Tell ’Em Where to Go: Oakland’s Sideshow Culture

Instead of spinning their wheels with crackdowns and task forces, authorities should give stunt drivers a safe space to go dumb.

The smell of burning rubber and exhaust fumes hangs in the air. The infectious hook from this year’s inescapable summer jam is playing loud enough to be heard over the assembled rumbling engines. A crowd of young people stand around their cars, drinking, smoking, flirting, and flexing.

These are the trappings of American car culture — recognizable to fans of Happy Days as whimsical, teenage fun. If you catch a glimpse of Bay Area sideshows on TV, however, you’re probably watching an alarmist segment on the Ynightly news. 

Right now in San Francisco, the predominant narrative is the latter. Sideshows are framed as a magnet for criminal activity, led by residents of the East and South Bay traveling to San Francisco to cause havoc. The perspective of local residents is taken for granted, who complain to their supervisors about not being able to sleep at night and fearing the large crowds outside their apartments, but have little understanding of sideshow culture or interaction with sideshow attendees themselves. Punitive tactics are seen as the only option, while the only fathomable goal is seen as stopping sideshows all together. 

But what if there existed another solution — one that, instead of trying to eliminate the sideshow, aimed to make them less risky in the first place?

WHIP SMART

At the turn of the century, street racing took a particularly deadly turn in San Diego. Fourteen people died in 1999 and 16 in 2000, many of whom were under the age of 25. Though some drivers were defiant, many of their friends, families, neighbors, law enforcement, and city government knew they needed to do something to save the lives of the city’s youth. 

They also knew that San Diego, like many California cities, has had a distinct, vibrant, decades-old love affair with cars. The city is known for drag racing, with a history stretching back to the 1940s and the storied 300-plus racing wins of the native San Diegan “Bean Bandits.” Racing couldn’t be wiped from San Diego’s culture. 

For the most part, the city took a conventional approach, impounding the cars involved and, later, even making watching races a crime. But they also did something a bit less conventional: they provided an alternative. The nonprofit RaceLegal was given funding and access to the parking lot of the recently demolished San Diego Stadium, then named after the tech company Qualcomm, to host regulated, sanctioned drag racing events. Officials touted the response as a huge success. Deaths and injuries at street races dropped in the following years. 

Those familiar with San Francisco’s pioneering drug policy will recognize this as a “harm reduction” strategy — one that emphasizes keeping people safe rather than punishing them for their decisions. Harm reduction is a concept the Bay Area engineered during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, offering clean needles to drug users to reduce the disease’s spread. We did it again in 2002, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom led the building of several legal skate parks to lure skateboarders away from iconic spots, such as the Gonz Gap and Hubba Hideout at Justin Herman Plaza and the slick ledges of nearby Pier 7. 

When Oakland tried to replicate San Diego’s success in their approach to stunt driving, however, they only picked up half the deal. In the Bay Area, stunt driving events are known as sideshows. It is here that participating drivers swing donuts, pull brake stands, ghost ride the whip, and perform other tricks to impress a gathered crowd. Sometimes, they just drive slowly, showing off their tricked out rides. In 2002, the California State Assembly passed a law allowing police to impound cars involved in a sideshow for up to 30 days. In 2005 the city of Oakland began fining and arresting sideshow spectators. But a regulated, legal alternative like RaceLegal was never created for the Bay Area sideshow. 

Two decades later, sideshows remain popular and city governments are still working with the same punitive tactics. Some believe they would have worked by now, if only local police forces were adequately trained and sufficiently resourced. Others see this as Einstein’s definition of insanity: local governments trying the same approaches, over and over, hoping for a different outcome. 

In the last year, sideshows have accelerated in their frequency throughout the Bay Area. Normally held in the wee hours of the morning and often switching between several pre-selected locations over the span of a couple of hours, they continue to delight thrill seekers as they keep neighbors awake and send dogs into fearful shaking fits.

On Oct. 20, 2020, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance to impound any cars found to have been involved in a sideshow — according to Board President Shamann Walton, “everything we could within the standard of the law to be as harsh as possible.” But one has to wonder whether this tactic — incredibly similar to laws passed in 2002 in Oakland, can really bring lasting change. 

