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Oakland Police Cracking Down on Sideshows

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New effort but few new ideas in dealing with late-night street gatherings

Oakland’s sideshows have inspired hip-hop hits and award-winning documentaries – and over the years, countless city initiatives to stop them.

The latest one comes from the Oakland Police Department, which last weekend announced a crackdown on sideshows, a not-so-new strategy that involves ticketing drivers and spectators.

A staple of East Oakland streets for about two decades, “sideshows” are overnight, informal gatherings of young people and their cars, typically featuring drag races and stunts such as donuts.

For years, fueled by public outrage over fatal accidents and shootings associated with sideshow attendees, city officials cracked down on the gatherings by passing local laws and increasing patrols. But sideshows have not stopped, and now the police department is adding more ideas to the mix.

OPD spokesman Jeff Thomason said the department is talking to the city and district attorneys’ offices about increasing fines and probation restrictions for those convicted of sideshow-related crimes.

Thomason said the proposed enhancements might restrict individuals from going to areas known for sideshow activity at certain times of night.

“It’s a nuisance to some people who live in certain neighborhoods,” said Sergeant Arturo Bautista, who’s based in Fruitvale, near where many sideshows occur. He said officers face difficulties even tracking sideshows. “They’re not just in one area. They’re all over the place. Sometimes it’ll start downtown. We break up the caravan and then—boom—everybody’s in another spot.”

While the talks about increasing penalties are preliminary, Thomason said the department would continue to patrol. Approximately 30 officers saturated areas of East Oakland over the Memorial Day weekend.

Between Saturday and Sunday, officers stopped 52 cars, wrote 41 citations, towed 8 cars and made 5 felony arrests. Traffic violations at sideshows typically include speeding, driving over double yellow lines, running red lights, driving on sidewalks and doing donuts in intersections, Thomason said.

Police sources say the crackdowns are not very effective because most citations that come out of the extra patrols are issued to spectators and even residents, not those engaging in the stunts. Officers also miss most of the sideshow activity because the gatherings typically start at about 2 a.m., after clubs let out. By then, many officers' shifts have ended.

“Our main priority is to be highly visible,” Thomason said. “If there are people out there and they’re thinking about participating, they might not when they see us.”

Some Oakland residents have different ideas about how to handle sideshows.

Yap Zazaboi has produced a series of films about the subculture. He says he’s working on a proposal for a space in the city where youth, in a structured environment, could legally go to show off their cars.

“If you look at a car show, you have people that come together because of the love of their vehicles,” Zazaboi said. “The sideshow takes that a step further and instead of just sitting next to your car talking about what’s under your hood, you actually start it up and show somebody what it does.”

The proposal is not new. City leaders considered the idea several years ago, but massive publicity of sideshow disasters has produced concern about city liability. Thomason said the department would support it—if it were safe.

“It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before,” Zazaboi said. “That’s the funny and ironic thing about it. There are organized events like this all over the country. They’ve been trying these crackdowns for about 10 years now. It doesn’t work. It’s 2010. It’s about time that they allowed us to try something different,” he said.

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