Undercurrents: Making an Alternative to Sideshows Work

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday November 05, 2009 - 08:42:00 AM

A friend and reader asks what I think of Mayor Ron Dellums’ and Police Chief Anthony Batts’ proposal for a safe and legal alternative to Oakland’s illegal street sideshows. The alternative, presumably, would be to recreate the street sideshow experience in an off-street location, with police and safety precautions in place, and would be designed to draw the illegal sideshow participants away from their street activity to the city-run event, thus eventually helping to shut the illegal street events down. 

While I once argued long and loud for such an alternative, and I would not turn my back on it now, I am worried that the time for that direct cause-and-effect solution may have passed. 

To understand why, we must go back briefly to the often forgotten history of the sideshows. 

Oakland’s sideshows did not start out as the wild, violent, out-of-control street events that we often see depicted on the evening news. Instead, they began sometime in the late 1990s as informal, auto-based late-night social gatherings of African-American youth in Oakland, trying to escape the violence that was flooding the many of the city’s streets, clubs, and rap and hip-hop venues. 

The original meeting place was in the parking lot at Eastmont Mall on 73rd and Bancroft in East Oakland, where young folks often spent hours socializing, playing music, dancing, eating, and showing off their cars in various ways. One way was to showcase paint jobs and accessories. Another was to do car tricks, particularly the East Oakland favorite of “doing doughnuts.” 

The Eastmont sideshows by all accounts were considerably mellower than the current illegal street events, in part because there was no rush to go stupid (in both the hip-hop and general meanings of the term) before the police swooped in—the police initially ignored these events—and in part because they were self-regulated, with many of the young folks themselves working to keep down the kind of conflicts and arguments that could lead to violence. For all those reasons, the Eastmont sideshows were not a neighborhood nuisance. 

Eventually, Oakland police moved in and shut the Eastmont events down, and the sideshows moved to the parking lot at Pac’N’Save market on Hegenberger. There the events ballooned, sometimes growing to more than a thousand participants. Relations between the Oakland Police Department and the Pac’N’Save sideshows were initially good, with participants reporting that police often sat in their patrol cars and watched, seemingly fascinated by the gatherings. But eventually the word was passed down from police headquarters or City Hall, and the OPD shut down these affairs as well, chaining off the parking lots and driving the events into East Oakland’s streets. 

And thus, Oakland’s decade of sideshow street battles between police and youth of color began. 

The idea of a safe and legal alternative to the street sideshows originated with a group of young people who were leaders or participants in the Eastmont Mall and Pac’N’Save parking lot events. While many of these folks followed the sideshows out into the streets, they were not interested in the thrill of running up and down the avenues from police, but wanted to find a way to return the sideshows to their social gathering origins. They approached several Oakland city officials with the idea of a city-sanctioned, off-street venue during the years 2002 through 2004, but the only one who listened was District 6 City Councilmember Desley Brooks. For a while Ms. Brooks waged a lonely battle to try to get Oakland to consider a safe and legal sideshow alternative, but she was fought by a powerful group of politicians: State Senator Don Perata, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, and Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee Chair Larry Reid. Oakland City Attorney John Russo and then-City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente were also cold to the legalization idea. Sideshows, after all, were such a convenient political target for an Oakland politician to be against. 

A safe and legal sideshow alternative was a viable option as late as five years ago, in large part because it was sideshow organizers and drivers themselves who were advancing the proposal. These were young people who had the kind of juice and street cred to have been able to pull many of the illegal street sideshow participants over into the legal events. 

But the situation has changed in these last five years. 

Sideshows are a young people’s game and few—if any—participants are out on the streets now who experienced the Eastmont Mall or Pac’N’Save venues. It’s also a good guess that the allure of the current street events is precisely the illegality of them, the thrill and risk of doing things unsanctioned and condemned by adults. For the legal sideshow alternative to actually function and dry up illegal street events, today’s sideshow participants would have to be enticed to events vastly different than what they are currently going out to the streets to experience. 

