Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




October 29, 2009

I stopped by, late, over to the “For A Safe Town” event at Verdese Carter Park on 98th and Bancroft last weekend. Who, after all, can resist when they’re serving free Everett & Jones barbecue in your neighborhood? The second annual event, according to the Sunday Oakland Tribune article (“Thousands Join In East Oakland For Peace”), was co-sponsored by the Oakland Police Department and Youth Uprising organization (the mayor’s office was involved, as well, though the Tribune article didn’t give them credit) and was designed, so the Tribune reported, “to emphasize peace and strengthen police-community ties.”

I wasn’t particularly surprised by the large group of mostly-African-American young people out in the park enjoying themselves in the sun—without breaking out into violence or even a serious argument—while playing basketball or bouncing on the portable kids’ rides or enjoying the local rap and hip hop performances from the temporary stage. Most of the young people in this community have ever and always only wanted to come out to social events to have a peaceful good time, and would be able to do so if only the elders among us would step up and give them some help at it. That’s how it was when I was growing up in East Oakland. That’s how it is now, even in these violent days. Perhaps especially now, in these violent days.

I did note, however, the continuing peculiar way that Oakland Police have of “strengthening police-community ties,” as the Tribune article put it. Rather than mingling in the crowd and chatting with the gatherers, what I observed was a row of police deployed—and that’s the best word to describe it—in a line to the side of the entertainment stage, carefully watching the event. A second police row watched from against one of the fences, a few of the officers munching on sandwiches or sipping cold drinks, as if they were on a break. Not a single officer was observed, well, mingling with anyone but other officers. While the police at Saturday’s “For A Safe Town” event did not effect the usual menacing attitude OPD officers adopt when facing a large crowd of young East Oakland African-Americans (or Latinos), they didn’t appear to be doing much mingling, either. Admittedly I did come out late, but that’s usually when the folks at the party loosen up. Instead, the officers looked like the high school junior older brother who’s been asked to chaperone his baby sister at her 8th grade dance. Yeah, he’ll go, if he has to, but you don’t expect him to dance, do you?

Clearly, this is not the way these officers would “deploy” if they were attending at a Benicia soccer game or a San Ramon picnic, where their own children were present. But, then, Oakland police have not yet come around to the revolutionary idea that the kids out enjoying themselves on the lawn at Verdese Carter Park are the kids who we hired the Oakland police—at very good salaries, by the way—to protect.

Anyway, you would not have known about the way police patrolled and observed the Verdese Carter Park event it if your only contact with the event was the Tribune story. "We wanted to put this together as a way of getting out in the community and making positive contact with residents," the Tribune quoted Public Safety Area 3 Captain Paul Figueroa as saying). While Mr. Figueroa may be a fine man, and sincere about his efforts to bring peace to East Oakland, his remarks smack of pop-psychology propaganda, the kind our good bureaucrats routinely put out to convince the public that there money is being well-spent, and city staff is doing their job. He’s saying what the public and the politicians want to here, not what was actually going on.

But I long ago learned to be somewhat skeptical of pronouncements from the police and—perhaps especially because I sometimes make a living as a journalist myself—things presented in the media.

That was confirmed, again, by the recent reports of three deaths in Oakland’s illegal street sideshows.

“Three people were killed and three others injured in East Oakland early Saturday morning” the Tribune reported last week, “when a speeding car, possibly involved in a sideshow or street race, careened along MacArthur Boulevard on the wrong side of the road, slammed into two parked vehicles at 100th Avenue, flipped over and hit a pedestrian, throwing him over a fence and breaking both of his legs, police said.” (“East Oakland Crash Leaves Three Dead, Three Injured” October 17, 2009).

Was it a sideshow or a street race? There is, after all, a significant difference between the two.

According to the Tribune article, “police were investigating whether the wreck was sideshow-related.”

The following day, the San Francisco Chronicle was more definitive. “Sideshow ‘Pandemonium’ Leaves 3 Dead, 3 Hurt,” a Sunday, October 18 Chronicle article was headlined.

“Three people died early Saturday when their car flipped during an East Oakland sideshow, a weekly spectacle of reckless driving that residents say is terrorizing neighborhoods and growing increasingly lethal,” the Chronicle article read. “Sideshows have been a ritual in Oakland and other Bay Area cities for at least five years but lately have escalated, residents say. Typically, cars weave and speed along thoroughfares, spinning doughnuts and screeching tires. Passengers often hang out the windows dancing.” One of the sideshow “stunts,” the Chronicle article went on to say, “is a ‘hyphy-train,’ named after the hip-hop style that originated in Oakland. A hyphy-train is a line of cars weaving and speeding in unison. Witnesses said the Nissan from Saturday's crash was in a hyphy train, but the train continued after the crash.”

Witnesses told who?

The problem is that neither source—Oakland police or local media—are credible sources for identifying “sideshow” activity in the city. While Oakland finally developed a legal definition of sideshows in passing former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 2005 “arrest the sideshow demonstrators” ordinance, that legal definition rarely if ever referred to by police or reporters, and their use of the term “sideshows” means now what it has meant since the events developed somewhere around the year 1998 or ‘99: African-American—and, later—Latino youth out in East Oakland “acting out” in some way in their cars. And so several very different types of activity typically get rolled into one.

Take the sentence in the Chronicle article, for example, that “typically [during a sideshow], cars weave and speed along thoroughfares, spinning doughnuts and screeching tires.” No, friends, it doesn’t happen like that.

Spinning doughnuts—an old East Oakland car maneuver—involves turning a car in a tightly weaved pattern in a small space (typically an intersection, but they are also done in parking lots) with enough torque to produce a burnoff of tire smoke and a characteristic black pattern in the pavement. While these car tricks are sometimes done with two cars in tandem, they are usually done by one car at a time. The so-called hyphy-trains are caravans of several cars traveling from one location to the next, music blaring, with spectators often hanging out the windows, while the drivers roll in and out of traffic, one behind the other, the effect from a distance being like a flexible train being controlled by a single driver in the front. Unlike the impression given in the Chronicle article, a hyphy-train caravan does not roll up to an intersection, pause while each individual car spins a doughnut or two, and then roll on. The whole purpose of the train is to keep it moving.

Why is this distinction important?

Because the different car phenomenon—adding to these drag racing on city streets—can come from different elements of the community, cause significantly different problems, and need vastly different solutions.

The current form of the sideshows have been with us for some ten years now, from their incarnation as popular and unobtrusive after-hours gatherings in the Eastmont Mall parking lot, to the rolling street car-battles that followed after police shut them off from the parking lots, to whatever form it is they have recently taken. As a general Oakland public, we understand as little about sideshows as we did in the early days when we drove the peaceful parking lot events out into the streets. It shows our general disinterest in learning about even those things which we identify as major problems.

Were “the sideshows” responsible for the death of three young people out on MacArthur and 100th last weekend? Relying on the police and the local media, we can’t even determine what a sideshow is, much less understand what happened on the street that night. We can’t tell if a sideshow was taking place, or if the various people making the statements or reading or hearing them have the same understanding of the term. And if we do not understand the problem, and cannot even agree upon a common definition of the word we use to describe it, how can we possibly expect to be able to fix it?

No wonder the young folks don’t listen to us.

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