If you drive the major thoroughfares in East Oakland, you can see the marks they've left in their passing. Perfect circles, figure eights, and other strange signs on the pavement, like alien crop circles in an Iowa wheat field, or pagan symbols drawn by the devil's own fingernail. Area residents speak of hearing their cries late in the night, a hellish screeching and squealing. Some even have seen them personally, appearing from nowhere in the dark hours, converging at crossroads by the hundreds to perform their rites, then scattering, vanishing into the veins of the city at the approach of a flashing blue light.
For most of us, they are but scenes on the evening news, terrifyingly real yet compellingly surreal. Cars whirling in madness as if living beasts. Smoke rising like hell's fires, as if from the tortured streets themselves. Dark hordes writhing and swaying in the foreground. The images call up the stuff of literature and legend, visions out of Euro-America's worst nightmares: savages, drunk and dancing, natives rising in the jungle, a frenzy that must surely end with the burning of homes and the murder of sleeping settlers. God help us; it's the Oakland sideshows.
For more than two years, the events known as sideshows have preoccupied official Oakland, costing the city an estimated million dollars a year in police overtime, allegedly contributing to the death of an innocent motorist, and culminating in an antipolice backlash that ended in the national notoriety that was January's "Raider Riots." And yet, for all their impact on Oakland's image and economy, most people know next to nothing about the sideshows. What are they? Where did they come from? Answers from police and public officials can be wildly contradictory. And though the local media have produced scores of stories on the sideshows and their impact, it has not seemed to occur to them to produce a picture of the events from the participants' point of view. Given the notoriety of Oakland's sideshows, it is an oversight that would be incomprehensible except that most of the participants are black or brown youth -- a demographic the media doesn't generally take seriously.
But in the late 1990s, amateur videographers began doing the work of journalists, capturing the sideshows from the inside. They compiled a library of videotape that shows a phenomenon far different from the one seen on the evening news or described in the pages of the Oakland Tribune. For one videographer, it has led to recognition by a national film society and a promising career in cinema. For another, it turned into an appearance as a witness in a murder trial. For Oakland, it's the story of a city choking on its own dark youth, unwilling or unable to take advantage of the tremendous potential rising up from the cracks of its sidewalks.
See the game goes deep when you're rolling
Hanging on the streets of Oakland
Nighttime falls and everybody's perking
No punks around so funk's occurring
But the sideshow's back and everybody's flossin'
In they ride trying to slide and all the freaks are tossing
-- Rapper Ant Banks, "Streets of Oakland"
For Yakpasua Zazaboi, the story began with his first visit to Oakland in 1993 or 1994. "I grew up in Daly City," Zazaboi says. "I'd never been to Oakland until I was about fifteen or sixteen. We never even knew there was a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. We just thought the whole world was Frisco, and Oakland was just like a part of Frisco we'd never been to. But one night, about four of us got in a car and came out to East Oakland, and we hit this corner around 68th, around ten o'clock, and that's when we come up on it."
The "it" they'd come up on was a gathering of a hundred or more cars in the lower lot at Eastmont Mall. Scores of young black people were wandering between vehicles, dancing, chilling, kickin' it, blaring music, showing off their clothes and cars, trading phone numbers with the opposite sex.
"It was just black folks and cars everywhere," Zazaboi recalls, grinning at the memory. While his father is Liberian and his mother is from Massachusetts, there's no trace of either in Zazaboi's accent, which is pure California black. "It filled up the whole lot, all down there by Taco Bell and where the old McDonald's used to be. People was walking around just talking. Having fun. And the thing that made me fall in love with it was the fact that here we are in Oakland, but was from the other side of the bay that was supposedly feuding with Oakland at that time, but people weren't tripping off any of that. They weren't looking at us as if we were a threat. They was more like a welcoming thing, like, 'Man, you see us, now get out the car and be with us.'"
The gathering had none of the tension and drama of later sideshows. The early Eastmont events were spontaneous gatherings of young African Americans trying to avoid the drug-related shootings and fights that often plagued black clubs and parties. Left to their own devices, the Eastmont sideshowers apparently created a safe, fun space without bothering anyone else -- safe, at least, in the context of Oakland. Police generally left the gatherings alone.