The San Jose City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve an ordinance that will levy fines and threaten jail time for promoters of illegal sideshows on social media.
Sideshows have been a problem all over the Bay Area going back decades, with large groups gathering to watch drivers wear the rubber off their tires spinning doughnuts around each others — and passengers hanging on while hanging out windows and out of sunroofs. The phenomenon was born in Oakland in the 1980s, with people showing off their cars and doing doughnuts in parking lots, but sideshows have morphed into big affairs full of dangerous tricks that draw hundreds of spectators thanks to social media.
San Jose city councilmembers want to crack down on that social media activity by making it illegal even to tweet or post a TikTok video about a sideshow in progress or in the making, thereby taking away one of the main drivers of sideshow culture. As KRON4 reports, they voted Tuesday to levy fines of $1,000 and present the possibility of up to six months in jail for anyone caught using social media to promote a sideshow.
San Jose police say they received 2,400 calls about illegal sideshows just between September 2020 and February 2021, and they say high-speed racing has also become a dangerous problem. A 19-year-old San Jose man was killed in June in a street-racing accident.
Various cities have enacted laws making it illegal and punishable by a fine to be a spectator at a sideshow, though it's not clear how often these laws are getting enforced — and clearly they're not working as a deterrent.
A California Assembly bill, AB410, that would have levied fines on repeat sideshow participants and made such repeat participation a felony died in committee last year.
"We have no tolerance for the violence and vandalism caused by sideshows,” said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to the Chronicle two years ago. “Big, impromptu gatherings are a part of Oakland culture, but sideshows endanger the safety of all residents, the lives of participants, and terrorize our most underserved neighborhoods."
But sideshows continue to be popular underground affairs, and if people don't want to be fined for a tweet or Instagram post they can still send videos around to all their friends or promote an event via text or private account.
An SF Weekly piece from May argued that sideshows shouldn't be treated as criminal and authorities ought to simply provide spaces where these events can legally occur.
AS Oakland community activist Cat Brooks told the Chronicle in 2019, "Open up the Coliseum. Open up where they can go do what they’re going to do with their cars. It’s just exhausting to me that the answer is always law enforcement, the criminal justice system, always."
But city leaders and police say there is no such thing as a safe sideshow, and very often there is gunfire, vandalism, and property damage involved — and that's to say to say nothing of injuries and deaths.
One motorcyclist died following a series of orchestrated sideshows one weekend in August 2014.
In April 2019, a sideshow in East Oakland ended with an AC Transit bus and the cab of a semi truck both on fire.
An uptick in sideshow activity in eastern Contra Costa County, and specifically Antioch, led Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe to issue a stern warning last month. "I’m not messing around with anybody," Thorpe said. "This is not the place to conduct this activity. I will not tolerate it and neither will the [police] chief and neither will the city. We will employ every measure possible to stop this from happening. I warn every single organizer of this event to cancel this by Friday and if not you are going to be met with the full force of the Antioch Police Department with my support."
Thorpe said that several intersections had been deemed "no-sideshow zones," and in a pilot program, raised road markers had been added to make doing doughnuts more difficult.
A recent sideshow in Antioch ended with 21 cars being towed but only one arrest, after a participant crashed his car while trying to run away from cops.
Still, Thorpe acknowledge the tricky issue with saying that sideshows can't ever happen anywhere, and the city was looking into creating a place where they could occur legally.
"I recognize that these kinds of events are part of the Bay Area culture," Thorpe said. "Particularly as an expression of resistance but I cannot ignore the fact that these kinds of events can kill people."