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When a councilman in San Jose caught wind that National City was discussing lifting its 30-year ban on lowrider cruising, he watched closely. Councilman Raul Peralez had been contemplating lifting a similar ban in his city and seeing others pursue the same move empowered him to do the same.
But as he watched those discussions continually revolve around controlling large cruising events, rather than a simple reform of the city’s law, he also learned what not to do.
National City’s elected officials agree the ban on cruising needs to go. Yet it’s still in place.
That’s because city leaders haven’t been able to separate the law from concerns over large, organized events. The fear is that without a ban, lowriders could create a strain on the city’s police resources and significantly affect traffic and residents. That’s a version of the fears that led to the city to adopt the ban in the first place.
That association has paralyzed the city from carrying out a reform that other cities, once inspired by National City, have been able to do.
“We managed to separate that conversation,” Peralez said, adding that San Jose’s approach was inspired by what they saw happen in National City.
The city of San Jose acknowledged large cursing events could be disruptive, he said, but decided managing them was a separate topic from lifting the ban. San Jose removed its ban in June.
National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, and other city leaders, have conflated large events and the cruising ban into one issue, complicating efforts to make progress on either of them and demonstrating Peralez’s prescience.
For years lowrider car clubs have unsuccessfully tried to lift National City’s cruising ban. In May, those advocacy efforts got caught up in a dispute with Sotelo-Solis over a cruising event that was far bigger than organizers expected. The event was part of a pilot program that a city committee suggested to gauge whether the city should remove its ban on cruising. Jovita Arellano, co-chair of the group United Lowrider Coalition, said the group just wants the law repealed.
The United Lowrider Coalition is now eyeing the mayor’s race as an opportunity to make that happen – by changing the city’s leadership.
She said lifting the ban would allow people with lowriders to cruise to businesses and around the community without fear that they are doing anything wrong.
“Right now, we do that, we are going to be breaking the law,” Arellano said.
National City adopted the 1992 law after police and business owners argued weekly cruises along Highland Avenue were a drain on police resources, created heavy roadblocks and attracted crime and gang activity. One police lieutenant told councilmembers in a 1992 meeting that the cruises brought problems that, “threaten the welfare of the citizens of National City.”
Police pushed for the ban. Then, when they still had trouble enforcing it, they pushed to make cruising a misdemeanor.
“The principal advantage of the proposed ordinance would be that the police department would now be able to arrest violators of the cruising ordinance and impound their vehicles,” Tom Desse, acting police chief at the time, said. “Many of those who cruise on Highland Avenue fear having their vehicles impounded more than any other enforcement action by the police, including arrest.”
The law defines cruising as the repetitive driving of a car two or more times within a four-hour period, on all city streets. It’s a crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, jail time of up to six months, or both.
National City police have not issued a ticket for cruising in the last three years.
Sotelo-Solis, has throughout her re-election bid said she’s working on getting the city to reconsider its ban on car cruising. She’s made the case that lowriding allows for the community to revisit history and celebrate Latino culture.
Councilman Jose Rodriguez, who is running against Sotelo-Solis, has been more direct. He said the policy is racist and has to go. Their opponent Councilman Ron Morrison, who 30 years ago spoke in favor of the law, agrees that a lot has changed since then, and that lowriding today is a form of art. Sotelo-Solis and Morrison argue the city needs a process to prevent large events from overburdening the city’s police and service resources.
Sotelo-Solis said she has been meeting with Councilwoman Mona Rios, the police chief and city attorney to learn more about what other cities have done to lift bans, but has not directly said that she supports lifting the ban. She’s suggested the city would get there at some point.
She’s stressed that there are intended and unintended consequences with every policy that is lifted and maintained. She’s worried lifting the ban will create problems for residents who need to get around their community.
“We have to recognize that the community of National City, good, bad, indifferent, is going to be the ones who have to deal with the consequences,” she said.
Morrison echoed her comments.
“We can’t handle a Western United States event,” he said, referring to cruising clubs that came from far-flung cities for National City’s May event. He said cruising events must be treated like any city permitted event that requires organizers to pay for police overtime and other city services.
Since San Jose removed it’s ban, nothing has really changed, said Councilman Peralez.
He said it’s not as if the roads are filled with lowriders every day.
“It’s almost internal change,” he said. “The sense of acceptance and righting a wrong for the last 36 years that we had an attack on our culture … if anything that’s what’s changed.”
Rodriguez thinks the city just needs to do away with the law.
“It is not that complicated,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez’s opponents are focused on the aftermath of the May event. But it was the city that suggested hosting an event in the first place. He has tried unsuccessfully to get the Council to revisit the law. He said that there was a lot going on during the 1990s that impacted National City, and there were some valid reasons for the city to want to make sure that people were safe, but that it’s not the same anymore.
“This is 30 years later,” he said. “Folks are very different … we wanna make sure that we see everybody for who they are right now, not for who we were 30 years ago.”
Marisa Rosales, a founding member of the United Lowrider Coalition, said other lowriding organizations have tried to get the law repealed but each time it failed. Rosales said the lowrider community does plenty to step up for the community – they helped during COVID-19 to encourage residents to get vaccinated – yet they continue to face barrier to lift the ban.
“It’s a shame that they oppressed an entire culture because of activities that other people were doing,” Rosales said.