Deadly Swerves and Spins

Louis Sahagun reports on Oakland's dangerous original.

Real | Windows

Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — At 1:30 on a recent Saturday morning, a caravan of 60 cars and vans barreled through this city’s gritty east side, running red lights and stop signs. Some drivers weaved in and out of their lanes, dodging oncoming traffic at the last second.

Moments later, three cars collided, the wreckage spattered with engine fluids, blood and brandy. Though some people stopped to help the injured — or to grab stereo equipment — most raced on.

They had to get to the “sideshow,” a dangerous and illegal frenzy of speeding and acrobatic driving perhaps best described as vehicular break dancing.

Virtually every night, from midnight to dawn, hundreds of young people gather at intersections throughout this city to watch cars spin and swerve wildly, the drivers and passengers often dangling halfway out of open doors as the vehicles burn rubber. Some drivers like to spew sparks by wearing their tires down to the steel belts.

The people of Oakland have survived epidemic drug use, soaring murder rates and police corruption scandals, but now they face an increasingly violent homegrown movement that has police chasing one spontaneous driving exhibition after another at a cost of $500,000 a year.

“Sideshow” means something to the side — on the side of the road and outside the law. Many residents say sideshow is a growing threat to people and property. Participants, however, tout it as an Oakland original: an artistic expression of controlled power — like riding a bull — and East Bay hip-hop culture.

“The sideshow has always been about where you go out and get seen,” said Yakpasua Zazaboi, 28, whose company has been making sideshow videos for five years under the brand name Sydewayze.

“When you successfully do doughnuts,” he said, referring to 360-degree spins, “especially doughnuts that the crowd likes, it’s such a release just to know that, if for no other reason, you are accepted.”

Part of the sideshow experience is the caravans that blast through major thoroughfares, picking up participants along the way. That’s what led to the early-morning three-car pileup at MacArthur Boulevard and 77th Avenue.

Two Times reporters traveling with undercover police officers in an unmarked vehicle happened upon the crash moments after neighbors summoned an ambulance. Two of the drivers had fled on foot. Police later determined that they were driving stolen vehicles. The third driver, who collects parking meter fees for the city, suffered a deep eyelid cut, bruises and a mild concussion.

The caravan eventually came to a stop a few blocks away at Foothill Boulevard and High Street, and the strange ritual that is sideshow began. As some cars blocked oncoming traffic, others took turns entering the intersection to perform tricks — some at high speed, others at a crawl.

With sexually explicit rap music thumping from oversized speakers, cars spun and fishtailed with passengers hanging out of open doors and windows, a move called “spread your wings.”

Another car moved in tight circles with the driver somehow sticking both feet out an open door. Spectators jumped into the fray, standing on the hoods of slow-moving cars or dancing in the street in the thick blue smoke of burning rubber.

“It’s crazy,” Taja Hamilton, 28, a sideshow follower of many years, said of the nightly scene. “The cars attract people like magnets. I’ve seen people almost get hit, then turn to the crowd and yell, ‘Wow! Great! Did you catch that?’ ”

By the time police arrived, the cars roared off for a new place to sideshow, their numbers overwhelming the few patrol cars on duty. The strange delirium at Foothill and High was broken.

Sideshow began a decade ago as impromptu street parties featuring stunt driving. About two years ago, it took an ominous turn, with crashes, beatings, fatal shootings and a rave-like lunacy fueled by the psychedelic stimulant Ecstasy.

“It used to be about candy-apple paint, loud music, guys trying to meet girls, and doughnuts,” said Zazaboi, a former driver. “It used to be about doing perfect doughnuts for a big crowd, and feeling special. It was about physics and skill, and knowing your vehicle, and the tread of your tires.

“Now it’s a different crowd,” he said, shaking his head in dismay. “It’s something crazy. It’s ‘anything goes.’ ”

Mayor Jerry Brown, who has led the effort to revive this once-struggling city, has called for tougher laws to combat sideshows, which occasionally erupt under his bedroom window.

“They’re about spinning cars, girls, booze and drugs — with a lot of yelling and loud music,” Brown said. “It has a certain ritual quality and obviously is stimulating and attractive to hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

“They are totally unacceptable,” he added, “and an unfortunate drain on Oakland resources.”

When police roll up on a sideshow, they are often greeted with bottles and rocks — or worse.

At a sideshow last November, two men were shot to death and three officers were injured. Among them was Officer Brad Young, who was bruised when someone placed a brick on a car’s accelerator, tied off the steering wheel and sent the vehicle careening down a hill.

“It hit the side of the patrol car I was in,” Young recalled. “Man, that night was like a Baghdad street fight.”

In December, four young women in an Escalade were trapped in sideshow traffic congestion, pulled from the car, stripped, assaulted and sent running down the street naked as participants turned over their automobile, authorities said.

On Feb. 6, a young mortgage broker who got caught up in a sideshow was shot and killed after his car accidentally grazed a van.

