San Jose’s 36-year ban on cruising was lifted last fall—but the closure of 10 different highway ramps over Cinco de Mayo weekend left residents wondering whether the reversal was just symbolic.

San Jose police coordinated with Caltrans and California Highway Patrol beginning Friday evening through early Monday morning to close several on-and-off ramps heading into downtown. Traffic jams went viral on social media, and city and state officials called the citywide blockade racist. The closures limited people from accessing the city’s core during the annual Mexican celebration. The holiday brings hundreds of drivers cruising through San Jose with billowing Mexican flags and intricate auto body art on their lowriders to celebrate the culturally historic event.

State Sen. David Cortese said the Mexican-American community was singled out, and that the city has never seen similar highway ramp closures for other major celebrations like Tet or Fourth of July. The lawmaker called the closures racist and a violation of people’s First Amendment right to assemble. He and Assemblymember Ash Kalra are calling for an investigation to determine who’s responsible and make sure similar closures don’t reoccur.

“The only attempted justification we’ve heard is that somehow the agencies thought people might be inclined to violence so their solution was to blockade, as if it was Cuba, basically the entire east side from getting to downtown,” Cortese told San José Spotlight.

Just last year, San Jose reversed a 1986 ban on cruising which prohibited lowriders and other lavishly decorated cars from driving slowly through city streets. Councilmembers argued it gave a green light for officers to unfairly target people because of their skin color or culture.

But now, dozens of residents and local leaders say the San Jose Police Department—who was against overturning the ban—simply found another way to limit lowriders from legally celebrating during the holiday.

“The police were using other methods to effectively ban cruising. (They) suddenly just shut everything down even though there was no clear or present issue or danger,” said downtown resident Nadine Abousalem, who frequents many lowrider events in San Jose. “I noticed SJPD increasing use of surveillance… they had upwards of 40 cops walking back and forth and issuing parking tickets and tickets for other traffic infractions.”

She said it was not only an infringement on the annual Mexican celebration, but also on residents who simply wanted to get home.

“(On Friday) it took me like over an hour to literally reach my apartment on South 8th street,” Abousalem told San José Spotlight.

Councilmembers Omar Torres, Sergio Jimenez, Domingo Candelas and Peter Ortiz called out the closures and excessive police presence in a joint statement as racial profiling.

“We were able to cruise more when cruising was illegal than we were this last weekend,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “There was police presence in the past, but it wasn’t to this level… I don’t see this level of police presence in other communities, holidays and other cultural holidays.”

When asked about the backlash and potential for future investigations into the allegations that the roadway closures were targeted, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan said he appreciated the constructive criticism, but did not condemn the closures.

“I think there’s always room for improvement,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “But I also don’t want people to be left with the impression that this is somehow new or different or only for Cinco de Mayo.”

Mahan said closures have always happened on this holiday and about half a dozen other downtown celebrations throughout the year, including Veterans Day or Fourth of July “where (police) anticipate the amount of traffic and people who will be in downtown and poses a safety risk.”

San Jose Assistant Police Chief Paul Joseph said he is “the first to say (SJPD) could’ve done better,” but only in regards to communicating with residents prior to the planned highway closures. Caltrans also defended the decision in a statement issued Monday.

The police department touted that the closures had a positive effect and led to a downward trend in arrests, citations, reports and calls taken.

However, Ortiz said the closures had a detrimental impact on local businesses and Mexican-American residents. He and the other Latino councilmembers are working to draft a memo with input from police and residents to create better procedures around future Cinco de Mayo celebrations and other cruising events.

“People weren’t able to access downtown or Alum Rock and it wasn’t because of the cruising, it was because of the heavy-handed police presence,” Ortiz said. “There needs to be some sort of way in which we could come together and have a collaborative effort, so that people can participate in what I see as a very Latino and Chicano way of celebrating Cinco de Mayo which is cruising.”

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