A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
UnderCurrents Column
Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper
June 22, 2005

Late last winter, an article on Oakland’s sideshows entitled “Deadly Swerves And Spins” appeared in the the prominent position of the Column One spot in the Los Angeles Times (the paper describes Column One as “a showcase for Los Angeles Times stories that are notably original, surprising, amusing or just plain interesting. It appears every day but Sunday and gets its name from its location in the newspaper–in the far-left column of the front page.”)

“Virtually every night, from midnight to dawn,” the story reported, “hundreds of young people gather at intersections throughout this city to watch cars spin and swerve wildly, the drivers and passengers often dangling halfway out of open doors as the vehicles burn rubber. Some drivers like to spew sparks by wearing their tires down to the steel belts. The people of Oakland have survived epidemic drug use, soaring murder rates and police corruption scandals, but now they face an increasingly violent homegrown movement that has police chasing one spontaneous driving exhibition after another at a cost of $500,000 a year.”

Not good news for Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who wants to be California’s top law enforcement officer. Los Angeles is the home of the largest bloc of voters in the State of California. It is also the home of Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, Mr. Brown’s major announced opponent in the 2006 Democratic primary for California Attorney General.

Three months after the LA Times article appeared, Mr. Brown suddenly introduced his last-minute, headline-grabbing “arrest the sideshow spectators” ordinance to Oakland City Council. Cause and effect? Your guess is as good as mine. But that would go a long way towards explaining why Mr. Brown waited until the beginning of the summer to introduce legislation aimed mainly at summertime activity, or why Oakland police officials testifying at Council meetings concerning the proposed ordinance seemed to suggest that they already had the sideshows “under control” without the new law.

In any event, last Tuesday, an hour or so before they went on their 8 week summer vacation, Oakland City Council passed the mayor’s ordinance this week, making it an infraction (and, on the third offense, a criminal act) to be a spectator at a sideshow in Oakland.

One of the fears of many opponents of the new sideshow ordinance is that the fines will go unpaid by the young people who will be the main targets of these citations, leading to bench warrants, further involvement with the police, and a descent into the criminal justice system.

Councilmembers Nancy Nadel and Jean Quan (who both voted for the measure) did their best to pretty the ordinance up, insisting that they would work on alternatives to the stiff $500 and $750 fines that the first two “sideshow spectator” offenses called for, saying that they would try to get judges and prosecuting attorneys to set up some sort of “community service” in place of the payments.

I have great respect for both Ms. Nadel and Ms. Quan, two of the more progressive members of council who have conservative constituents to worry about (Ms. Nadel is running for mayor of Oakland in 2006 and Ms. Quan represents the most conservative council district in the city).

Still, their insistences on finding unwritten substitutes to the financial penalties written into Mr. Brown’s sideshow law reminded me of the story a friend once told me about a country fellow who had no date to the summer barn dance, so he decided to take a hog instead. He spent several hours putting a pretty pink party dress on the animal, curling its hair, slapping on lipstick, and even painting polish on its hooves. “What did he end up with?” I asked my friend. “What the hell do you think?” my friend answered. “A dressed-up pig.”

Instead of dressing up the mayor’s ordinance by making sure the fines are not enforced but, instead, are superceded by community service work-offs, why didn’t these two Councilmembers simply try to take the fines out altogether and replace them in the law with the alternatives?

Also left out of the law was a requirement that the police give a warning to disperse before police begin targeting spectators. Oakland police told Councilmembers that they didn’t mind giving such a warning–in fact, they probably would give such a warning–they just didn’t want to be required by law to give such a warning. Since they made such a point of not having the warnings in the law, how many warnings to disperse do you think will actually take place?

Another sideshow alternative missed the summer cut, this one being a safe, sanctioned, and legal entertainment alternative to the sideshows themselves. Several Councilmembers at this week’s meeting–as well as Lt. David Kozicki, who oversees sideshow abatement activities for the Oakland Police Department–insisted that such an alternative was a good idea, and the city was actively working on setting it up. (on her official city website, Ms. Brooks has thoughtfully provided a copy of a signed, undated memo from Mr. Kozicki in which he lays out all of the plans worked out for such a sideshow alternative, finishing with “Now all we need is a place to have it!” (the exclamation point at the end is the lieutenant’s).

The mayor’s “arrest the sideshow spectators” ordinance, in fact, was supposedly partially modeled after a San Diego drag racing ordinance in which both the crackdown and the legal alternative were done simultaneously.

But the Council took off for the summer without doing the simultaneous, deciding that the fines and penalties of Mr. Brown’s sideshow ordinance could not wait, while finding summertime entertainment alternatives for Oakland youth could.

Another interesting item pointed out at the Council meeting–by Ms. Brooks–was that Mr. Brown’s “arrest the spectators” ordinance only mentioned arresting spectators at sideshows, but not at Oakland’s dangerous and illegal drag races. Ms. Brooks suggested that there might be a racial motive there–sideshows are a primarily African-American and Latino activity, while drag racing involves people of other races. I might suggest another possible explanation. The Los Angeles Times article last March did not mention Oakland’s drag racing problem–only its sideshow problem–so Mr. Brown may not have been motivated to include those events in his rushed-through law (I only say may here because I cannot read Mr. Brown’s mind and therefore am only speculating, just like everyone else).


The day before Oakland City Council passed Mr. Brown’s “arrest the sideshow spectators” ordinance, the Oakland Tribune reported on a middday running gun battle between two cars along International Boulevard past 87th Avenue (a block from our house) which left “dozens of shell casings scattered” along the street and one bystander injured. Some of the shooters escaped, on foot, over backyard fences in our neighborhood. Part of the gun battle was actually witnessed by California Highway Patrol officers, who regularly spend a portion of their day giving out tickets and towing cars along International (an activity, if you remember, we were originally told would slow down the homicide rate in the area). My mother told me later that traffic was diverted down our street while police searched in vain for the shooters, with a police helicopter circling over the neighborhood, and police came down our street, knocking on doors, asking if anybody had seen anyone running from the scene.

The Tribune reported that the gun battle “apparently began just before 3 p.m. in the area of 89th Avenue and Holly Street.” Anyone familiar with East Oakland knows, right away, that the area of 89th and Holly is one of Oakland’s long-standing, well-known, open air drug markets.

If that incident got Mr. Brown’s attention, I missed it. But then, the International Boulevard shootout story didn’t make it in the Los Angeles Times, either, so maybe it’s not quite so important.