“This is Jose,” said Captain Steven Tull of Oakland’s Police Department (OPD) District 4. “He doesn’t think about himself — he thinks about others.”
Jose Ortiz, a longtime community organizer in the Fruitvale district, smiled humbly as he was honored in many testimonies delivered by attendees at his appreciation event last Saturday evening inside the gym of the Manzanita Recreation Center. Ortiz’s business partner Big Lou Feliciano and members of his Street Inspiration Low Rider Car Club were joined by their families, Mayor Jean Quan, Councilman Noel Gallo, Oakland Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa, Oakland Deputy Chief Jeffery Israel, several Oakland police officers, and other officials to celebrate and tribute the 20-year anniversary of Ortiz’s efforts and achievements through his organization, Community Outreach Program Alternatives (COPA), serving the Oakland community.
But who was the real guest of honor? A black and white tricked-out low rider Oakland police car.
The patrol car, originally a standard-issue 1991 Crown Victoria police sedan, belonged to a close friend of Ortiz’s, Officer Miguel Soto, who was killed on duty after being gunned down at an intersection in 1994. Ortiz renovated it into a low rider to memorialize the fallen officer, as well as to try to bridge the gap between Oakland youth and the police force.
Ortiz, who is now 55, came to Oakland 37 years ago from Puerto Rico. He settled in Fruitvale at a time when “Mexican and Latino low riders hung out at San Antonio park, would go out cruising, and developed a bad image,” he says. The candy-coated cars, with lavish sound systems, and tricked-out hydraulics that made the cars “dance,” grew to be heavily associated with drug dealing, gangs and violence, he said.
Then in 1991, some of Oakland’s low rider club members came to him asking him to clean up their image. Ortiz wore many hats in the city– Recreation Center director, Parks and Recreation assistant director, Crime Prevention consultant with the Oakland police— and so the low riders (the drivers, not the cars) believed he was the perfect candidate to help them with their mission.They wanted to be respected by their community, police and city officials, and no longer stigmatized.
Ortiz told them the only way for low riding in Oakland to gain positive city recognition was “to go back, do good things and give to the community.” It was at this interval that Ortiz, along with Big Lou Feliciano, founded Street Inspiration, a community outreach program that “got really involved in the city of Oakland,” as Ortiz says, to earn the respect of police, and to prove that low riders were capable of a decent reputation.
“We were the most amazing low rider car club you’ve ever encountered,” says Ortiz. They removed graffiti, cleaned up city dumping, fed the homeless, gave toys to low- income children and Christmas gifts to impoverished families. “We pushed the drug dealers and bad enemies out of the parks,” he says. “We said, ‘Get out. This is our park.’” And soon enough, Ortiz said, city officials began to notice them, in a positive light.
The club members started to work in middle schools. They would drive up in their low riders, and the kids would get so excited by the cars, Ortiz recalls — gather around and ask tons of questions. So, one day it occurred to Ortiz, who started working with cars at the ripe age of 13, that a low rider police car would help kids connect with the officers.
Ortiz says it was Soto’s death, after 22 years on the force and six months before retirement, that really made him realize something was wrong in the community– that kids needed to be educated about police work and the image of police officers needed to be modified. Soto was shot twice after stopping a pedestrian at the 36th and Market Street intersection; leaving behind a wife, three sons and three daughters.
The suspect was found and arrested in San Diego, convicted of Soto’s murder and sentenced to life without parole.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to think outside the box,” Ortiz says. So Ortiz, Feliciano and members of Street Inspiration dedicated their time, money, and energy into the transformation of Soto’s car, which they equipped with hydraulic suspension, ten switches with front and back side-to-side three wheel motion, 13 inch wheels with 18 karat gold plated spokes, a lush stereo system, and functioning police sirens and lights. On the front of the driver’s side door, just below the handle, sits a painted cursive inscription that reads: In honor of Miguel Soto.
“The Oakland police had no tools to connect with kids,” says Ortiz. “We did. And when we built the police low rider it was an immediate success.” Before the low rider was built , he says, kids would ask negative questions like, “How many bullets are in your gun? Have you ever shot somebody?” And now kids see the low rider and they come up to police and ask, “What kind of sound system is that? What kinds of tires are these? Tell me about the hydraulics…”
The low rider has given police officers a chance to show Oakland youth that they are human, that “a gun, uniform, badge, bullet proof jacket is part of the job, but behind the badge and uniform is a human being, with feelings; a parent, grandparent, uncle, brother, sister, auntie,” said Ortiz.
The Oakland low rider police car was the first one in the nation, and it brings Ortiz much pride and joy. It’s been featured in magazines such as Newsweek, Detail, and Low Rider. Ortiz has helped police forces replicate his original low rider from Dallas to Ft. Lauderdale to San Diego, and in Europe, Canada and Puerto Rico.
When the car is not being showcased at schools — or events like the Cinco de Mayo parade, Coliseum tailgate parties before Raiders’ and A’s games, or the Las Vegas car spectacle, Super Show, — it lives at the Eastmont Mall police station, on 73rd Avenue in Oakland. One thing Ortiz insists on: “I don’t allow anybody to go in the back seat,” he says. “A lot of people request it. You don’t want to ride in the back; you want to ride in the front. I don’t want them to engage in that philosophy.”
After about an hour and a half of snapping photos of the low rider police car and the six other low riders that the club members drove onto the field outside the recreation center, the moderately-sized crowd gathered inside for a buffet dinner while a photo slideshow played in the background. The slideshow displayed pictures of the intricate makings of the low rider, family photos, and various Street Inspiration community work and events.
People made speeches and delivered a whopping number of certificates, proclamations, plaques and awards to Ortiz and his team. Quan stood in front of the room, in a bright red dress, and handed Ortiz a mayoral proclamation declaring that Saturday “COPA Low Rider Police Car Day” in Oakland.
She said she meets the Soto family (who did not attend the event, despite having a table reserved for them) at the annual memorial for Miguel Soto every year. She also spoke of how the police force finally has something to compete with the excitement children have around fire trucks, and that the relationship between youth and police seems to be better than ever.
“I’ve known these guys forever, and I’m extremely grateful for their leadership,” said Noel Gallo, who grew up in the Fruitvale district. “When we needed Street Inspiration and COPA to help us with schools and to clean up the neighborhood, you were always there…the check is in the mail.” The room broke out in laughter. “We love both of you,” Gallo said. “Keep it up.”
Last, the man of the hour, Jose “Cheo” Ortiz, stood before the room of onlookers, and said, “This is a happy day, but a sad day too,” and proceeded to tell his supporters and loved ones that he was officially retiring from Street Inspiration and COPA, and would be moving on to coach high school baseball.
Ortiz said he is profoundly flattered by the recognition and humbled by the two decades of his life he dedicated to this project. “The city never paid a penny, never paid me, never nothing,” he said. “This is all because of my willingness for the memory of Miguel Soto- he paid the ultimate sacrifice, his life. After 20 years he’s become my best friend that I never see, my invisible mentor, and inspiration in my life to promote police work. Today he’s here for all of us.”