The Sideshow Spectacle: Alameda County’s Crackdown on Onlookers

In a controversial move aimed at curbing the escalating issue of sideshows, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors has taken a bold step by passing an ordinance that criminalizes onlookers, penalizing them with hefty fines and potential jail time. While the concern over sideshows and their undeniable negative impact on public safety is justified, the decision to target mere spectators raises serious questions about the legal validity and efficacy of such measures.

Sideshows, characterized by the reckless display of automotive stunts, have long plagued the streets of Alameda County, particularly in Oakland, the county seat of Alameda. These events often involve dozens of participants, or more, engaging in dangerous activities, including the infamous “donuts” and “ghost riding the whip” (the act of leaving one’s car while the vehicle is in motion to dance, hop on top of the car, etc.) that has resulted in traffic jams, fatalities, pedestrian injuries, and general public nuisances. One news report even likened an Oakland sideshow to a war zone. During sideshows, participants frequently light off fireworks and engage in celebratory gunfire

This is the unfortunate reality for something that started out as relatively innocuous. Sideshows began in the 1990s in Oakland as a social event in closed parking lots, usually as gatherings to show off paint jobs and car accessories. J. Douglas Allen-Taylor wrote:

Oakland’s sideshows did not start out as the wild, violent, out-of-control street events that we often see depicted on the evening news. ... they began sometime in the late 1990s as informal, auto-based late-night social gatherings of African-American youth in Oakland, trying to escape the violence that was flooding the many (sic) of the city’s streets, clubs, and rap and hip-hop venues. 

The East Bay has since exported this phenomenon to other cities and is now a widespread problem in places in places like Los Angeles and Houston, Texas, where sideshows are usually called “takeovers.” Alameda County Board President Nate Miley said, “When you have hundreds of vehicles, hundreds of participants, all sorts of unlawful behavior, it’s just not wholesome for our society.”

It is evident that something needs to be done to address this pressing issue. However, penalizing onlookers seems to be a misguided and legally spurious approach to the problem.

Under the new ordinance, individuals found watching sideshows within 200 feet will face penalties of up to $1,000 and potential incarceration for up to three months. The premise behind this measure is the belief that onlookers contribute to the popularity and continuation of sideshows, therefore making them equally responsible for the associated chaos. However, this logic neglects to consider crucial legal and ethical aspects brought by this strategy.

First and foremost, criminalizing onlookers raises serious questions regarding the infringement of civil rights. While sideshows themselves are undeniably disruptive and dangerous, how is observing such events from a distance illegal? People have a right to use their eyeballs and record what they see. As the First Amendment Coalition Director David Loy pointed out, this remains true even if what people observe is illegal. By penalizing spectators, the Board of Supervisors risks overstepping the boundaries of constitutional rights. 

Furthermore, the feasibility and practicality of enforcing such a law is questionable. Distinguishing between innocent bystanders and those actively promoting or participating in sideshows can be a daunting task for law enforcement. Due to the nature of sideshows, pedestrians may be caught watching in fascinated horror, or stuck behind the traffic, but are otherwise uninvolved. The potential for arbitrary enforcement and biased targeting raises concerns about the implementation of the new law.

While sideshows undoubtedly pose a genuine threat to public safety and must be addressed, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ proposal to penalize onlookers is both legally questionable and counterproductive. The focus should be on identifying and implementing strategies that effectively catch the perpetrators, rather than adopting measures that infringe upon civil liberties and fail to target the core of the problem. For those that consider sideshows to be an integral part of Bay Area culture, nothing precludes sanctioned sideshows in private parking lots, where spectators can safely watch from afar. The county supervisors reconvene on July 11th for a final reading of the ordinance.

Jonathan Hofer is a Research Associate at the Independent Institute. He has written extensively on both California and national public policy issues. He holds a BA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include privacy law, student privacy, local surveillance, and the impact of emerging technologies on civil liberties.
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