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The Sideshow Showdown Could Get Ugly

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Tension between the Oakland Police Department and residents who live in the city is not a new thing, neither are sideshows that have become fairly synonymous with East Oakland culture, but as the weekend events grow in popularity…and destruction, so does the tension. The standoff between participants and police are nearing a fever pitch.

Spectators watch a sideshow at Foothill Boulevard and 55th Avenue in East Oakland on June 21, 2015. Photo courtesy of Jay Area/YouTube

For those who don’t know what a “sideshow” is, East Bay Express offered up this pretty simple summary back in 2017:

“It’s like a drag race crossed with a bullfight surrounded by a street party.”

Although police have been trying to shut them down since they popped up on Oakland streets in the early 1980’s, events Sunday night provided OPD and city officials with the fuel they needed to up the authority game. Things turned in the Fruitvale District this past weekend when a commercial truck and AC Transit bus were looted and set on fire.

Sgt. Ray Kelly of Alameda County Sheriff’s Office called Sunday a “chaotic scene” of approximately 1,000 people that “was almost impossible to control” with available resources, and OPD assured the public they would enlist additional staff from other law enforcement agencies in preparation for the next round.

Oakland sideshow from 400 feet in the air. Photo courtesy of Stephen Loewinsohn/East Bay Express

But news Wednesday takes their response and “zero tolerance” stance to a new level with the announcement that the city has immediately approved more extreme control measures usually reserved for mass protests and demonstrations. Methods police use during said protests tend to strike a militarized tone and often escalate tension-filled tinderbox situations. There’s something about full riot gear and choppers overhead that make even people with the best of intentions uneasy, as was demonstrated at the height of the 2016-2017 protests and rallies. In demonstration situations, police have alternated approaches between an overly intimidating presence and complete lack of intervention – sometimes they call the right shots things remain relatively peaceful, sometimes they get it wrong and the opposite occurs.

Police officers in riot gear push protesters back along Reisterstown Road near Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore on April 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of Drew Angerer/Getty Images

What effect will the full force of law enforcement have on sideshow crowds in a city with a police force already notorious for getting out of hand?

In addition to the newly approved enforcement tactics, some officials are also pushing for new legislation that will up the legal consequences for participants. If passed, Assembly Bill 410 would “increase the penalties for participating in a sideshow to include a felony crime, a $25,000 fine, and a one-year prison sentence.”

It is understandable that the city, police and many residents want to get sideshows in check as a matter of safety, but it remains to be seen what impact more extreme enforcement will have. If history is any indicator, things could get ugly.

Please, please, please be safe out there.



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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.