Column: UnderCurrents: Taking Advantage of the Sideshow Opportunity By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday June 17, 2005

In an Internet discussion that followed one of my columns on Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s recent proposed “arrest the sideshow spectators” ordinance, one observer called my views on the subject “shameless nonsense” and “callous, illogical and overly fixated on Jerry Brown. …The inability to see the trauma inflicted on neighborhoods by this kind of criminal activity [the sideshows] tells me that Jesse must be so anti-Jerry Brown that he can’t think straight. If the mayor were to suddenly become in favor of legalizing sideshows, Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor would probably be his biggest critic.” 

I do find myself generally opposed to Mr. Brown’s Oakland policies. That doesn’t grow out of any personal dislike for the mayor—if I have obsessions, he isn’t one of them—but is probably attributable to the fact that I have a basic disagreement with what I believe is Mr. Brown’s overall vision for Oakland. 

It appears to me that the mayor is one of those many people who come to Oakland, look around, and think, man, this would be such a great place, except for some of them damn Oaklanders. I’ve never heard Mr. Brown actually say that. I’m just deducing it from the fact that so many of his policies seem specifically designed to drive whole sections of Oaklanders out of Oakland, either directly or indirectly, to be replaced with people who don’t presently live here. 

Oakland needs to make many changes, true. Some of our city policies need to change. And some of us sure need to change, as well. But first and foremost, before benefiting anybody else, I think those changes ought to make things better for those people who already make this city their home. 

That’s where me and Mr. Brown differ, I believe. And that’s why I don’t see the sideshows as a problem. I see them as an opportunity. 

No matter which side of the argument you fall on, most people would agree that a good portion of Oakland’s potential civic progress in recent years has stumbled over conflicts with our African-American youth. The city’s two most successful community festivals, Festival at the Lake and Carijama—you could even say that these were two of the most successful community festivals in the state, in fact—were both abolished after street clashes between black youth and Oakland police. And leaving aside the horrific loss of human life (which I do not ever mean to minimize) and the disruption of our communities, the next greatest casualty of Oakland’s staggering murder rate—anchored by young black men killing young black men—is Oakland’s image. It’s hard to get investors excited about a city where newspaper articles total up shooting deaths like other cities tally touchdown passes or home runs. 

If you take a few minutes to talk to young black people in Oakland, you’ll find out that they’re catching it from both ends. They’ll tell you that it’s a small, hard core of knuckleheads and troublemakers that are fueling the city’s violence. It only takes two people to start a fight, after all, or one person to pull out a gun and start shooting. But it’s the general black youth community that suffers a triple hit, first as the primary victims of both the violence and the climate of violence—how do you think it feels, being always you might get shot or beaten up merely because you went to a high school dance?—then as targets of stereotyping both by the police and the general public, and finally when activities catering to black youth are curtailed or eliminated altogether because adults think that if you stop the gatherings, you’ll stop the problem. 

That, after all, was how the Eastmont Mall era of the sideshows got started in the late ‘90s—black youth looking for a safe place where they could gather with their friends, show off their cars, and not bother anybody. And before the Oakland police pushed the sideshows out of Eastmont and over to Pac’N’Save on Hegenberger and then onto the city streets, it worked pretty good. 

City officials themselves give a grudging acknowledgment to this history. In her background report prepared for the mayor’s “arrest the spectators” ordinance, City Manager Deborah Edgerly wrote earlier this month that “the Police Department has always understand that a sequence of ‘innocent activities’ are touted as the root of the ‘Sideshow.’” And former Police Chief Richard Word at least twice said publicly that pushing the sideshows off the parking lots and into the streets was a “mistake.” 

Although there are no guarantees, putting Oakland on the path of searching for a safe, sanctioned, legal version of the sideshow might help do several things. 

First, it might reverse that “mistake” which former Chief Word admitted, starting the sideshows on the road back towards that original vision of “innocent” social gatherings both free of violence and blending in with other community activities. 

Second, setting up sanctioned sideshows might allow Oakland to nurture—and take advantage of—many of the skills being displayed during these events. 

As just one example: Spinning a donut in a car in the middle of the street has always seemed to me a dumb thing to do. I’ve never seen the purpose of it. But I’ve talked with longtime sideshow participants about the maneuvers, and come away deeply impressed with the knowledge that many of them possess of mechanics, and physics, and aerodymamics, some of it explainable, some of it simply intuitive. I have no idea where such knowledge might have practical application. Space travel? Rapid transit design? This is far outside my area of expertise. But I can see that there are some bright young minds making dark circles round and round in our city’s pavements, and if we were smart enough, we would figure out away to put those minds to some beneficial use, both to the possessors of those minds themselves, and to our community at large. 

Another set of skills growing up around Oakland’s unsanctioned street sideshows is an entire video production industry. Some of the productions are trash but some of them—I cite the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award winning Sidewayz as one of the most positive examples—show tremendous potential. With the Wayans brothers presently considering making Oakland a headquarters for their film production companies, Oakland might easily figure out a way to reforge ourselves into a nationally recognized film production center, with local talent at its center. 

But perhaps the most important reason for Oakland promoting a sanctioned, legal sideshow alternative is that it might give many African-American youth a stake in the development of this city, and that would help turn a huge Oakland negative into a positive. For those who would like to push out of Oakland all the elements they don’t particularly like, that won’t be much of a help. But for those of us who want to make Oakland better for the Oaklanders who are already here, it’s the best reason of all. 

For that reason alone, it’s worth a shot.