And who would do the enticing? The original sideshow leaders of 1997 through 2003—even if they could now be enticed to join such an effort by City Hall—would have considerably diminished pull, if any pull at all, among the 18-year-olds currently riding Oakland’s streets. 

Further, in 2002–04, it was the sideshow participants proposing the alternative themselves. In 2009, it is the mayor and the chief of the police doing the proposing, trying to get young people to drop a preferred activity to adopt one adults are suggesting. That sometimes works, but it is a far more difficult prospect. 

Does this mean I’ve given up hope on the idea of a safe and legal sideshow in Oakland? Not at all. I just believe that if Mr. Dellums and Mr. Batts are looking at the original sideshow alternative proposal for guidance on how to proceed, they might want to make modifications. 

If I were the mayor, I would drop the direct link between breaking up the illegal street sideshows and setting up a legal venue. In fact, I would drop the name “sideshow” from any legal alternative proposal altogether. That name has become a lightning rod for opposition, too easily associated with the illegal street affairs, and is not necessary to attract young people to legal events. 

Instead, I would tell Oakland citizens that after watching police and media and private videos of Oakland street sideshows, I’ve become fascinated with some of the car stunts and maneuvers I’d seen. Doing doughnuts in a car has no place in an Oakland intersection. But neither does letting a bull loose in an Oakland park and then running it down and catching it make sense, but hundreds of people pay cash money to see it done when it’s put in an arena up near Pleasanton and called a “rodeo.” Further, the mayor could say, while the hand-eye coordination and mechanical skill needed to do such car maneuvers is both annoying and dangerous when done in illegal venues on Oakland streets, there have got to be industries in which such talent is valuable and needed, whatever those industries might be, and one of the jobs of the city ought to be to funnel such talent into positive directions. The crazy street-stunt driver might turn out, for example, to be the perfect candidate for the job of a test pilot, or the young kid souping up cars to do seemingly impossible things in an intersection might be the one to help set a new direction in America’s automotive industry. They are doing things with cars that even the car manufacturers themselves—or people who study physics and mechanics for a living—could never imagine. Who knows in what positive direction such talent might lead, if given a chance. 

Based upon this belief, the mayor could sponsor—not a sideshow alternative—but, say, a Mayor’s Urban Driving Competition. Such an event would not be a legal alternative to the illegal street sideshows. It would be a completely different type of event, different from both the current illegal street shows or the original Eastmont Mall or Pac’N’Save events. A proper venue could be set up for a day in one of the city’s many vacant lots, with temporary bleachers constructed for paid spectators and space allotted for the many car-oriented vendors who would want to set up. 

Drivers would be invited to compete in various car-maneuver events—doughnuts, clearly would be one, but there are others—that would showcase their urban driving abilities. A panel of judges would do the reviewing, and prizes would be awarded. But the highlight of the day would be when the two or three top finishers in each category would face a drive-off with the most skilled drivers chosen by the Oakland Police Department for final bragging rights, the officers competing in uniform and in OPD patrol cars. I would guarantee that after participating in such a competition, neither side—the police nor the kids doing doughnuts or hyphy-trains out on the street—would see the other side quite the same. It would be part of the beginning of the breaking down of the authority-resistance barrier between those two sides. It would help to forge a healthier relationship between the City of Oakland, the majority of its adult citizens, and many of its young people, in which the young people’s opinions and ideas and skills are valued on their own terms, and they are shown how to use them for constructive—rather than destructive—ends. And that, not simply the ending of the illegal street sideshows, is what we really should be aiming towards. 

But would a Mayor’s Urban Driving Competition be a step towards eventually stop or slow down Oakland’s illegal sideshows? There’s no promise, but with many of the sideshow drivers working with the city, as they tried to do unsuccessfully five years ago, that certainly seems a better possibility than the police crackdowns we’ve been trying over the past decade.