A recent UnderCurrents column was linked in Mayor Jerry Brown's new online blog, but do you think maybe this one was a mistake?

In a March 11 entry on Oakland's sideshows called "Culture Crash," Mr. Brown writes, "A sideshow, for the uninitiated, is a homegrown version of a demolition derby, except it takes place illegally on city streets–often under the influence of drugs and violence."

The word "violence" in the Mayor's sideshow description links to an online report of a February 11 NBC-11 news story ("
Expectant Father Fatally Shot At 'Sideshow'") concerning the death of Eric Ramon Baeza.

We can't let Mr. Brown's sideshow description pass without a comment. A "demolition derby" is an event in which cars deliberately bang into each other, the purpose of the exercise being to bash all the other cars into submission, so that yours is the only one able to drive away. A sideshow is an event in which drivers attempt to do intricate maneuvers with their cars–spinning donuts, for example–without hitting anything. One can be against the sideshows or for them; that's your choice. But we ought to at least describe them as they are.

It gets worse, friends.

In the next paragraph, Mr. Brown writes "the spectacle has its share of apologists. They believe government has failed to provide 'youth' with suitable evening amusement-thus the need for late night hijinks." The word "apologists" links to a recent UnderCurrents column.

Reading Mr. Brown's comments, you would think that I-as a sideshow "apologist," in the mayor's words-support the sideshows as they are now operated in Oakland's streets. I don't, and I've made that clear in my columns. In a June, 2001 "Oakland Unwrapped" column in the now defunct Urbanview newspaper, for example, I wrote that sideshows are "sometimes dangerous, and it's almost always annoying to older folk (like myself) who have to put up with the noise and the inconveniences."

Over the past few years, I have also written often about how the sideshows ended up in the streets in the first place, driven by Oakland police and politicians out of the parking lots at Eastmont Mall and Pac'N'Save on Hegenberger–where they bothered almost nobody–and into East Oakland's residential neighborhoods-where they are bothering almost everybody, and costing us more than a million dollars a year in police overtime trying to curtail them, besides.

I have also advocated solutions to the problem, writing in this column in June of 2003, again for example, that "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."

You would think that the mayor's staff would have linked to one of these two columns–both of which are available on the web–as a fair presentation of my position on Oakland's sideshows. In fact, they could send their readers to a cover story I did on the subject for the East Bay Express two years ago, if they'd like [
Showing Their Side]. I wouldn't mind. Instead, oddly, Mr. Brown's "apologists" link sends you to a February 11 UnderCurrents column ("Applying Critical Thinking to Another Oakland Shooting Death" concerning the Eric Ramon Baeza death that was the subject of the NBC-11 story. The column does not state my position on the sideshows. Instead, it raises the question of whether or not it was actually a sideshow at which Mr. Baeza was killed.

One might argue that Mr. Brown included the "Critical Thinking" column to be fair, but fairness has not been one of his hallmarks in his approach to the sideshows. Another–more likely–theory is that it is typical of the sloppiness with which Mr. Brown typically approaches Oakland issues. Rather than actually going through and reading my various columns on sideshows until they came to one that proved his point, it appears that whoever provided the "apologists" link on the mayor's blog simply came to the first sideshow UnderCurrents column they found, assumed that it must involve "apologizing" for the sideshows since they had already decided I was a sideshow "apologist," and stuck the link in.

Anyways, let me make it easy for the folks at the top of the stairs in the big building on Frank Ogawa Plaza.

I am not in favor of the illegal street sideshows currently taking place in East Oakland's neighborhoods.

On the other hand, I am not in favor of the methods used by Oakland police to halt them. I believe that Oakland's current police suppression tactics to try to halt the sideshows have made the situation worse, rather than making it better.

In addition it is my belief that you do not make young people responsible by merely constantly talking about how irresponsible they are, as the mayor has done. You help make young people responsible by giving them responsibility–as much as they can handle–and working with them to handle it.


I believe that the City of Oakland should partner with African-American and Latino youth in a serious attempt to develop a form of sideshows that is acceptable to city officials, the East Oakland neighborhoods, and the youth themselves. There would have to be give and take on all sides, and there is no guarantee that such an effort would work. But the effort itself would force all sides in this dispute to deal with each other as partners working for a common goal rather than adversaries in the streets. I think such an effort would cause Oakland to look at these youth in a different light, recognizing that they are citizens of this city whose needs have to be accounted for just like any other citizen, people who should not be dismissed simply because we have the power to dismiss them. And I think such an effort would cause the youth themselves to take on more responsibility for their own actions, realizing that they can play a major role in how they are viewed, and understanding that how they are viewed goes a long ways toward whether or not their goals are realized.

Would all the young people participate in such an effort? Nope. Neither would all the politicians, or all of anybody else. So what? If you waited around for all of anybody to participate in something, you'd never get anything done.

I think there is tremendous potential in such an effort to mediate the sideshow problem and create an acceptable alternative, potential to heal old wounds, potential to open up partnerships that can be beneficial to all Oakland citizens, spiritually, financially, and in many other ways.

And, finally, I think it's stupid not to try.

This shouldn't be a news soundbite or a slogan on a campaign mailer. This can't be left to be a wedge issue in somebody's political race. These are not statistics. These are our children. These are our neighborhoods. These are our lives.

Link up with that, Mr. Brown.

Originally Published March 18, 2005 in the Berkeley Daily Planet Newspaper, Berkeley, California