Sideshows RIP?

Oakland's illegal street parties have vanished -- at least for now -- but no thanks are due to the new law targeting spectators.

Sergeant Donna Hoppenhauer is suddenly way overqualified for her job. For eight years, the diminutive but tough cop has been assigned to what her colleagues call the “Dogwatch.” Traditionally, it has been one of the most demanding beats in the East Bay, patrolling the mean streets of East Oakland on weekend nights for twelve hours at a time while working the front lines of the city’s effort to curb sideshows — the roving, often out-of-control parties that snake through eastside neighborhoods, spinning doughnuts and blaring earth-pounding hip-hop.

Over the years, Hoppenhauer has learned the tactical art of breaking up sideshows and peacefully dispersing the hundreds of cars that take over intersections or entire city blocks. The transplanted New Yorker also has developed a knack for engaging motorists in small talk so as to defuse what otherwise might become a tense situation.

But she has little need for such skills these days. The reason? Sideshows appear to be dead — or at least in a long, sustained slumber.

This surprising turn of events has nothing to do with the highly publicized and hotly debated new city law that Mayor Jerry Brown pushed through the council this summer. In truth, police have yet to employ the mayor’s new ordinance, which makes it a crime to be a sideshow spectator.

According to Hoppenhauer and her commander, Lieutenant Dave Downing, who oversees the Dogwatch and all sideshow enforcement activities, there hasn’t been a sideshow — a large gathering of cars and pedestrian spectators — since the end of April. Isolated small groups of cars still spin doughnuts in East Oakland and elsewhere, but they typically disperse before police arrive.

So what about Brown’s public pronouncements in June and July that the city desperately needed his emergency legislation because sideshows had gotten so out of hand? It turns out there was no pressing need for the new law, because OPD had already successfully suppressed the sideshows by more than doubling the number of officers on East Oakland streets.

As the gray Buick weaved through the narrow, treeless streets below Bancroft Avenue in East Oakland, Hoppenhauer stalked from a distance. Her black-and-white patrol car rolled past a seemingly endless row of single-story bungalows that squat behind chain-link and wrought-iron fences. She stayed just far enough behind the Buick to remain unnoticed.

Hoppenhauer first spotted the sedan a few minutes before, while her cruiser idled at the corner of Bancroft and 82nd avenues. The car had turned into the intersection right in front of her, and then as it drove away, the front passenger door swung open and a man stood up and began hanging out of the car.

When the car’s front passenger and driver’s doors swung open again just before 79th Avenue and Weld Street, Hoppenhauer floored the gas pedal, instantly zooming up behind, lights flashing. It was immediately apparent, however, that this was no sideshow car, and the incident would be far easier to handle than what Hoppenhauer had become used to.

First off, this was no superpowered Mustang 5.0 with an impeccable paint job and shiny chrome-spinning hubcaps. This was a 1980s-era clunker with a cracked windshield, a front fender that was about to fall off, and no hubcaps in sight. And inside, there were four young, well-behaved Latino men. The contrite driver told Hoppenhauer he had bought the Buick for $200 at an auction three days before.

After her backup arrived, Hoppenhauer calmly cited the driver and the front-seat passenger for reckless behavior and the driver for failing to have either a driver’s license or vehicle registration. Before she had their Buick towed, Hoppenhauer released the four men and sent them off on foot, allowing them to carry away their car speakers and their unopened twelve-pack of Bud Light.

It was ten minutes to midnight on a recent Saturday and it turned out to be the only incident on Hoppenhauer’s 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift that even remotely resembled a sideshow. “Multiply what they were doing by a couple of hundred cars,” she remarked a few minutes later as she filled out the city-mandated racial-profiling form, “and that’s what we used to face out here.”

“Used to” was a phrase Hoppenhauer repeated often during a 10 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. stint with her. “This is where it used to be just filled with cars,” she said as we drove through the intersection of International Boulevard and 98th Avenue. “It would just be packed; they would take over the whole intersection.”

Hoppenhauer said the current three-month-plus absence of sideshows is the longest lull she has witnessed in her eight years on Dogwatch. There are still minor remnants of sideshows going on, ten to fifteen cars doing doughnuts in an intersection for a few minutes. But they disperse before police arrive and bear little resemblance to the giant rolling parties back in the day. “Whatever they’ve done, it’s working,” said Jean Blacksher, referring to police efforts to quell the sideshows. Blacksher is a longtime Toler Heights neighborhood resident and one of the most outspoken opponents of sideshows in the past decade.

This summer’s quiet weekend nights in East Oakland represent a stark contrast to earlier this year, when the sideshows seemed uncontrollable and were turning increasingly ugly. From January through April, police attributed seven homicides to sideshow-related activity, Downing said.

