a report was taken on July 17 and that the department is investigating a charge of vandalism.
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Ramirez's father, 41-year-old Alejandro Ramirez, has operated a food cart in L.A. since 2007 and says that nothing like this has ever happened to him on the job. "It's upsetting," he says.
Advocates from the Los Angeles Street Vendors Movement who attended the rally say the altercation highlights the importance for the City Council to clarify its policy and fully legalize street vending in the city.
In February the council downgraded street vending from a misdemeanor to an administrative infraction similar to a parking ticket, though street vending in city parks is still a crime, according to Carla de Paz, a spokeswoman for the coalition. The City Council has said it will revisit the issue in late August.