The Sunday Tribune comes, with the headline that the Oakland Police Department is instituting a "mandatory overtime" policy to monitor what is called the "sideshows." So in a city that is facing a severe budget shortage, we are now putting into place a policy that institutionalizes police overtime costs in excess of a million dollars a year.

Makes me want to tell a cowboy story.

No, not about reckless cops who folks in my neighborhood like to call "cowboys." I mean the original cowboys, the ones with the spurs and big hats.

After Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Courthouse, a group of Civil War veterans…Federal and Confederate alike…fanned out across the western states and territories, picking up work in the cattle ranches. These were hard men who put in long hours at hard jobs. Every few weeks, when they’d get a weekend off, they’d ride into town and let off steam, pretty much terrorizing the townspeople. They’d get drunk, fire pistols in the air, and start fights. We see this activity memorialized in such movies as "Gunfight at OK Corral" and "Shane." Often, they’d block off Main Street and stage contests that showed off the skills they used on their jobs. See who could stay the longest on the back of a wild horse or a mad bull. Let loose calves downtown so they could ride them down and rope them and throw them onto the ground. Must have made a mess of those mud streets, and made the locals mad as the devil, too, I’d imagine. Specially if one of those bulls got free.

And then someone came up with the idea of the rodeo.

Don’t know who did, but it was a brilliant son-of-a-gun, whoever it was. Instead of doing their damage in the streets, the cowboys took their contests into enclosed corrals. Spectators began to come, first from the surrounding ranches, then from the towns. The events got so good, they began to build arenas with places to sell barbecue and beans, and stands where folk could sit up above and get a better view. Families came. Rodeos quickly passed into a staple of western culture, and what had once been a enormous problem for western towns became a source of pride and commerce.

I’ve watched rodeos on television, and been to a couple myself…the Black Cowboy affairs up at Rowell Ranch outside of Pleasanton. They are amazing, the confluence of speed and skill and courage in the participants.

Jump a hundred and fifty years to Oakland, and the so-called "sideshows."

Spend a couple of minutes talking to spectators and participants, and one word keeps jumping out at you: skill. The skill of drivers doing intricate car maneuvers, such as what is called "donuts."

"I seen drivers do things, you just wouldn’t believe," one observer told me. "180 one direction. Stop. Reverse. 180 the other direction, backwards. Ain’t never out of control, never touching nothing or nobody, never even scratch the paint. They got mad skills, G." He said out-of-control drivers get quickly booed off.

No, it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense to me, doing donuts in a car. But it don’t make a lot of sense to me, either, riding a bull. Or trying to keep Shaquille O’Neill out of the low post. Or bungee jumping. Folks do a lot of stuff in this world that seems dangerous and silly to other folk. And a lot of other folk come out to watch.

The fact is, most of the sideshow participants never wanted to be out on the streets of Oakland in the first place. They were happy in the parking lots at Eastmont Mall or Pac-N-Save on Hegenberger before the police chased them out. And though they won’t say so publicly, many police officers were okay with the way things were before the crackdown drove everything out onto the streets.

When KMEL Radio did their sideshow broadcast at Frick a few weeks ago, speaker after speaker from the sideshows said that they wanted to take their events back off the streets, to set up safe, sanctioned skill events where spectators could watch from a distance, and the neighborhood folks wouldn’t be bothered.

The question is, who in Oakland government has both the foresight and the political courage to try to work something out?

Or do we have another million to spare?

Originally Published March 20, 2002 in URBANVIEW Newspaper, Oakland, CA