TOWN BIZ

If you’re familiar with Bay Area hip-hop, you already know the soundtrack. When E-40 raps “ghost ride the whip,” he’s describing the act of throwing an in-motion car into neutral, stepping out, and dancing alongside, as the unpiloted car continues its slow roll. When Mac Dre tells you to “gas, break, start to dip,” in “Thizzle Dance,” he’s explaining how to get a car to bob up and down — even without a pricey hydraulic setup. Richie Rich’s song “Sideshow,” which narrates an evening doing tricks in a car with straight lace zenith wire wheels, was an East Oakland sideshow anthem for years, according to multiple sources interviewed for this story. 

Yakpasua Zazaboi, a sideshow expert who chronicled the history of sideshows in his early 2000s documentary series Sydewayz, actually stumbled upon his first stunt driving event by following directions from a couple of Too $hort songs. It was the mid-1990s, and Zazaboi, who lived in South San Francisco at the time, decided to cross the Bay Bridge. It was a rare occasion for Zazaboi — in fact, he says that all he knew about the East Bay was what he’d learned from his favorite rap tunes. “We ran into Foothill Boulevard and we were like, oh my God, this is the Foothill strip!” he says, probably remembering the street because of Too $hort’s 1990 jam “Dead or Alive.” 

When he and his friends found a sideshow in the parking lot of the Eastmont Mall, he was instantly hooked. “It was something we’d never seen before — thousands of Black people out there in the middle of the street, all having fun,” says Zazaboi. “It was the weirdest thing because, where we were from, if you saw a bunch of folks out in the street like that, you would assume, ‘Oh, something bad is about to happen.’” What he found that night, however, was the polar opposite.

By the time Zazaboi happened upon his first sideshow, the events had coalesced — over the course of a decade or more — into something with a distinct, collective identity. They were community affairs, Zazaboi explains, showcasing fewer car tricks, hosting more families, and often spread out in spacious parking lots instead of tight residential streets. He ended up filming three documentaries and starting an organization, also called Sydewayz, that would aim to strategically grow urban motorsports.

Watch ’em swang… (Photo: Stephen Loewinsohn)

In the years Zazaboi spent documenting sideshows, he saw the events go through some major changes. Before the turn of the century, retro cars — pre-Y2K boats, such as the Chevrolet Caprice and Ford Falcon — were all the rage. Participants kept their wide, flat, luxury cruisers polished and fussed over details. The owners of these gleaming spaceships glided smoothly over the Oakland pavement, their eye-popping paint jobs and silver and gold trim commanding the attention of spectators. It was particularly fashionable to cruise “low and slow,” according to a mechanic named Ruben Flores (his shop, A-1 Spring Service, became known for modifying cars so that their nose pointed towards the sky — “sitting A-1,” his customers used to say). 

But sometime around the mid-2000s, the aesthetics changed. After the state passed a law allowing police to impound vehicles involved in sideshows, participants started leaving their prized rides at home and showing up in cheaper cars.

Having less to lose and more to prove, drivers started flexing a different set of muscles — attempting wilder and more kinetic maneuvers and risking crashes. The crowds got younger, too — multiple sources mentioned how the older sideshow attendees in their 30s used to mentor their teenaged counterparts, helping them learn the rules of the road. Most sideshows today involve a very young crowd, more willing to drive recklessly, distributing plans for the weekend’s sideshow over Instagram DMs. “Now, it’s all about adrenaline — like, of course, it’s going to be young people,” says Flores.

According to law enforcement, the sideshows also became more violent. Police reports highlight an increase in shootings, crashes, and, in the worst cases, fatalities, in the wake of the new ordinances. Whether there’s a causal link between sideshows and violence, however, is highly contested. 

In September in San Francisco, a triple shooting that resulted in one fatality was attributed to a sideshow at the corner of Mission Street and Persia Avenue. The man who died was a 21-year-old from Sacramento named Cesar Corza, who had a baby on the way. 

