On Monday night, the Oakland Police Department and leadership-training group Youth Uprising celebrated the city’s first “sideshow-free” summer in 20 years with a reception that highlighted the dangers of the Oakland-born tradition.
“It’s like a car rodeo,” said Oakland Police Captain Ersie Joyner. “The sideshow is a tradition unique to Oakland. Unfortunately, it has evolved to a much more violent activity over the years with murders and violence—especially against young women.”
Before a crowd of about 30 people at the Youth Uprising facility on MacArthur Boulevard, Joyner, along with other officers including Police Chief Anthony Batts, attributed this year’s disappearance of sideshows to the Safe Oakland Streets Project, a collaborative effort between police officers, neighborhood crime prevention groups, residents, and Youth Uprising.
“The police came and ask if we could help,” said Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth Uprising. She said the organization’s work with the police department has been underway since February, and that it is an extension of a collaboration that started with Code 33, a partnership that creates dialogue between beat officers and Oakland youth. “We have a whole range of programs that can provide a positive alternative to sideshows,” she said.
For more than two decades, the automotive attractions nicknamed “sideshows” have been a dangerous and illegal ritual in Oakland, claiming many lives along the way. Often referred to a “block party on wheels,” sideshows are impromptu tire screeching, doughnut-spinning, traffic-blocking congresses of cars surrounded by a crowd of people cheering on drivers as they execute dangerous twists and turns.
“There are about 20 deaths that resulted from these sideshows,” said Joyner, an Oakland native who admits attending the late-night spectacles in his own youth. But he was quick to point out the differences between sideshows present and past.
Police say that as many as 1,000 cars have been drawn to the illegal events, which typically begin around 2 a.m., unannounced but coordinated by late-night cell phone calls, which makes anticipating and policing them difficult. In addition to crashes, police say, they are also to blame for shootings and murders.
Three people died in October 2009 when their car flipped during one East Oakland sideshow. The summer prior to that, police say, five people lost their lives to the engine-revving rodeos of metal and rubber.
“Neighborhoods and residents have been held hostage by these mutinies,” said Joyner. “Stray bullets have hit kids who have nothing to do with gang violence and gang members have used this as an opportunity to have running gun battles in the middle of the street.”
East Oakland has, in the past, seen the raucous conclaves cluster along major intersections such as 90th and Bancroft, and Seminary Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. Some of the stunts on display include “ghost riding the whip,” a term coined by Bay Area Rapper E-40, in which drivers jump out and dance beside their moving car. Some drivers tempt fate by swerving in front of traffic. Others dance on the hoods of moving cars.
But the after-dusk weekend tradition finally simmered down this summer. No sideshows, nor the injuries and deaths sometime resulting from them, have been reported from June to September.
The collaboration between Youth Uprising and the police department included community education and engagement, a team of Oakland Police Officers dedicated to prevention, and video production made for and by the members of the 5-year-old advocacy group.
Youth Uprising’s 25,000-square-foot facility hosts classes ranging from digital photography to video production, to mental health services and sex education classes. “It’s all about directing young people to those programs and giving them positive outlets,” said Simmons.
In the past, Oakland’s sideshows have drawn young people from around the Bay Area, some of whom videotape the event and post it on YouTube. “We need to provide alternatives for them,” added Simmons. “We need to make sure that we put some resources into this neighborhood.”