Illegal Street Performances – Coming to a Town Near You

If you haven't heard of illegal street performances called "sideshows," read on. Law enforcement needs to be aware of the potential dangers resulting from these increasingly popular gatherings.

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"Sideshows" are illegal street performances and stunts of vehicles and people, taking over public streets, and placing participants, onlookers, the public, and police in danger.

Sideshows originated in Oakland, Calif., around 20 years ago, and for awhile, were mostly confined to Oakland and adjacent suburbs. However, recently "sideshows" have spread throughout northern California, into other western states, and beyond.

Thanks in large part to the Internet, videos, and the news media, "sideshows" have become increasingly popular in recent years.

Born in California

In Oakland, where it all began, "sideshows" have wreaked havoc, posing a significant challenge for police. Oakland Police assigns "sideshow" task forces, and the state of California has re-enacted vehicle impound laws in an effort to curtail sideshows.

Why? Because sideshows often result in violence, injuries, and even deaths. Vehicle accidents, shootings, stabbings, and mob mentality commonly accompany sideshows. Especially alarming is that Oakland Police have been not only the targets of repeated rock and bottle throwing, but also at times the targets of gunfire.

Take two recent Oakland sideshow examples:

April 12, 2008—Two cars slammed into an occupied house, rupturing a natural gas line, engulfing the entire house in flames. Luckily, no one was injured.

May 3, 2008—A shooting left one dead, and two wounded.

Anyone who thinks sideshows are only Oakland's problem should think again. Several years ago, a rap concert in Concord, Calif., drew a large audience, and also a beefed up police presence. While there were no problems at the concert, a mob of concert-goers descended on a nearby gas station, looting its convenience store and erupting into violence that left one person dead from gunfire.

Police scattered the crowd, many of whom fled onto a major freeway. They took over the freeway, first with racing, culminating in shutting down the Caldecott Tunnel with an impromptu sideshow. Responding CHP dispersed the sideshow participants back to Oakland.

Spreading Like a Disease

Some of you might be saying, "So what? Sideshows are a California problem." You'd be wrong. If you're familiar with the terms "ghost riding, ghosting, ghosting the whip," then you've heard "sideshow" talk.

"Ghost riding" refers to all vehicle passengers—including drivers—hanging and dancing on the outside of slow-moving vehicles, which leaves no one behind the steering wheel. Sideshows also feature traditional street racing, peeling rubber, donuts, etc.

As police problems go, sideshows are among the most difficult and potentially dangerous of all.

  • First, they're clear acts of defiance of authority, with responding police often the targets of rocks, bottles, and even gunfire.
  • Second, they're mobile and move rapidly from location to location thanks to cell phone communication (including texting) that allows participants to stay one step ahead of responding police.
  • Third, they completely take over city streets and intersections – involving hundreds of often violent participants and onlookers. And sometimes escalating into full-fledged riots, as happened (twice) the year the Raiders made it to the Super Bowl.

Combating sideshows takes tactical planning, organization and response, utilizing enough officers to disperse mobile crowds, make arrests, tow vehicles, and keep the sideshows on the move until they eventually quit (for the night).

Effective Response

Oakland Police are the most experienced in dealing with sideshows. OPD deploys a dedicated sideshow task force, hitting the "hot spots" with enough officers and mobility to keep pace with the equally mobile sideshows. Periodically, OPD teams up with Alameda County Sheriff's Department and CHP to form an even larger, more effective task force.

And in 2007, California re-enacted state legislation that has proven highly effective: allowing police to impound sideshow vehicles for 30 days. Without their wheels, sideshows are "no shows."

As a believer in SWAT and Mobile Field Forces (MFF), I see this combination as a powerful, effective response, clearly equal to the task of taking on sideshows and associated violence. I see the role of MFFs as being the same as OPD's current task force: disperse, make arrests, tow vehicles, keep them moving. I see the role of SWAT as three-fold. First, as the tip of the (MFF) spear. Second, as chemical/less-lethal deployment. Third, and most important, as perimeter protection for the MFF.

This potent combination of Mobile Field Forces and SWAT provides a highly effective, tactical, professional approach more than capable of dealing with sideshows.

Not a Fun Fad

Some of you are probably still skeptical about sideshows as a law enforcement challenge. If you are, go ahead and call the Oakland Police, and they'll set you straight. If you think sideshows are merely another passing West Coast fad, think again. Like its predecessor "fads" rock cocaine, L.A. gangs, and meth, sideshows are one "fad" that is here to stay. Perhaps the biggest reason for their staying power is sideshows are fun.

But there's something far more sinister about sideshows than merely having some harmless "fun." The reality is sideshows are a dangerous, deadly game of street anarchy—holding law abiding citizens hostage, defying the law, and openly challenging police—with the prize being control of the streets. Who will win? Them or us?

Sideshows are here to stay and, like many West Coast "fads," will ultimately spread throughout America. The question is: Will you be ready when sideshows come to a town near you?

About the Author
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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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