Itís not the job of police to solve social problems. Give them such a task, and more often than not theyíll either muddle around and make the situation worse, or push it out into somebody elseís jurisdiction, making it somebody elseís problem. And why should we expect otherwise? Solving social problems is not part of police training. Itís not in their mentality. Itís not in their job description. Asking them to take on such tasks is just asking for trouble.

So why is the City of Oakland asking its police department to solve the problem of the Sideshows?

Sideshows are the gatherings of mostly African-American young folk, who congregate in parking lots and along certain city streets to play music and show off their cars. Although these gatherings have a particular Oakland, African-American, hip-hop, turn-of-the-millennium beat to them, they are not much different than what American kids have been doing on American streets since cars were invented. Itís a lot like the 1960ís-era, Central Valley white kids in "American Graffiti." But instead of going out to the edge of town for drag races, these Oakland kids are turning donuts in the middle of intersections. Yeah, itís sometimes dangerous, and itís almost always annoying to older folk (like myself) who have to put up with the noise and the inconveniences. But the Sideshows are not a gang, or a crowd of people setting out to cause trouble. Itís mostly kids with a lot of exuberance and youthful enthusiasm, with a lot of time on their hands, and not a lot of things to do in a city that does not especially value black teenagers and young adults. Sure, there are a few troublemakers and knuckleheads in the crowd, but they are in the distinct minority.

Lately, in an effort to break up the Sideshows, Oakland cops have been dispersing the cars, herding them onto the freeway, and then blocking off the exits so that the kids canít get off until far out of town. The hope, I guess, is that the drivers will get so spread out that they will not be able to get back together again. There is a scent of martial law in this that all of us should find troubling. Not only that, a couple of weekends ago, police officers blocked off all I-880 exits until A Street in Hayward. The result? A small number of the gatherers got out of their cars in a Hayward parking lot, broke into a convenience store, trashed the place, and stole thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Such actions werenít happening a few years ago, before the police tried to break up the gatherings.

Now we learn that the Oakland Police Department wants to hold town meetings, hoping to invite young people to find alternatives to the Sideshows. With all due respect, thatís not the job of the Oakland police. Although they ought to be consulted on law enforcement matters, the police should not be taking the lead in providing social outlets for our young folk.

Chief Richard Word has told the Tribune that Oakland cops have, in some ways, contributed to the problem. "We made a mistake," he said, "by pushing them out of the parking lot of Eastmont Mall [where the Sideshow began several years ago] and into the neighborhoods." Heís right. I lived with my kids near Eastmont Mall for a couple of years, during the time when the Sideshows were going on over there. My kids went to them all the time. There never seemed to be any problems back then. No reports of fights. Or shootings. Or lootings. Now theyíve forced the Sideshows out onto the city streets, and weíve got running battles every weekend, with the young folks trying to find some place to congregate, and the cops trying to keep them from doing so.

Maybe, in the beginning, we should have just trusted our kids, and let them alone. And certainly, somebody besides the cops should take the lead in working this out.

Originally Published June 13, 2001 in URBANVIEW Newspaper, Oakland, CA