Simultaneously, there have been several well-documented cases where the sideshow crowd was blamed for deaths they were not directly responsible for. In one particularly well-known 2002 case documented in Zazaboi’s documentary, police initiated a high speed chase of a sideshow driver, and, after several blocks, he hit and killed a 22-year-old woman named U’Kendra Johnson. The series of events were incidentally recorded by an amateur videographer named Dallas Lopes, leading to a contentious debate about who was responsible for her death. Many argue that her life would have been saved had not a police officer chased a man down residential Oakland streets for what amounted to a traffic violation. Yet, sideshows were widely blamed for her death by the media, police, and city officials. 

“As an elected official, you listen to your constituents, but your vocal constituents are not the ones out there doing the sideshow — so solving their problem is stopping the sideshow,” says a city council member at the time, Desley Brooks, who met with U’Kendra Johnson’s family after her death. Brooks advocated against further police intervention in the aftermath, putting her in opposition of most of her colleagues in Oakland city government. She had researched harm reduction programs like that in San Diego, and thought that would be a more constructive approach. “I got to know her mom over the years, and I felt like it was a real issue that needed to be addressed, so I did my homework.” 

Large gatherings of people in the Bay Area, especially if under the influence, often lead to violence — Bleacher Report even wrote an article in 2009 headlined “Oakland Raiders: Are You Risking Your Life Attending a Raider’s Game?” because there had been so much violence at tailgate parties and in the stands. Of course, the disparaging headline against the Oakland Raiders may have more to do with Oakland stereotypes than working class fans of the team being particularly violent — people have died at Giants and 49ers games, too. Zazaboi, for his part, questions whether motorsports are distinctively worse than any other local sporting event. 

PUNITIVE MEASURES

Former city council member Desley Brooks says the violence attributed to sideshows likely has more to do with the punitive response than the character of people who participate. “When you criminalize it, it becomes more reckless, and people gravitate to a different kind of thought process,” she theorizes. “I think oftentimes when people try to address things that engage — at that time — primarily kids of color, the first thought is law enforcement rather than let’s try to find an alternative to get the majority of them interested in something else.” 

After U’Kendra Johnson was killed in 2002, Senate Representative for the 9th District Don Peralta (who later became Senate President) authored SB1489, titled the “U’Kendra Johnson Memorial Act.” This gave Oakland police the authority to impound cars involved in a sideshow for up to 30 days. In July of 2005, Oakland city council approved a local ordinance to fine and arrest spectators, threatening up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. SB1489 lapsed after Oakland didn’t follow-up with the California state legislature with necessary documentation in 2007, and though state legislators attempted to renew the bill, it later died in the senate. In the absence of laws specifically designed for sideshows, police must use various misdemeanor offenses and charges of reckless driving or driving under the influence to fine, arrest, or impound the cars of sideshow participants. 

In legislative filings filed in 2007 in an effort to renew the U’Kendra Johnson Memorial Act, it  was described as a “valuable tool for law enforcement in combating the problems of, and associated with sideshows.” But violence certainly didn’t disappear in Oakland. A 24-year-old mother of three named Breeonna Mobley was hit and killed in 2003. Two young men, aged 22 and 25, were shot and killed in an incident tied to a sideshow in 2004. Oakland police, in fact, openly spoke about the difficulty they had containing the events. It’s because city officials felt they needed to go even further that they passed a secondary ordinance criminalizing spectators three years later. 

Similar to Don Peralta after the death of 22-year-old Johnson, San Francisco Supervisor Asha Safai authored legislation after the death of 21-year-old Corza — this time, at the local rather than state level. The San Francisco legislation allows police to impound cars involved in a sideshow for a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of 29 days, similar to SB 1489. 

“We started to see a significant increase in calls, people crying out for order,” says Supervisor Safai. Residents in his district, especially the elderly and those with late-night essential jobs, felt they couldn’t walk down their block safely or park their cars when they got home. Corza’s death, he said, made things more urgent. “We felt like we needed to send a strong message that these would no longer be tolerated at this scale.” 

Time will tell whether San Francisco’s version of a law to impound vehicles will be more successful at taming the sideshows on San Francisco’s streets. Safai points to the impounding of 11 cars at a sideshow on January 24 as a hopeful sign. 

