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Sideshows

Boxes, buckets, Buicks and Chevies: Sideshows are at a crossroad

on November 18, 2021

Tires screech and cars dance on the streets of Oakland as sideshow culture fills the air, along with the smell of burning rubber.  

Originating in Oakland in the 1980s, sideshows have gained traction in the Bay Area, exciting audiences, frustrating motorists and irritating police. Oakland recently unveiled a bold plan to crack down on sideshows, which are classified as reckless driving and punishable as a misdemeanor. Richmond City Council recently took action to deter sideshows. And a state law signed in October enables California courts to suspend driver’s licenses for anyone convicted of doing sideshow stunts. 

In September, California Highway Patrol officers took to patrolling and surveilling Oakland streets, through an informal agreement between the state and the city. The agreement came at the request of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and was approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Some say Oakland’s decision to add state patrols shows a lack of understanding about the culture. George Galvis, executive director of Communities United for Restorative Justice, sees it as a way to exert more control over communities of color.

“What we are really talking about is, this is a fight,” he said. “This is a war for the soul of Oakland. And if Mayor Libby Schaaf has her way, she will duplicate and create a carbon clone of San Francisco and make Oakland a fully gentrified city without a soul.”

Galvis added, “Black and brown people are consistently being controlled. There’s no place for them just to be youth.”

On its website, the city calls sideshows “dangerous” and “a significant safety and quality of life concern.” It has a police unit dedicated to sideshows and installed rubber speed bumps and circular ceramic tiles to discourage sideshows on streets where they have been popular. The shows can draw hundreds of spectators to watch cars spin and screech in a cloud of burning rubber. Some crowds have blocked traffic and, according to published reports, sparked violence. 

Others say the issue has been overblown, mostly by people outside of BIPOC communities who don’t understand the sideshow culture. 

Tony Bush Jr. has been involved in sideshow culture his whole life. Bush, who  is from Oakland, has participated in sideshows both legally and illegally and helps organize sanctioned sideshow events called “Track Takeover,” at the Sacramento Raceway. He describes sideshows as “organized chaos” and an “outside car night club.” 

The shows in themselves aren’t violent, Bush said. Drivers are there to show off their cars and to celebrate the culture. 

Sideshows started in East Oakland about 40 years ago and have been an act of expression for many ever since. They usually take place on Friday and Saturday nights around midnight. Early on, drivers were drawn to MacArthur Boulevard, International Boulevard (or East 14th Street) and Bancroft Avenue. 

Eventually sideshows helped spawn the “hyphy” movement, which is steeped in a specific type of hip-hop music based on up-tempo beats and dance. The movement spread through the Bay Area in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s.

A Traxamillion song titled “Sideshow” talks about “burning rubber in the streets of Oakland.” 

The song,  featuring Too $hort and Mistah F.A.B., continues, “The sideshow they wanna shut us down, but we swang somethin’ on every corner in the town, police mad the streets is wild, 3 o’clock in the mornin’ and the beats is loud.”

Richmond considers bold action

The Richmond Police Department received 82 reports this year about sideshows, prompting Councilmember Nathaniel Bates to propose that Richmond consider prohibiting people from being spectators at a sideshow. At an Oct. 26 council meeting, none of the 19 people who weighed in on the issue was in favor of penalizing spectators. 

Acting Richmond police Chief Louie Tirona presented a PowerPoint at the meeting about possible ways to deter sideshows. The options ranged from traffic calming devices to street redesigns to surveillance technology such as drones, automated license plate readers and GPS tagging technology that would enable police to track a car that participated in a sideshow. The options also ranged in price — from about half-a-million dollars to millions of dollars.

Tirona said the department’s crime prevention unit in September hosted a community conversation about sideshows that about 70 residents participated in. “Not surprising,” he said, “this is a big area of concern for many of our residents.” 

Some residents, he said, were concerned about the department’s ability to respond to sideshows, which can include more than 100 cars. Tirona and some council members noted that the department is short-staffed and large sideshows strain its resources. 

At the Oct. 26 meeting, most of the commenters focused on Tirona’s suggestions to make Richmond less attractive to sideshows.

“I am not a fan of these sideshows and doughnuts … I do not see either of these as being an acceptable cultural event,” resident Don Gosney said at the meeting. But he didn’t agree with some of the traffic calming methods Tirona proposed, or the costs attached to them. 

Other residents expressed concern about giving police more surveillance tools, saying those tactics could result in profiling Black and brown people. As an alternative, some suggested designating spaces where participants and spectators can enjoy sideshow culture. 

“Without negating that sideshows can cause property damage and, at worst, fatalities, I do want to ask, is it so far-fetched to accept that sideshows are an expression of culture?” asked resident Evelyn Santos. “And would it be so absurd to possibly create a space for those who use sideshows as a form of expression?” 

Katt Ramos, a coordinator at Richmond Our Power Coalition, said the city has more important problems than sideshows. 

“I’m a resident of Richmond, and a mother, and an educator, and I find it interesting that we’re discussing sideshows as some major issue of the city as we inhale any number of pollutants from the refineries that exist here, which is actually the biggest health and safety risk that we face,” she said.

The council ultimately approved pursuing traffic calming and road engineering solutions that would make streets unappealing to sideshow drivers. 

Despite the laws and deterrents, sideshow participants will continue to search for an outlet. 

“For myself and for others, this is our expression,” Bush said. “This is our escape.” 

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