Growing up in San Jose, Councilmember Raul Peralez found himself sitting on a curb while police searched his car — dozens of times.
His crime? Driving slowly in his forest green 1965 Impala Super Sport lowrider as a person of color.
“I was often told (by officers) that because of the car I drove, the way I was dressed, and because I was out cruising that they had reasonable suspicion I was a gang member or had weapons or drugs with me,” Peralez said, who later became a cop himself. “The officers never found anything in my car but they always found out I was a scholar athlete at Cupertino High School and later a math major at San Jose State University.”
The downtown councilmember said it was the city policy — which outlawed cruising in San Jose streets — that gave officers the right to unfairly to target people like him because of the color of their skin or their culture.
Now, for the first time in three decades, that law is overturned and decked-out cars can once again cruise the streets. The Chicano community in San Jose is celebrating the victory.
The San Jose City Council this week unanimously approved ending fees and fines associated with cruising—arguing it’s inherently discriminatory. The ban, which prohibits lowriders and other decked-out cars from driving slowly through city streets, was implemented in the early 1990s to curb gang violence.
“As a council we (said) this is not a policy we should embrace any longer,” said Peralez, who led the charge to repeal the ban. “It’s not one our police department (says) they actually utilize… and it’s blatantly discriminatory and racist when you look at the wording.”
Cruising has been part of the Latino culture since the 1940s and grew to be a symbol of Mexican American resistance against discrimination during the Civil Rights era. Two decades later, it became associated nationally with gang violence and illegal activity. Cities across the country enacted laws prohibiting the repetitive driving of any motor vehicle past a traffic control point that was congested or near a checkpoint.
“So in downtown, if you miss your turn and you get lost and you go around a couple times you can essentially be in violation of this ordinance,” Peralez said. “It was very, very broad.”
The ordinance was so broad that police officers could stop and search any person driving a lowrider. This impacted brown and Black residents the most, the councilmember said, and they were stopped repeatedly by San Jose police.
Councilmember Sergio Jimenez experienced the same discrimination.
“I’ve been sat on the curb many times over the course of my lifetime growing up in East San Jose,” Jimenez said. “It was for no reason. I was never arrested, nothing like that. Just simply pulled over because a vehicle was too low or we drove by maybe a little too frequently.”
Police Chief Anthony Mata proposed an alternative to repealing the ban — allowing lowriders during permitted events — but policymakers said there are enough rules to protect city streets.
Community leaders in San Jose and across the state supported the city’s move to repeal the ban, noting the contributions of the lowrider community.
“San Jose is where the pillars of the lowrider culture are,” said David Polanco, United Lowrider Council of San Jose (ULCSJ) chairman. “Regardless of the no cruising signs, the culture has thrived in many ways.”
He said the lowrider council holds toy and food drives and has worked with Kaiser Permanente and the San Jose Public Library to give back to the community. More young people are getting involved, he added, which keeps them away from other dangerous activities.
National City Vice Mayor Marcus Bush, whose city sits outside of San Diego, said his community also lifted its cruising ban this week. He said San Diego businesses saw a 20-30% increase in revenue on days cruising events were held. He believes San Jose could see similar results.
“This is more than just about the cars. It’s about the music. It’s the art, it’s the food, it’s people gathered together and just celebrating,” Bush said.
John Ulloa, a professor who teaches a class on the history of lowriding at San Francisco State University, called the ban an “archaic” law rooted in institutionalized racism.
“Lowriding is part of not only San Jose’s social and cultural fabric,” he said, “but a global worldwide phenomenon that is celebrated as artistic and an expression of cultural pride.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.