THE SHOW GOES ON
Seen in PG doses in videos such as E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go,” there’s a much darker side to Oakland’s wild Sideshow events. With multiple injuries and a notable fatality over the act’s 20-plus years history, Oaktown’s authorities want the show cancelled.
By Maclean Jackson
Tires spew smoke and shriek into the weekend night like a boiling kettle as muscle cars fight traction while they swing in a perfect circular motion. The too-close crowd, made up of mostly males, and some brave females, dodge and provoke reckless wheel warriors. Others talk, dance, smoke, drink—whatever. Neighbors peer out their blinds, anxiously waiting for their 911 calls to be addressed. Finally, sirens mix with the music and chatter break up the Sideshow—a timeless event that has both plagued and livened-up the East Oakland streets depending on who you ask.
Sideshows date back to the mid-’80s, a time when flashiness got attention, but performance got respect. At the time, Eastmont Mall was a pumping heart of businesses and social rendezvous. But at night, when the businesses shut down, out in the parking lot, a bizzare show took place. “Them boys was gettin’ loose—figure eights, donuts, sideways, dippin’,” says life-long East Oakland resident Drop Knock, who recalls seeing a parade of Falcons, Mustangs, Cutlasses and Chevelles during his first show. “It’s been going on for the longest—it’s town tradition.” As the host and co-producer of the High Side’n and Wildest Sideshows: Uncensored DVD, Drop illustrates the Sideshow with a respect of what was and grasp of what is. And while altercations and noise have always been a side-note at the Sideshow, Oakland officials began to bring these negatives to the forefront.
Oakland passed a city ordinance in the late ’90s forcing businesses to fence off or chain their parking lots during non-business hours. Now in its teens, the Sideshow adapted and grew to roam the streets of East Oakland. The hyphy train will stretch blocks long at two-lanes thick and include anything from a ’91 Skylark on rims to a restored ’73 Nova. “The sideshow would drive [around] and they’ll choose numerous spots to stop at,” explains Uce, a 20-year-old, East Oakland resident. “When it stopped, that’s when everybody would swing their cars, profile and dance then, as the police come, they’ll leave and go to another area on that same track.” Then, in1999, the city installed Bott’s Dots—raised, ceramic disks embedded in the concrete—in major East Oakland intersections. “I guess they was supposed to stop people from swangin’, but naw, people just swang right on over ’em,” recalls Drop. “[The city] wasted money doing that.”
“The Sideshow was responsible, in my opinion, for the degradation of quality of life in East Oakland,” opines Captain Kozicki, who took over as Commander of the Traffic Division in 2000. “Some people had been killed and seriously injured both in violent crimes and automobile accidents, and it was just a huge issue for people that lived out there, for businesses out there and for people trying to get from point A to point B.” At this time, the award-winning independent documentary Sidewayz—which both celebrates Sideshows and illustrates police intervention with the same objective approach—gained popularity in the streets, but alarmed many who hadn’t ever paid attention before. Then an accident in early 2002 made everyone open their eyes, when 22-year-old U’Kendra K. Johnson was struck and killed by a reckless car that was allegedly spinning donuts at a Sideshow. The U’Kendra K. Johnson Memorial Act was instituted that fall. The Act allowed OPD officers to impound vehicles participating in Sideshows and fine the drivers.
“The sideshow started out being boy meets girl, showing off your car, period,” explains Desley Brooks, an East Oakland City Councilwoman since 2003. “It wasn’t until they started putting it on the news and you had our police officers saying, ‘It’s reckless, it’s wild out here’ [that things turned bad]. That’s promoting it. So every crazy person and criminal decided, ‘Well, I wanna be out there, looks like a party to me!’”
But even with the violence and efforts of outsiders, East Oakland youth have taken the tradition, added their own gusto and made sure that the party don’t stop. “When I pull up, I’ll just start shakin’ my hair and smilin’, cuz I got grillz in my mouth and then people see me and start goin’ dumb,” explains Uce enthusiastically. “They already going dumb but when I pull up in my little Toyota that’s slappin’ it, they have a chance to go dumb harder.”
The audience has always been a driving force of the Sideshow, so the City of Oakland passed the Spectator Law in the summer of 2005. The law made being within 100 feet of a Sideshow illegal and punishable by citation and or arrest. “People who live in the area where the Sideshows are occurring, demanded that the city do something about it,” explains Kozicki. As one of the only local politicians that acknowledge any redeeming values of the Sideshow, Brooks has faced an uphill battle. “These kids are no different than anybody else that’s out doing X-Games,” states Brooks. “So because it is predominantly African-American, or it was predominantly African-American kids, they want to throw them away and pretend like they’re the bane of the earth.” That same summer, Dateline aired the piece “Oakland Cars Gone Wild,” emphasizing the dangerous nature of Sideshows. However exploitive, the segment represented what was in the back of many minds—the OPD, media, City and youth all had a role in making the Sideshows what they are today.
The Sideshows now happen less frequently and when they do, they’re shorter and move quickly. “Youngsters now, they’re not listening,” says Uce. “That’s messin up our whole little get-down of celebratin’ on the weekends. If we were able to get along with each other then there wouldn’t be any problems. [The City] wouldn’t say nothing.”
Brooks has made strong efforts to find a Sideshow alternative that considers all Oakland residents. After San Diego experienced problems with local youth illegally drag racing, the SDPD created the “CODE-4 (Situation Under Control) Racing Program,” [racelegal.com] which gave youths a venue to indulge in their need for speed. She looks to this solution as inspiration for possible safe alternatives for the Sideshow. “You aren’t wasting the police resources, you aren’t having the negative impact in the community, and you provide an outlet for young people to express themselves and engage in something that they like,” explains Brooks. “That’s a win, win. As opposed to throwing millions of dollars at the problem to eradicate it”
Because of the alienation and negative connotations associated with the Sideshow, it’s hard to bring the community, city, youth and police to the same table and establish groundwork for an alternative. “I’ve had senior citizens who say, ‘Yes, sounds like a good idea to me.’,” says Brooks. “Because you can explain to them that we’re not talking about doing it on your street corner anymore. We just call it a ‘Safe and Sanctioned Venue.’ It’s not taking illegal behavior and providing a place for it, it’s taking aspects of the Sideshow that are usable and trying to create an environment that will allow for us to begin to address the problem.”
After changing the name of Eastmont Mall to “Eastmont Town Center,” The City of Oakland has been revitalizing the structure in an attempt to bring it back to the active epicenter of business it once was. Yet, the likelihood for a Sideshow renaissance in the area is bleak. With Oakland’s homicide count over 50 within the year’s first six months, Police want to eradicate activities that could add to the death toll. “[Oakland youth] were asking one of the Mayoral candidates whether or not she would support coming up with an alternative venue,” says Brooks. “So, clearly there’s still a desire amongst the young, they don’t want all that foolishness, they just want some place that they can go.” Whatever happens, Sideshows are a part of Oakland tradition like the Raiders. And even if it goes elsewhere, there’s always the chance that it might come back—hopefully with the pride and respect that came with its inception. “If they don’t wanna legalize it out here, somebody will, in some state,” says Drop. “Then we’ll have to ride the bus down there and do it real gargantuan.”