‘Crowds,’ ‘Sideshows’: The ‘Usual Suspects’ Renamed

Friday December 05, 2003

Was it Machiavelli who said “the prudent prince needs an enemy at the gate, always, to draw the attention of the populace from scandal within the court”? Or it could have been Sun Tzu, maybe. Age advances, memory fades, and I get my 60s icons confused. The optimum enemy in this situation, in any event, ought to be one who is both anonymous and seemingly dangerous, but not so dangerous that he can actually cause harm. 

These days, Oakland’s enemy is the sideshows, and they play their part quite adequately. 

In response to my last column on the sideshow issue, posted to an Oakland political newsgroup, a reader wonders how I can ignore such a threat to the public decency, and offers his own description of the events: “Neighbors complain about the donuts. Unruly crowds gather. Drinking and driving occur.” 

Note, for reference, the anonymous “crowds,” in the passive voice. “People” do things. Fight. Cry. Talk. Crowds, on the other hand, gather, like malevolent forces of nature. 

Another reader is more colorful: “The ‘side shows’ are also pretty scary to see. I ran across one on a Friday afternoon after picking up my son... It was about three-thirty in the p.m. as I turned the corner toward 106th. A crowd toting hefty forties of malt liquor was howling with glee as a car spun donuts in the intersection, blocking my way out. … When I discussed this with a local police officer a few days later, he told me that a lot of ‘side show’ cars get trashed because they’re stolen from East Oakland residents, who can’t afford to replace them, before the festivities.” 

Here, the anonymous “crowd” again, howling, now, as do animals and other lower creatures, with the added bonus that sideshows are actually responsible for our stolen car problem. Another reason to break them up. 

A third reader believes that my skepticism that Highway Patrol officers roaming International Boulevard, stopping cars and stray prostitutes at will, has much to do with solving Oakland’s murder problem. He calls that a “bum rap.” “The way that the CHP is supposed to be helping the Oakland Police,” he explains, “is by concentrating on the ‘side shows’ and other related traffic related problems, primarily on East 14th/International, so that the Oakland Police can spend more time investigating murders.” 

Yes, so we’ve been told. I would be less skeptical if I knew what my Oakland police were actually doing, now, with their free time, no longer having to cruise East 14th. Perhaps someone will enlighten us. 

A week ago or so, Channel 11 of San Jose thoughtfully provided us with some comments from a CHP officer involved in these infamous East Oakland patrols. Their purpose was combating the sideshows, explains the officer (to the best of my memory), which was difficult, because the sideshows come and go, in random spots, without advance notice. So the CHP breaks them up (so says the CHP officer) by stopping cars along International Boulevard with “busted taillights” and “expired tags.”  

One wonders how this breaks up the sideshows. Whose cars are targeted for stops? (Wink-wink…don’t ask too many questions son…we’re out here doing our job, so you can sleep safe behind your closed doors.) How does a fix-it ticket for a busted taillight or expired tag—the prescribed remedy for such infractions—prevent the driver from going down the street aways, turning a corner, and swinging a donut or two? We are left to use our own imaginations as to what other remedies our state police may be employing once they make their initial stop. (Again, wink-wink.) 

The CHP officer, by the way, does actually mention murders as a byproduct. As a result of the increased taillight-and-tags patrols along International, murders in Oakland have ground to a halt.  

Well, yes, “Stop a thousand cars in East Oakland, after all, and the odds are you’ve got to come up with at least one that contains a driver (or a passenger) who might consider shooting somebody, somewhere, sometime in their life” (to quote myself, if I may be permitted, from last week’s column). 

Within the week, however, we see that the murderers are not impressed. Oakland had three more killings, one in Montclair, one during an East Oakland robbery, and one found stabbed in a house later set afire in the Sobrante Park area of 105th Avenue, the area where our newsgroup reader says he witnessed the howling crowd at the sideshow event. Perhaps one of them, drunk off a 40, wandered off from the crowd to do his neighbor in. You know how these people are. 

Contra Costa County employs its gatherings of police in a different manner. This month, Channel 4 reports that 85 officers from 25 different police agencies in the county are serving old DUI warrants, the stated aim being to get accused drunk drivers off the local streets. That’s a thought. Perhaps Oakland police, so many of whom choose to live east of the tunnel, might take note.