Sideshows, however, have not always attracted violent crime. For the twenty- to thirty-year-old, mostly African-American participants, sideshows have been about having fun, meeting people after the clubs and bars close for the night, and openly defying authority. It’s a car culture unique to Oakland.

From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, sideshows were mostly relegated to large parking lots — the Eastmont Mall parking lot at 73rd Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard was a favorite. But then the city forced the sideshows onto the streets when it mandated that parking-lot owners put up chains or erect fences that are locked at night to prevent people from getting onto the lots.

The result was even more confrontations with police, and for many of the estimated 150,000 residents between High Street and the San Leandro border, sideshows became a recurrent nightmare of sleepless nights and feeling trapped inside their homes. As housing prices skyrocketed throughout the Bay Area, sideshows also became the glaring downside of purchasing a home in one of the region’s last relatively affordable areas.

Not surprisingly, Mayor Jerry Brown made the elimination of sideshows a cornerstone of his second term. Sideshows had become increasingly high profile; stories about Oakland’s problems with them landed on the front page of the Los Angeles Times earlier this year and were featured on NBC’s prime-time show Dateline.

It also became readily apparent that sideshows would probably hamper Brown’s bid to become California’s next attorney general. Just picture a campaign opponent airing a TV commercial, showing hundreds of people flouting the law and creating havoc on the streets of Oakland, with the announcer saying: “Is this what we want from California’s next top cop?”

The sideshow problem appeared to be so intractable that when interim Police Chief Wayne Tucker announced in March that he would put an end to them, some of his own rank and file thought he was overreaching. After all, the two previous police chiefs, Richard Word and Joseph Samuels, had made similar declarations. Plus, the sideshows were bankrupting the department. Police overtime costs attributed to combating them reportedly reached $2 million the past five years.

But then earlier this year, Tucker and his command staff made two key moves. First, in late January the department created the “Late Tac Unit,” comprising sixteen officers and two sergeants, including Hoppenhauer. All members of the unit were already on night patrol in East Oakland, but their jobs were redefined to mainly target sideshows, Downing said.

Then in late April, the OPD boosted the patrol of East Oakland streets on Friday and Saturday nights by adding 22 more officers and three sergeants. These officers are all regularly assigned to other duties, and are working the weekend shifts under the department’s mandatory overtime provision. These 43 cops are also joined by sixteen California Highway Patrol officers, who cruise the major East Oakland thoroughfares on weekend nights.

The anti-sideshow forces focus on traffic violations, reasoning that sideshows are far less likely to materialize if East Oakland motorists are constantly seeing cars being pulled over by police. According to Downing, the officers have issued five thousand traffic citations on weekend nights alone since January, resulting in seven hundred arrests. They’ve also towed 1,700 vehicles in that time.

The crackdown has worked so well that OPD hasn’t had to use all of the anti-sideshow weapons in its arsenal. The most highly publicized among them is a state law that allows police to impound the cars of sideshow drivers for thirty days. The law, which inflicts a stiff financial penalty of more than $1,000 in the form of thirty-day storage fees, was enacted three years ago by the Legislature and was named for U’Kendra Johnson, a young woman killed in a sideshow-related incident. “I don’t even know the last time we used that,” Downing said.

Nevertheless, in late May, nearly one month after the sideshows stopped, Brown introduced his emergency anti-sideshow-spectator ordinance. He argued that it was needed so urgently that it should bypass the normal legislative committee process and go directly to the full city council. “We’ve got to use every legitimate tool to prevent this invasion of Oakland’s neighborhoods,” the Oakland Tribune quoted him as saying at the time.

The council initially rejected his ordinance, which would have made it a misdemeanor to watch and cheer on a sideshow. But then in July, the council approved a watered-down version that allows police to fine sideshow spectators $500 for their first offense and $750 for the second. The new law then makes it a misdemeanor to be a spectator on the third offense, punishable by up to six months in jail.

Being smart cops, Downing and Hoppenhauer would neither criticize the new law nor the mayor. Both agreed with the logic behind the new ordinance — spectators are an essential component to sideshows and targeting them makes sense. They also said that if sideshows ever come back, the new law will provide them with another potent weapon.

But Brown’s new law is not one of their pressing concerns. It’s clear that what they worry about most is a cutback in the number of cops on the street. “We know we can’t maintain that level of manpower because it’s expensive,” Downing acknowledged. “But we know we need to keep some level of staffing out there.” Both Downing and Hoppenhauer are convinced that sideshow participants are just waiting in the shadows for a time when there will be fewer police patrolling East Oakland.

Case in point: During the ridealong with Hoppenhauer there were so many police cars on patrol that it seemed as if one went by every couple of minutes. Then, after hours of circling the streets without incident, Hoppenhauer spotted three or four tricked-out cars huddled together in a gas station parking lot at about 2 a.m. She immediately pulled in and parked right next to them. Within seconds, the lot was empty and the cars were gone.

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