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Oakland Sideshows

As sideshows escalate, residents turn to Oakland Council, which can’t agree on crackdown

on April 18, 2023

Oakland has been trying to curb sideshows for years and even celebrated a “sideshow-free” summer in 2010, but the illegal street car shows haven’t gone away, and City Council seems to be at a loss on how to restrain them.

The Oakland sideshow saga witnessed a stunning escalation last month as footage of a big rig participating in an event went viral on social media. In a frenzied incident near Keller Avenue and Mountain Boulevard, the rig was caught on camera performing doughnuts among a cheering crowd while some people were climbing up the rig.

Last weekend, over 100 cars were involved in sideshow activities at 45th and Market streets that included a fire ring on asphalt and fireworks in the air. A few weeks back, Oakland Police said the department was investigating a sideshow with 50 vehicles at 16th and Adeline streets. A few days earlier, a dog walker who was apparently trying to stop a sideshow driver, was hit by a truck doing doughnuts in broad daylight at the intersection of International Boulevard and 104 Street.

In December, the City Council rejected sideshow ordinances introduced by councilmember Noel Gallo. In early December, the council voted down the first version of  a proposed ordinance that would impose fines and penalties against “organizers and bystander participants” of sideshows. Two weeks later, the council rejected a revised version of the ordinance that was modified to pursue criminal or civil action against “organizers and facilitators” of sideshows, omitting penalties for bystanders and spectators.

Councilmember Carroll Fife was the main opponent of the December proposals. She argued that such laws passed in San Jose have not been successful in containing sideshows, and she suggested that the council look for alternative solutions when newly elected members joined in January. 

But no new proposals have been introduced.

Gallo’s revised ordinance was modeled after San Jose sideshow laws that were passed in 2019 and 2021. The former law targets organizers and participants and the latter added promoters, even those using social media.

Based on data obtained via a public records request by Oakland North, it appears that San Jose’s second law, adopted in June 2021, has had an impact. The Police Department’s computer-assisted dispatch reports, which show when law enforcement or emergency personnel responded to a sideshow, dropped significantly after the second ordinance.

San Jose sideshows
Declining trend in San Jose sideshow events. Source: San Jose Police Department (Sobhan Hassanvand)

Under the California Vehicle Code, sideshow drivers may be charged with reckless driving. The law allows an officer to arrest a person and seize their vehicle. But officers need to reach the center of the sideshow to execute the law, and that is challenging for police, as roads leading to the center are blocked by spectators.

James Burch, deputy director of the Anti Police-Terror Project, pointed out that San Jose’s stricter laws haven’t stopped sideshows. Criminalization of sideshows is not a solution, he added. 

“I think just because it’s a difficult issue doesn’t mean we just criminalize and call it a day,” he said.

Burch, whose coalition is dedicated to eradicating police terror in communities of color, said Oakland should explore alternative solutions such as sanctioned street races in unused parking lots and areas near the Oakland Coliseum.

Gallo told Oakland North that he met with sideshow promoters 10 years ago to find a place for legal sideshows in Sonoma County but that it did not work out. He said the open Coliseum parking lot also was suggested, but the neighborhood was not receptive to the idea due to safety and noise issues. Gallo says he is willing to work with others to find a sideshow location that is not in a neighborhood or in business corridors. But, he says, “right now, we’re trying to stop it from happening in our neighborhood streets.”

Part of Oakland culture

Originating in Oakland in the mid-1980s, sideshows were part of the city culture as a way to socialize. Initially, drivers used parking lots, then gradually strayed into neighborhoods and public intersections, with dozens of cars and hundreds of spectators involved.

According to the city administrator’s report in December, two-thirds of the people arrested at Oakland sideshows from January 2021 to last September came from outside the area. In 2009, only a third of arrested sideshow participants were not Oaklanders.

The Oakland Transportation Department estimates the cost of repairing pavement damage caused by sideshows averages $16,000 per intersection.

Gallo says while the community wants safer and cleaner streets, another group comes in at night, destroys traffic signs and burns streets “in a way that you cannot even see the bike lanes or the sidewalks. That’s got to stop.”

According to Joe DeVries, deputy city administrator, police response to sideshows costs the city $1.8 million annually and diverts officers from responding to other emergencies.

In a pilot program started last year, the city is spending nearly $700,000 to set up physical impediments at the most impacted intersections. But it would cost tens of millions of dollars to sideshow-proof all intersections. During the late December City Council discussion on the sideshow issue, councilmember Dan Kalb argued that putting physical barriers such as raised ceramic or plastic dots around the city is not practical. 

“We can’t put these dots in 200 intersections or, you know, all over the place,” Kalb said, adding that sideshow performers would just find new places.

It’s clear from social media that such barriers are seen as a challenge by some drivers, including one who performed doughnuts over a traffic impediment at International Boulevard and 85th Avenue.

Cheral Stewart, who lives in council district 5, believes Gallo’s ordinance should not be watered down, as the issue is getting too grave. 

“I think they have to attack it at each level. The attendees, the participants, the facilitators,” she said. 

Stewart is frustrated by the council’s inaction  on sideshows.

 “The city council continues to dither,” she said. “They say, ‘Oh, we want to do something.’ But by the time it gets through City Council, they’re doing almost nothing.”

Residents have complained about noise, car exhaust and smoke from sideshows. The events tie up traffic and bring hundreds of people into confined areas, clogging major arteries as well as side roads. People have been injured when drivers lose control or when crowds get unruly. 

In early January, Gallo told Oakland North he would reintroduce the sideshow ordinance probably in early February, but he has not followed through. His office did not return Oakland North’s inquiries about if and when Gallo would bring another proposal before the council.

(Main photo by Sobhan Hassanvand)


  1. polinkuer12 on April 15, 2024 at 6:54 pm

    I fully witnessed the moment when more than 100 cars participated in the sideshow activities at 45th and Market streets Tower Defense

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