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Deadly Swerves and Spins

Nightly displays of automotive recklessness called 'sideshows' have turned Oakland's streets into danger zones. Fans liken it to an art form.

March 07, 2005|Louis Sahagun | 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.

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