Column: Undercurrents: You Knew it Was Coming—Another Sideshow Crackdown J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday June 03, 2005

Well, you absolutely knew this one was coming, didn’t you, friends? 

“Following up on promises to crack down on ‘sideshows,’” we learn in last week’s Oakland Tribune, “Mayor Jerry Brown introduced an ordinance Thursday that would make attending the reckless driving exhibitions a criminal offense. … The Oakland City Council will consider the ordinance at its next meeting, June 7. Although such a measure typically would first be considered by the council’s Public Safety Committee, it will go directly to the full council because several large sideshows are expected in the coming weeks, officials said.” 

This raises some interesting questions. 

The first one is, hasn’t the mayor and the City of Oakland been “cracking down” on sideshows for some time now? Shouldn’t we discuss the results of the previous “crack downs” before embarking on a new one? (For example, we keep hearing that the sideshows are becoming more violent and dangerous. It would be instructive to find out what effect the “crack downs” have had on that, wouldn’t it?) 

The second question is, since sideshows are spontaneous events with no organization and no leaders and nobody putting out leaflets or notices on the radio, how is it that “officials” can predict that several large ones are expected in coming weeks? Presumably, it is because sideshows are primarily warm-weather events, and warm weather is now upon us, so it seems like a prudent prediction. But it leads to a third question, which is, since everybody knows it starts warming up around mid-May—it’s been happening this way every year about this same time for quite a while, now—why did Mr. Brown wait until the end of spring before introducing a new “emergency” law aimed at curbing warm weather activity? 

One answer might be to avoid a full hearing before the Public Safety Committee. 

At first glance, you might wonder why the mayor would even think avoiding the Public Safety Committee necessary. Oakland City Councilmember Larry Reid, the chairperson of the Public Safety Committee, is a vocal and ardent—one might even say fanatical—opponent of Oakland’s sideshows, and so presumably, any new “crack down” on the events would find a welcome forum there. (The other members are Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and Councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Jean Quan.) 

The answer might be in the differences between the forums provided by the committee and the full council. 

Because of the large numbers of participants and the wide range of subjects to be considered, most city councils limit the time that anyone can testify at its regular meetings on any given subject. At Oakland City Council, speakers are generally given two minutes to speak by rule, and that amount of time can be lowered to one minute on subjects that draw a large number of speakers (Interesting, isn’t it? The more interest there is in a subject, the less time an individual is given to talk about it). Anyway, in two minutes you can hardly give your name and your organizational affiliation—much less provide an intelligent argument. If the councilmembers appear to have already made up their minds, which is too often the case, then frustrated opponents end up complaining rather than explaining, often sounding merely shrill or angry or, worse yet, just dumb. 

When the committee system was put in place, from Congress down to city councils, it was always envisioned that this is where the real give and take of participatory government would take place. With fewer subjects to discuss, City Council committees, if they so choose, can allow extended public testimony in order to gather more information before they vote on their recommendation to the full council. 

In the recent past, that hasn’t happened on the Oakland sideshow issue. The Public Safety Committee of the Oakland City Council has discussed the sideshows only three times in the past year—odd, one would think, considering that we keep hearing that this is a serious public safety issue in Oakland, costing us millions of dollars in police overtime and other expenses. In any event, in none of those cases did the committee actively solicit public testimony from citizens on solutions to the sideshow conflict. You could come and talk if you wanted, of course, but that wasn’t what the agenda items were for. The purpose of two of the sideshow agenda items was to receive semiannual enforcement reports from the police department. The third was to approve a contract with the California Highway Patrol for increased sideshow-related traffic patrols. Since neither of these actions appeared (on the surface) to be especially controversial, the press didn’t report them in advance, and the general public wasn’t moved to attend and participate. 

That would presumably be much different if the mayor’s proposed “arrest the spectators” sideshow ordinance went through the normal committee procedure, since it involves the highly controversial new step of arresting spectators. 

What would I expect would happen at such a Public Safety Committee hearing? 

Possibly the same thing that happened four years ago, in the beginning of the summer of 2001, when Councilmember Reid convened a town hall meeting at Eastmont Mall to discuss the sideshow problem. 

Sideshow participants weren’t specifically invited to that June 2001 town hall meeting, but it was a public meeting, so they showed up anyhow, and talked, and participated, and gave their point of view. Most of the older East Oakland neighbors had come out to express their opposition to the sideshows, and I’m sure most of them left just as adamantly opposed, but midway through that meeting, an interesting thing happened. The sideshow participants turned out to be people. With faces. And names. And families. And homes where they lived, many of them in the same neighborhoods as the older East Oakland neighbors. The sideshow participants stopped being simply grinning, gyrating, shadowy figures on that sideshow video footage that Channel 2 keeps showing over and over and over again. The sideshow participants started being our own children. 

I think this may be one reason why Mr. Brown waited until the last minute to try to bumrush this new “arrest the spectators” sideshow law through City Council without the normal chance for public discussion and debate. Oakland’s law-and-order sideshow policy has continued for so long, not because it has worked—if it has worked, why would we need a new “crack down,” after all?—but because Mr. Brown and other Oakland city officials have successfully dehumanized the sideshow participants themselves, keeping them in the shadows, keeping them out of the public debate. They are the unknown. The dark figures of the night who invade our dreams and invoke our fears. The enemy from whom we must be saved. And Mr. Brown casting himself, as always, as the savior. 

Keeping these participants as a nameless, anonymous threat is the key to a continued law and order “crack down” because if we begin seeing them as people, we might begin to talk with them like people, and then we might begin to find that there might be a solution to the sideshow conflict besides throwing as many of them in jail as we can, and running the rest out of town. 

And so another reason for this last-minute rush to push through Mr. Brown’s “arrest the spectators” law is that if we got a chance to take a serious look at it, we might not think it’s such a great idea. What helps Mr. Brown in his run for California Attorney General is not necessarily what is best for Oakland. 

But that’s got to be the subject of another column.