From J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday May 16, 2003


And so now we have another horrific, high-speed East Oakland auto accident and the death of a young African-American woman, and Oakland Police are once more blaming it on Oakland’s “sideshows.” 

Forgive me if I reserve judgment on the cause until all of the facts come in.  

A little over a year ago, a 22-year-old popular former Oakland High School cheerleader, U’Kendra Johnson, was killed in an auto accident on Seminary Avenue that the Oakland Police called “sideshow related.” What the police failed to say (and what court testimony, an amateur video and analysis of police files later revealed) was that a high-speed police chase preceded the U’Kendra Johnson accident. 

Late last Saturday night, a 24-year-old mother of three, Breeonna Mobley, was killed when the car in which she was riding crashed into a tree on the southern side of Hegenberger Road near International Boulevard. The driver of the vehicle, 22-year-old Terrell Woods, is expected to be charged with vehicular manslaughter and felony drunk driving.  

Oakland Police spokesmen told the Oakland Tribune that Woods sped off after police rolled up “sideshow-related activity” (an undefined term) on Hegenberger. Although they did not specify the location on Hegenberger, sideshows traditionally have taken place near the Pac N’ Save parking lots, which is several blocks away and not within sight of the accident location. And according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “in both [the Mobley and the Johnson accidents], police said that they were not in pursuit.” 

Which leads us to something of a puzzlement. If police were not in pursuit of Woods, how do they know he was driving one of the cars that sped off from the “sideshow-related activity”? Did they just happen upon the accident later and make a detective’s guess, or did they ask the driver or one of the three remaining passengers in the car? (I’m not suggesting the police are not telling the truth here — frankly, I don’t know — but it’s just one of those odd sort of questions that stick out in a story like this and bug you until they get answered, if they ever get answered.)  

Also, too, if police were not in pursuit of Woods, why did he speed off, for several blocks, at speeds which the Chronicle reported to be in excess of 100 mph? If Woods was, indeed, running from the police breakup of the Pac N’ Save area activity, why not just slow down to a decent speed once he saw he was not being chased? Within a half a block of the accident scene is the intersection of International, and you’ve got to be crazy to run that at any speed at any time of night. If Woods was planning on stopping or even slowing down at International, he didn’t give any indication. There are no skid marks at the accident scene. 

Maybe Woods was crazy, or crazy drunk. Or maybe he was being chased. Or maybe all three. These are questions to be answered, before one starts drawing conclusions. 

And conclusions, my friends, are necessary. They won’t bring back Breeonna Mobley, or U’Kendra Johnson, either, but if we know what caused their deaths, we might be able to take steps that will keep other young people from dying as they did. 

The conclusions, and the resulting solutions, that some Oakland Police officials want to be drawn are implicit in the way this story is being framed. 

Frame Breeonna Mobley’s death as a sideshow-death story — by putting the term “sideshow” prominently at the front of the first Tribune and Chronicle articles and by linking it to the death of U’Kendra Johnson, which is already linked in the public’s mind to sideshows — and the solution is obvious: We need a crackdown on sideshows. 

But spin the story a different way — place prominently the possible police chase aspect and drop the “sideshow-related activity” part to the end of the story (both of them are equally speculative at this point), and you have a conclusion/solution that points in the opposite direction: Maybe it’s the manner in which police are cracking down on sideshows that is causing these deaths, and, therefore, a different ... and safer means of dealing with sideshows might be in order. 

Or ...  

Emphasize that the drivers in both the Mobley and Johnson deaths were alleged to have been drinking at the time of the accidents — add in the numerous other drunk-driving deaths that have taken place in our community over the years, including those schoolchildren who were struck on International near 29th Avenue a couple of years ago — and suddenly your conclusion might be that we need to hike the penalties on drinking and driving, as well as shut down some of the many liquor stores which proliferate the International Boulevard corridor. 

It’s all in how you frame it. 

This is a hard time, I know, for the public to figure out what’s in our best interests. What with war and terror and the economy collapsing and the schools being hijacked and democracy disappearing before our eyes, we don’t have much time for thoughtful investigation these days. We want someone (the media? our leaders?) to identify the good guys and the bad guys right off, so we can know who to go after without having to bother with all the tedious details. But incomplete information mostly leads to erroneous conclusions, leads to incorrect solutions, which means the same situations keep arising again and again. 

What exactly led to the death of Breeonna Mobley on that long stretch of Hegenberger Road? We don’t yet know, because all of the facts aren’t yet in. 

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is an Oakland resident.