Oakland, bless our hearts, approaches the issue of the sideshows like a youngster spinning donuts at the corner of 90th and International ... round and round we chase ourselves, mugging for the reporters and television cameras, always ending up back where we started.

The new argument being played out in the public is whether we need something that’s loosely being called a “legal alternative to sideshows.” Having defined sideshows as violent, dangerous, antisocial activity, both Councilmembers De La Fuente and Reid say no way. “Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has said [sideshow] alternatives would not work because sideshows are illegal and that’s what draws the crowds,” reports the Oakland Tribune, going on to say: “An officer on the street also expressed his doubts: ‘Part of the excitement,’ the police officer said, ‘is doing something wild and illegal.’”

In another Tribune article, Oakland Police Lt. Paul Figueroa agrees. “[The sideshow] is extremely oppressive activity and there is just no excuse for it,” he is quoted as saying. “Oftentimes, [the youth will say] there is no alternative venue for them. The police chief is working on coming up with alternative venues for having a nice car show, but we can never condone drunk and reckless driving.”

Councilmember Brooks says we ought to at least take a look at legal alternatives. This is the same public argument–sometimes with different arguers–that’s been playing out for the past couple of years.

The problem, I think, comes of saying that the problem is the sideshows. That ain’t it. The problem, as our young people continue to tell us, is that Oakland is a city that provides few things for young people to do.

If we say the problem is the sideshows, then we only talk about solutions (such as providing activities for our young people) as long as the sideshows bother us. That’s why, in the heat of summer, with kids out on the street in their cars, there’s suddenly all this talk from public officials. Last winter, when the sideshows were dormant, Oakland sat on its ass and did nothing. This is the classic leaky-roof-fixing dilemma. The man cannot fix his leaky roof while it is raining because he doesn’t want to get wet. When the rainy season ends he can’t see the point in fixing his roof because, after all, it’s not leaking at the moment. And so, year after year, the roof never gets fixed, and we never solve our problem with our restless youth.

And let us dismiss the comment, so often made by our good friend Councilmember Reid, that it’s not the business of the city to provide things for “26- to 30-year-olds to do” (that’s the age by which Mr. Reid somehow defines the sideshowers). Oakland is a city that bends over backward to find things for its citizens to do. We broke the city bank in order to get the Raiders back. A year ago, City Manager Bobb was fighting for the city to develop a “world class golf course.” Reid, himself, led a five-year battle to bring a swimming pool theme park to Brookfield Village (see the fine print of Measure DD). Oakland is always finding things for citizens to do. It’s just, maybe, that some of us don’t define sideshowers as citizens.

Me, I don’t think there’s a legal alternative to sideshows, and the sooner we realize it, the sooner we can move on to the itch we can actually scratch.

Most of the young people who are advocating legalized sideshows or a “legal alternative to sideshows” want to recreate the sideshows as they existed in the parking lots of the Eastmont Mall and in the early days at Pac N’ Save. That was in the mid to late 1990s, before they drew police attention and were driven into the streets. That was when thousands of sideshowers gathered after hours, off by themselves, without older adult interference, with little violence, to play music, meet somebody cute and show off their cars.

But this would be like trying to recreate the Summer of Love on the Haight, or Woodstock, or the early, block party, non-commercial days of rap. All of these–the Eastmont Sideshows included–were magic times, soap bubble times, when social forces converged almost of their own accord, existed for a brief moment in shimmering harmony and then burst almost before the participants realized how important they were. You can never, ever, relive them, except in your dreams.

The trick, I think, is to try to take the most positive aspects of the original sideshows–the excitement, the music, the dancing, the boys-getting-phone-numbers-from-girls thing, the tight cars–some of the things that even Oakland Police Traffic Division head Dave Kozicki has said, on occasion, that he might be able to support–and out of that create something new and productive that both the city and the youngsters can live with. True, there’s a number of people, nobody knows how many, who are into the sideshows because of the attraction of the illegal. There are also people who want to come to A’s and Raiders games so they can drink and fight and throw batteries at the players. That doesn’t stop the city from providing sports venues.

Nobody’s blowing up my cell phone asking my opinion on this, but if it were me doing the deciding, I’d stop speculating in the press on what we might be able to do or might not be able to do. I’d treat this issue like we treat all major projects or problems in Oakland. Get the principles behind closed doors–councilmembers, the manager’s office, the police department and, most especially, responsible representatives of the sideshowers themselves–and hash out a program of legalized, sanctioned, older-youth-and-young-adult activities for the city of Oakland.

I wouldn’t call them legal sideshows.

I wouldn’t call them alternatives to sideshows.

I’d just call it citizen service, and leave it at that.

Originally Published June 27, 2003 in the Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper, Berkeley, California