As sideshows increase, Sonoma County community leaders to propose sanctioned event
More than 50 souped-up cars converged on Sebastopol Road and West Avenue one mid-September evening. Hundreds of bystanders milling about the popular Roseland intersection gathered around to watch them pull doughnuts and figure-eights through rising tire smoke.
By the end of the night, two people had been stabbed, at least one car had been impounded and one person arrested on suspicion of reckless driving.
The intersection has been the site of a number of these impromptu stunt events, called sideshows, a relatively new dilemma for local law enforcement and a controversial concern for the community.
Some residents say they are traffic hazards that pose significant danger to pedestrians and other drivers and accuse police of not doing enough to stop them. Police argue that the gatherings are sometimes random and too large to confront without potential use of force.
But leaders in Roseland, the southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood wedged between Highways 12 and 101 where many of these sideshows have taken place, are offering a solution beyond criminalization.
They propose a city-sanctioned event where drivers can do their tricks in a safe, controlled environment. For the young people who participate, they say, sideshows are about self-expression and cultural exchange with roots in the Bay Area.
“This is a great opportunity for government to involve the youth in policy-making,” said Santa Rosa City Council member Eddie Alvarez, who is among those spearheading the proposal. “This could easily be a perfect example for us to say, ‘Your voice counts, what do you want to say?’”
Police limited response
Over the past three years, large-scale sideshows have been growing larger and happening more often in Santa Rosa, according to police data. Some of them have led to injuries.
Two girls were hurt at a sideshow at the Santa Rosa Marketplace last year when they were struck by a car as it spun around the store’s parking lot.
Since the beginning of this year, there have been six large sideshows in the city, police department spokesperson Sgt. Chris Mahurin said.
Police responses to the gatherings generally have been muted.
At the most recent sideshow on Sept. 16, less than two dozen Santa Rosa police officers stood by, noting the license plates of cars they planned to later pull over and impound.
As crowds swelled to 400 spectators, authorities said, officers received a report someone had been shot and ordered people to leave so they could find the potential victim.
In a statement, police said people began throwing rocks and bottles at officers and their cruisers. While they determined no one had been shot, officers found a man with a head injury and two teenagers with superficial stab wounds.
A 14-year-old girl was charged last week with assault with a deadly weapon in one of the stabbings.
Santa Rosa police posted alerts about previous sideshows on May 5 and Aug. 27 at Sebastopol Road and West Avenue on the department’s official Facebook page. Officers did not actively stop either incident.
Some complained about what they said is a nonresponse from law enforcement.
“Ok we all know this was going to happen!” wrote one commenter. “Be prepared and be pro active (sic)!!!“
Steve Martin, the president of Cruisin’ North Car Club of Sonoma County, a nonprofit established in 1987 that hosts car exhibitions and fundraisers, said he just wants the sideshows to stop.
“I live here in Roseland and I hear it almost every night. Sometimes I even smell the smoke. I wish the cops could do something,” he said.
But police spokesperson Mahurin said that sideshows are difficult to predict and plan for.
“They’re tricky,” Mahurin said. “There’s times where they just pop off very quickly. In order to have enough resources to respond, that would take time.”
Instead of directly intervening or dispersing the crowds, police have generally monitored the sideshows, unless there is an emergent situation like gunfire. Officers can later pull over and impound vehicles for 30 days. The driver is responsible for the towing fee and daily lot fee, which total between $2,500 and $3,000.
The city has tried new traffic infrastructure, like large yellow or white ceramic dots in trouble intersections. They’re larger than typical traffic dots and can cause tire or rim damage when hit while skidding, but don’t interfere with normal traffic.
Despite these measures, Santa Rosa authorities are still in a reactive role as they grapple with a relatively recent hazard other cities have struggled over decades to address.
Oakland sideshow meets Santa Rosa lowriding culture
The sideshow was born in the streets and parking lots of East Oakland in the 1980s, said Sean Kennedy, a hip hop historian who grew up “in the culture.” At first a venue for proudly strutting modified vehicles and mingling in the community, he said the sideshows were directly tied to music, originating in Oakland’s Black community with the arrival of hip hop and then popularized beyond the East Bay through tracks like Richie Rich’s 1988 “Side Show.”