Looking For an Exit From the Quagmire By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday December 10, 2004

We’re trapped in a quagmire with no apparent strategy except one that has consistently failed, with leaders too distracted by their futures in the next elections to explore other choices, and a public left generally uninformed because the press only gives us the official line. 

And no, friends, if you thought we were talking about Iraq, you were mistaken. This is about Oakland, and our continuing discussion of what everyone calls the sideshows. 

Sideshows is one of those terms—like “freedom” or “racism” or “separation of church and state”—in which the various sides use the same words, but are clearly talking about vastly different things. It’s one of those “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of things where everybody in the room is supposed to know what you mean—like talking about the “them” who are ruining things for the rest of us—except that we’re all not in the same room, and the “them” to you may not be the “them” that I’m talking about. In fact, it might actually be “me.” 

The Oakland Tribune almost always puts the term “sideshows” in quotes, as if there’s still some sort of debate going on in the newsroom about its meaning. For years we have asked—vainly—for an official definition from the Oakland Police Department. But between them, the police and the Trib seem to have worked out an unofficial, working definition. According to a Trib article this week, “Oakland police Lt. Dave Kozicki said it starts with unlicensed drivers driving recklessly, speeding and under the influence of drugs or alcohol, sometimes both, and leads to more serious crimes like murders, stabbings, sexual assaults and vandalism.” 

It’s hard to know exactly what Lt. Kozicki actually said—the sentence is not presented as a direct quote—but the code words are all there. Sideshows. Unlicensed drivers. Drugs. Alcohol. Murders. Stabbings. Sexual assault. It’s all presented as one giant, slippery slope. Start a sideshow and a girl is going to get raped. 

The average reader—safe in your home far from East Oakland—reads such a sentence and says, “My God! What animals! Of course we’ve got to stop this!” And that, of course, is reinforced by the Tribune’s reports of “residents” from ground zero of the sideshow—the Foothill/Havenscourt area-where “they complained [at a recent Neighborhood Community Policing Council] about the smell of burning tires that fills their homes, the noise from gunshots, thumping music and screeching wheels, and the sight of grown men and women urinating in their front yards.” 

We heard the same complaint a couple of years ago, at a city-sponsored town hall meeting on the sideshow problem held at Eastmont Mall. In response, an articulate young African-American woman—an admitted sideshow participant—said that she wouldn’t want anyone urinating in her yard either. She suggested that some of the stated problems might not have come from the sideshows but from other elements of Oakland’s street life, which sometimes gets confused and lumped in together by people who are not out there in the streets. She also said that the sideshows were developed by young people who were born in Oakland, live in Oakland, but are generally ignored and even actively discouraged by Oakland when it comes to providing safe social outlets. 

As if we needed another reminder of that official discouragement, we heard it—again—this week from Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who the Tribune reports “scoffed” at those who have said sideshows are an outlet for young people with nothing else to do. “I reject that,” the Tribune quoted Mr. Brown as saying. “There are gangsters and hard-core criminals exploiting the sideshows ... doing carjackings and shooting people. Parents need to keep their children home, and if you’re over 18, have enough sense not to get in harm’s way. And sideshows are harm’s way.” 

It is true that the gatherings we generally identify as “sideshows” are more violent, and more dangerous this fall than the ones we witnessed two and three years ago. If you believe what the mayor and police officials say then this was inevitable, that unsanctioned, unsupervised street gatherings of black kids in Oakland was always going to lead to violence and death. 

If you’ve followed the history of the sideshows—or if you talk to some of the participants who have—you come up with a different conclusion. The sideshows, they say, began in isolated parking lots—not in the streets—by young people who were themselves worried about the violence in Oakland’s night scene, and took it upon themselves to organize safe social gatherings away from the drugs, the gunshots, and the fights. They policed their own events, and kept down trouble. We will never know what these late 90’s gatherings might have eventually turned into had we left these young people alone or—better yet—worked with them. Instead, the police drove them like animals out of the parking lots and into the streets, effecting arrests and confiscating cars, making illegal what was previously only innocuous. Gradually, as a result, many of the more responsible people who only wanted a place to safely socialize were replaced by people who were more excited by defying the police. Are we surprised at the result? 

If not surprised, we ought to be troubled. 

The Tribune reported a night of “‘sideshow’-related” violence in Oakland last weekend-again, the quotation marks around “sideshow” are theirs—in which two people were shot and killed and three officers were injured. It’s hard from the details in the story to know how much the two shooting deaths were related to the sideshows themselves. Was this a beef from an argument that grew out of the gathering itself and would not have happened if there hadn’t been a sideshow, or did this result from an older dispute that would have played out wherever the players met-in a club, on somebody’s front porch, or in a parking lot at Albertsons? We ought to know, before we lump these things all together. It makes a difference, in our response. 

We ought to be disturbed, too, about one of the reported attacks on the police last weekend. “The injury to the police officer occurred about 3:30 a.m. [early Saturday morning] at 90th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard,” the Tribune reports. “Someone put a brick on a car’s accelerator, tied off the steering wheel and sent the vehicle down 90th Avenue toward several officers at high speed. The car struck a marked patrol car, injuring the officer inside. No one was arrested.” 

For several years, Oakland has declared the relatively-nonviolent sideshows a police problem, and have given the police virtual free reign in shutting them down. The suspension of civil liberties and millions of dollars in overtime later the sideshows have not been shut down, the talk of violence is becoming a self-fulling prophecy, and we are beginning to see ambushes of police on our city streets. 

Hasn’t the time long since come for Oakland citizens to come together—young and old in the same conversation in the same room—to talk about a different approach?