Sideshows occur mainly at intersections along major thoroughfares. They can last a few minutes or more than an hour. But they also can erupt in mall parking lots, in tunnels, even on Interstate 80.

They tend to feature Corvettes, Camaros, Mustangs, Corollas and Chevelles with oversized 20-inch wheels, state-of-the-art sound systems with 15-inch speakers and special oil pans that prevent overheating by not allowing the lubricant to slosh to one side during high-speed turns.

Maneuvers include sidin’ — another term for doughnuts — and dippin’, in which a driver hits the brakes and the gas to make a car rock back and forth in time to, say, Tupac Shakur’s “Starin’ in My Rearview” or Mac Dre’s “Thizzelle Dance,” a slang reference to Ecstasy. Ghost ridin’ means jumping out of a moving vehicle — usually stolen — and letting it smash into another car, home or business.

Then there is gettin’ stupid, in which drivers or spectators dance spasmodically, sometimes on the hoods of moving cars.

All of this is chronicled on DVDs and videos with titles such as “Oakland Gone Wild” and “23109" — the vehicle code for reckless driving.

Sideshow was born a decade ago in places such as East Oakland’s Eastmont Mall, where columns of smoke from burning rubber could be seen half a mile away.

Though imitations have been reported over the years by police in Sacramento, San Jose, San Bernardino, Riverside and even St. Louis, sideshow never caught on outside the East Bay. Just why is anybody’s guess.

In Oakland, police cracked down on the parking lot sideshows a few years ago, inadvertently forcing the activity onto the streets.

Former Oakland Police Chief Richard Word, who now heads the Vacaville Police Department, will never forget the night his commanders pushed hundreds of sideshow participants onto Interstate 80, then blocked all of the freeway’s exits for six miles.

“We sent them as far south as Hayward, where they looted a convenience store,” Wood recalled. “Hayward folks were pretty upset. They said, ‘Don’t do that again!’ ”

The city has tried various ways to control sideshow. In 2002, state lawmakers passed legislation by Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland) that allows officers to confiscate sideshow vehicles for up to 30 days.

During a dozen operations last summer, “we wrote about 3,000 citations and towed over 1,400 cars,” said Oakland Police Traffic Cmdr. David Kozicki. “Labor Day weekend alone, we towed 321 cars. Of those 321 cars, 64% were unlicensed. The average age of their drivers was 25.”

In December, the Police Department announced plans to disband its 25-year-old mounted patrol to free up more officers for sideshow suppression.

But the damage inflicted by sideshow continues to mount.

Twice in November, sideshow drivers who were, as they say, swingin’ acrobat ripped through Gladys Green’s yard.

“The first time, it cost me $1,200 to fix a fence,” said Green, 81. “The second time, they tore down a different fence. That one cost me nearly $900.”

Ralph Davis’ Higher Spirit Fashion store has been hit three times since June — most recently when the three cars collided at MacArthur and 77th. The vehicles had smashed up beneath a banner reading: “MacArthur Merchants Revitalizing the Boulevard.”

Several hours later, Davis gazed at broken glass and metal parts that had been swept into neat piles near the entrance to his store. “This stuff is bankrupting me, man…. It just tears me up. I’ve lost everything,” he said.

With residents demanding more protection, Councilwoman Deseley Brooks has proposed creating a city-sponsored sideshow venue.

“The preferable thing is to move sideshow out of neighborhoods and into a place like the airport or Army base,” she said. “We’re spending an inordinate amount of money on this problem. Law enforcement, by itself, won’t get the job done.”

“That’s nuts,” said Councilman Larry Reid, whose district has been hit hard by sideshow activity. “It’s not the responsibility of the city to provide a venue for adults to engage in sideshow.”

For now, Reid’s main concern is putting more officers in the vicinity of Palm Villa, a development of brightly painted affordable homes built on what used to be a stretch of liquor stores and seedy motels.

The homes were designed to attract development in the blighted area. But lately they have been plagued by sideshow and its fans.

“The stench and squeal of burning tires can be so strong that people can’t sleep,” Reid said. “Buses can’t traverse the intersection. Homes have been hit by spinning cars.”

Oakland police have cracked down hard on sideshow in the past, most notably in 2002 after 22-year-old U’Kendra Johnson was killed in a sideshow-related accident. But sustaining those crackdowns has taxed department resources. Maintaining them year round, officials say, simply isn’t possible.

Brown says that with Oakland’s homicide rate at historic lows, the city plans to splurge on “sophisticated new tactics” to combat sideshow. Those may include curfews, permanent confiscation of vehicles and arresting sideshow organizers.

Even some sideshow participants, such as Terone Ward, 26, agree that the activity has spun out of control. Yet he can’t imagine Oakland without it.

“They’ll never be able to stop sideshow; we’ve got strength in numbers,” Ward said. “It’s part of Oakland culture. It’s in the people. It’s who we are.”