LEGALIZING THE SIDESHOW

There exists another alternative, however, that hasn’t been attempted in the Bay Area: pairing punitive measures with a safe, sanctioned alternative to sideshows. At his most ambitious, Zazaboi imagines sideshows following a similar trajectory to NASCAR — unlawful, informalized motorsports transforming over time to a socially accepted event with famous drivers, sponsorships, and fans. NASCAR has an equally if not more raucous history, with its origins in bootlegging and learning to drive fast enough to outrun the police. Thinking about how opportunities for sponsorship, standardized safety protocols, and an established venue away from residential neighborhoods could transform sideshows, it’s easy to get starry-eyed. 

Liability, however, has historically been the reason onlookers dismiss the idea of a legal sideshow — Richie Rich himself shot down the idea for this reason in 2018 interview with KQED. In Zazaboi’s proposed model, he says his organization Sydewayz would take on liability for the sideshows as a private entity. In the case of RaceLegal, liability waivers appear to have done the trick. 

In 2003, Desley Brooks began using her platform as a city council member to advocate for a legal alternative to sideshows. She says the idea seemed to her like common sense after seeing how successful RaceLegal was in San Diego and hosting several meetings with sideshow attendees, frustrated constituents, police, and the parents of victims. But she says there was never the political will. 

“When you say the word ‘sideshow,’ it brings out all kinds of emotions, and so a lot of the reaction from elected officials was a knee jerk, emotional response rather than a thoughtful approach trying to address a problem,” says Brooks. She says that one time after she had proposed the idea, former Mayor Jerry Brown himself told her “this is entertainment,” before dismissing it all together.

Supervisor Safai swiftly dismissed the idea of a legal alternative when asked about it. “I just feel like the people that do this in Hollywood are professionally trained stunt drivers, and even they get injured,” said Safai. “You know we say, ‘Don’t do this at home’ — and well, sorry, but that is this. Don’t try this on your own, because you could die.” 

When asked how his legislation was different from that passed at the state level in 2002, he said that he “would imagine that when they were seizing vehicles, people were coming back and getting the vehicles immediately.” However, there’s no evidence of that in media accounts or legislative documentation.

Board President Shamann Walton, for his part, said he hadn’t given the idea much thought. “It’s not an idea I’ve explored, and something that I would have to do more research on,” he said. “I have not gotten one email from a constituent on that.” 

FULL CIRCLE

In an ideal world, a legalized alternative could appease all parties. Those living in neighborhoods where sideshows take place would no longer have to be woken up in the middle of the night if sideshows were moved to venues in non-residential areas. Sideshow drivers could have an opportunity to make a living at what they do, or at least take home a little prize money to pay for the hobby if they drove at ticketed events. Viewers could watch from a safe, guarded distance if the track were properly designed. Most importantly, containment would mean no high speed chases or gun violence, at least inside the venue. 

Then again, it’s reasonable to wonder whether liability waivers would really protect the sideshow operators if someone got hurt, or if the risk of people getting hurt is even worth the reward. The most skeptical wonder whether sideshow fans would even enjoy a legal alternative — by human nature, banning activities can make them more enticing. 

San Francisco city government has chosen to go the punitive route, finding themselves with a similar law to that passed at the state level almost two decades ago. It may be working: San Francisco hasn’t seen many sideshows since the law was passed. For a while after police seized 11 cars in January, the city was quiet, and supervisors and police claimed the news as a success. Yet, sideshows have started in the Mission again in recent weeks, and a particularly large sideshow at Folsom Street and 20th Street renewed calls from residents for further action from city government. One resident told Mission Local the existing police tactics are “anemic, at best.” Simultaneously, sideshows have increased in surrounding cities, particularly San Jose and Oakland, where police forces are cracking down, too

Ghost ride the whip. (Photo: Stephen Loewinsohn)

Whether this will last forever, however, is doubtful. After punitive measures were passed in years prior, sideshows lulled for a few months before becoming more frequent and rowdy. Even if they are mostly pushed out of San Francisco, the proposition that they would disappear entirely seems to go against history.

Sideshows have rested at the intersection of car culture and hip-hop for thirty years. Attempting to tame them with arrests and fines feels like riding in a spinning car: going round and round, just for show, not changing a single thing.

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