DEFINING THE PROBLEM
A reader calling himself Keith writes by email: "After reading
your recent column on the "sideshow" problem, I really wonder if the solution
is to ignore it. Don't you think people in the communities disturbed by the sideshow
noise and problems have the right to a peaceful evening? Is ignoring the noise, danger,
and problems really the best solution? I was once the age most of the young people
involved with this were, and I didn't spend my weekends engaged in this sort of behavior.
Why can't we ask our young people to take responsibility to behave in ways that aren't
damaging to the peace and well-being of the community? Is this an unfair expectation?
If it is, why is it?"
No, dear reader. I don’t think the problem should be ignored. I
just think we may have a disagreement on the definition of the problem.
There are some people in this city—City Manager Robert Bobb, Police
Chief Richard Word, City Councilmember Larry Reid, et al.—who define the problem
as the sideshows themselves.
Sideshows, in case you’ve missed the news for the past couple of
months, or if you don’t live east of Seminary and south of the hills, are weekly,
late-night events where young folk—mostly African-American—gather on East Oakland
streets to meet friends, play music, and spin their cars in noisy and smoke-producing
If you define the sideshows as the problem, then the solution is
simple and just jumps out at you: stop the sideshows. And that’s what city officials
and police have been trying to do all spring, including widespread impounding of
cars, giving out tickets, and running the participants into San Leandro and Hayward.
But what if you define the problem a different way?
What if you say that problem is really with us—Oakland—and our
uneasiness with large groups of "unregulated" African-American youth, and
our general unwillingness—or inability—to help those youth make the transition from
schoolkids to productive adult members of our communities. The solutions become far
Unlike most of us old folk, young people tend to have long memories.
They remember that one of the best community festivals in the country—Oakland’s
Festival At The Lake—was ended partly because Oakland was uncomfortable with large
groups of African-American youth gathering on the street outside the festival grounds.
They remember the checkpoints along Lakeshore Drive specifically
designed to prevent groups of African-American youth from cruising around the lake
itself in their cars.
They remember being made to feel unwelcome in large groups and
listening to the music of their choice at the Oakland-owned downtown ice rink, while
the rink’s manager boasted that he was attracting kids from other cities.
They remember Alameda County Sheriff’s Deputies standing behind
the curtains and watching while people were being beat down on the floor of the Coliseum
during a rap concert, and then, after the fighting inside ended, those same deputies
forcing peaceful kids out of the building and into the frightening danger of the
darkened, unprotected parking lots where the fighting had spread to.
I would imagine that a good number of the young people hanging
out at Oakland’s sideshows are in their late teens or early 20’s. In a couple of
more years they are going to be getting married and settling into long-term jobs
and careers. In a few more years, their children will be entering Oakland’s elementary
schools. In ten years, many of the young people attending this weekend’s sideshows
will be part of the backbone of Oakland—parents, taxpayers, voters. What kind of
city they build in 2011 depends entirely on what kind of place we are making for
them in 2001. And in many ways, we are not making them feel wanted. Not because of
what they are doing, but simply because of what they are.
Sure, Keith, it’s perfectly right to ask these young people to
take responsibility for their own actions. Just so long as we don’t get mad when
they ask the older folk to take responsibility for ours.