Berkeley High’s new small-school SSJE (School of Social Justice and Ecology) is scheduled to open this fall with a curriculum that emphasizes “critical thinking.” Though it’s a good idea, “critical thinking” is one of those terms that has lost all meaning by repeated overuse. Plainly put, it simply means not necessarily accepting the conclusions put before you, but assembling (or re-assembling) the available facts, looking for the “contradictions” (another useful but much-abused word), and making up your own mind as to what it all might mean.

Given all that, a good morning exercise in “critical thinking” for SSJE teachers might be just to get their students to open the daily newspapers.

Begin the lesson.

This week, a Chronicle headline under an “Oakland” banner announced that a
“Man With Pregnant Wife Killed In Sideshow Shooting.” The story reported that 23 year old Eric Ramon Baeza was “fatally shot early Sunday [Feb. 6] in the vicinity of a sideshow, the name commonly used to refer to illegal car rallies that often feature reckless driving. The killing occurred about 1 a.m. on Foothill Boulevard at Havenscourt Boulevard on a stretch of road where numerous intersections bear the black arcing marks of squealing tires from drivers spinning in circles.”

If you read this headline and paragraph quickly, you are lead to a specific conclusion: Eric Baeza was shot and killed at 1 a.m. at a sideshow in which drivers were spinning their squealing cars in circles. And so, if you’ve been to a “sideshow” or seen “sideshow” footage on the news, you have already gotten a picture of the scene in your mind. At least, you think you do.

There’s a bit of a “contradiction” in the Chronicle headline and story–the part that stays the shooting actually happened in the “vicinity of a sideshow”–but that goes by so fast the average reader might miss it, and not stop to ask does that mean the shooting happened at a sideshow or during a sideshow or simply down the street from a sideshow? It does make a difference, after all.

It also leaves out a longstanding problem often pointed out in this column: what exactly is a sideshow? Like Alice in the rabbithole, the definition seems to expand or contract, depending on the needs of the definer at the time.
But for the purposes of this discussion, I will use the working definition emailed to me in 2002 by Oakland Police Department Lt. David Kozicki, who often acts as the OPD spokesperson on this issue: “Here is the general definition that I use,” Lt. Kozicki wrote, in answer to my question. “Sideshows are gatherings of pedestrians and vehicles for the purpose of engaging in and watching incidents of reckless driving and exhibitions of speed.” In its Baeza shooting story, the Chronicle expands on that idea, calling sideshows “illegal car rallies” and “impromptu, late-night convergences of motorists that frequently draw thousands of people and feature high-speed and stunt driving.”

Let us move on to the Oakland Tribune account of the Baeza shooting ("
Future Father Is Shot To Death"), which the Tribune described as having been caused by “a minor accident tied to ‘sideshow’ traffic.” (The Tribune often puts “sideshow” in quotation marks, an odd habit that may indicate that the newspaper itself has trouble defining the term.)

According to Oakland Homicide Sgt. Phil Green, Baeza got “caught up in sideshow activity”–apparently unintentionally–while driving some friends home in his van. Quoting from the Tribune: “[A]nother van pulled alongside the van Baeza and his friends were in while the traffic light was red. According to Green, some of Baeza's passengers said the other van was ‘dipping,’ a street term meaning the driver would ‘hit the gas, then brake, then swerve to make it rock.’ [Sgt.] Green said the other van then apparently pulled in front of the van Baeza and the others were in when the traffic light turned green. Baeza did not react immediately and sideswiped the other van's driver's door, traveling no more than 10 mph, Green said. For the next few feet, the driver of the other van tried to block the van Baeza was driving. He then pulled out a pistol and fired several shots at Baeza and the others, Green said.” This is slightly different from the Chronicle’s account, also attributed to Sgt. Green, which said that the shooting occurred after “another van swerved past and clipped the vehicle Baeza was in.”

But disregarding who hit who, we see that the Baeza shooting began with two vans stopped at a traffic light–one of the drivers repeatedly braking to make his van dip and rock while they waited–and then proceeded to a “minor” traffic accident at 10 miles per hour.

“Dipping” as described in the Tribune account happens at sideshows, but it is not exclusive to sideshows (same thing for spinning donuts in a car). Concluding that the because somebody was “dipping” or spinning donuts means that a sideshow must have been going on is like saying that because someone was eating a hotdog, a baseball game must have been going on. Not necessarily.

And while the description of the shooter’s dipping and rocking his van might be described as “reckless” and “stunt driving” by some, where was the “exhibition of speed” or “high-speed” driving, the other elements of the sideshow definition? And where was the “rally” or “convergence of motorists” as described in the Chronicle? If those things were happening either before or during the Baeza shooting, they didn’t get reported in the newspaper accounts.

Maybe there was a sideshow going on during the time Mr. Baeza was shot and killed at Havenscourt and Foothill this weekend. Maybe not. But a reasonable question to ask is why the shooting wasn’t attributed to possible road rage–which happens unrelated to sideshows–or, since Baeza was identified as an ex-gang member, why not to possible gang violence. Could there be unstated reasons why bad happenings keep getting blamed on whatever it is that we call “sideshows?”

I don’t know, friends. To answer those questions, you’re going to have to do your own critical thinking. That sounds like a homework assignment.

Originally Published February 11, 2005 in the Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper, Berkeley, California