With a recent spate of problems stemming from sideshows in Oakland, why aren't we revisiting the idea of legalizing and sanctioning them? (Photo by THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty Images / Image by Sarah Hotchkiss)
I know why no one has solved the “sideshow problem” yet: because sideshows aren’t a problem; they’re an opportunity.
The illegal street show, where hundreds of people crowd intersections to watch drivers burn rubber off the tires of high-performance vehicles by swinging donuts and figure-eights, is a phenomenon native to the East Bay. Although we've had some rendition of joyriding, racing, or overall appreciation of car culture for decades here in Oakland—as well as the rest of California—it’s the sideshow that attracts people from all around the Bay Area, and sometimes beyond, to the streets of the Town on any given night.
And it’s the sideshow that has been in the news for years, even more so lately, after some major recent events.
In early February, over 30 cars were reportedly towed from a sideshow in East Oakland. In late January, there was a sideshow in East Oakland, which led to a man getting clipped and flipped; a recording shows the man’s pants almost coming off. At that same sideshow, a police helicopter camera was blinded by a laser from a sideshow attendee. That same night a cop was run over by a sideshow participant in Richmond. Days later, a KPIX report noted that Richmond PD was planning to use drones and license plate readers to combat sideshows from the air.
To recap: helicopters, drones, license plate readers, tow trucks, and numerous hours of (overtime?) pay is going into combating this problem of sideshows.
While it’s undeniable that sideshows are a public safety issue (what more evidence do you need than the footage of the man almost losing his life and his pants at the same time?), I’d ask you to look at more footage, and maybe you’ll start to see the sideshows as the attendees do.
You’ll see that there’s an art to the way the cars swing. There’s a certain cadence to the dance of the thousand-pound vehicles. There’s a bit of the free-spirited fun of being a rebel, a unique, regional form of the larger culture of appreciating the power and majestic force of a car -- and that’s no different than monster truck shows, low-rider competitions, or even the beloved sport of NASCAR.
On NASCAR’s website, there’s a great story about the origins of the sport. The end of the first full paragraph reads, “A bunch of dirt-poor good ol' boys who lived anywhere from Virginia on down to Georgia had no other choice to survive than the illegal whiskey business. They souped up their cars to haul their bounty, and then ran from the law like their behinds were on fire.”
Eventually these “good ol’ boys” organized, got the more talented drivers together, found places to race, and created a league. Years later, the same drivers who ran moonshine reportedly met up in annual reunions with the police who used to chase them.
If the moonshine running business can lay the foundation for NASCAR, why couldn’t illegal sideshows be the foundation for an innovative legal organized car show in Oakland?
There are a number of truly skilled drivers at the sideshows in the Town. It’d be amazing to see their talents featured in one of the many movies or car commercials filmed here. It’d be even more amazing to see the city take an entrepreneurial dive into the possibility of creating a venue where these drivers can get paid for showing their talents.
Think about it: Drivers could get a launch on their careers. Mechanics could be employed. Attendees could have a new entertainment venue in East Oakland. Vendors could make money. And Oakland could maximize on a subculture that has been present here for years.
There has been conversation about legalizing sideshows in the past. A New York Times article from 2009 notes that former mayor Ron Dellums and councilmember Desley Brooks were both interested in the potential of finding a safe legal venue for sideshows. “At the time, there was no political will,” Brooks told me during a phone call last week. She said she was interested in taking the controllable aspects, “turning a car in circles, and a boy meeting girl while showing off his nice car,” and putting that into a safe venue, but when people at the city level heard the word “legal sideshow” they misinterpreted her intentions and wouldn't support the idea.
Brooks is still pessimistic about police being able to quell the cat-and-mouse chase that often happens as a result of sideshows. “They think law enforcement is going to stop this, and it hasn’t happened yet,” said Brooks. “We’ve spent millions of dollars, literally millions of dollars on this!”
She then mentioned San Diego’s Race Legal initiative as an example of taking illegal car culture and putting it into a safe entertainment venue. She then followed by saying the sideshows as of late are a far reach from those of ’09 and before.
Richie Rich, a rapper who had a hit song in 1990 called “The Side Show,” also told me that the sideshow has changed since his era. “It used to be a party,” said Rich. “We used to come out clean, on trues and vogues, candy paint, and there’d be hella (women), and some people would swing they shit, and others would just roll through looking clean.” He acknowledges that today’s drivers do things he hadn’t seen before—like wide donuts that nearly clip the curb—but he’s also amazed at how violent the attendees of sideshows have become.
When asked about legalizing Sideshows, Rich says he’s not buying it, “It’d be a liability issue. For someone to fully enjoy the sideshow, there has to be an illegal side to it.” Rich continued to tell me, “You’ve got to be a little drunk to enjoy driving like that.” He ended by saying that he imagines legalizing sideshows would water down the entertainment value. “It’s like when they gave Bernie Mac a TV show. It was still funny, because it was Bernie Mac, but it wasn’t the cussing and stuff we were used to from Bernie.”
Maybe Rich is right. Maybe legalizing sideshows in a permitted venue would dilute the entertainment value. Maybe the cost of the liability is a bigger bill than what law enforcement is currently investing. Maybe it wouldn’t work. There’s a lot of maybes.
But two things are for sure:
1. Something has to be done about sideshows in Oakland, and I believe that it would behoove the powers that be to see it as an opportunity and not a problem.
2. I did appreciate Bernie Mac’s explicit standup act more than his broadcast show, but I’d take a water-downed version over not having him at all.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland, and a weekly columnist for KQED Arts. Find him on Twitter here.