In the dark hours last Sunday morning, residents near the intersection of 20th and Folsom streets were woken up by a now-familiar sound: a convergence of cars, doors slamming in unison — and then, suddenly, the screeching of vehicles careening in circles around the intersection, throwing plumes of burnt rubber smoke into their air.
“The lead-up is really interesting … it’s quiet, quiet, quiet, and all of a sudden you hear a rush of cars, and they all stop, and then the doors slam — it’s almost rhythmic, because they’re all getting out at the same time,” said Lamont Bransford-Young, a resident who lives near the intersection. “Then the spinning starts.”
As a professional DJ, Bransford-Young knows a thing or two about spinning — but the kind on display during the increasingly common sideshows in the Mission District’s residential backstreets has left him on edge.
“I feel completely out of control,” said Bransford-Young, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood. “This horrible sound and horrible smell, and it goes on for 40 minutes. I felt like it was a war zone, and we’re vulnerable to whatever will happen.”
The sideshow at 20th and Folsom last Sunday morning was only the latest in a succession of the stunt driving events to pop up in the Mission since last year, and residents remain frustrated, annoyed and scared. While some sideshows merely roust residents from their sleep during the wee hours, others have led to shootings and people getting killed.
They appear to have grown more common in San Francisco during the pandemic. As residents quarantined indoors, streets became more desolate, and cooped-up young people had fewer nighttime outlets to have fun.
“I’ve been here for 20 years, and I haven’t heard it until recently,” said Kris Dirck, who lives near the 20th and Folsom intersection, adding that he saw the first sideshow converge at the intersection some eight months ago. “The first time it happened, the whole block showed up (to watch). Now, people don’t go out. They know better.”
“I need it to end,” he added. ”I’m losing sleep”
And, like other residents, Dirck has not been impressed by the police response, calling it “anemic, at best.”
But the San Francisco Police Department is still determining how to deal with them. On the one hand, residents want police to break up sideshows quickly, while on the other, police do not want to initiate a clash with participants and create a situation in which they might resort to deadly force.
“These events have to be done thoughtfully,” Chief Bill Scott said at a news conference last September, acknowledging this balancing act.
His comments followed a September sideshow at Mission and Persia streets, during which a suspect shot and killed 21-year-old Cesar Corza, a sideshow participant.
City officials responded by making it easier for police to impound participants’ cars for up to 30 days. Meanwhile, Scott formed a new unit dedicated to responding and breaking up the dangerous events. Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak said in a recent email that the SFPD’s new Stunt Driving Response Unit is composed of officers from all 10 neighborhood-level stations, including Mission Station.
“Once information is received regarding sideshow activity, officers respond from across the city,” he wrote. “They meet to discuss and implement a plan of action to disrupt the illegal activity, arrest violators when possible, and to identify violators and/or involved vehicles when arrests are not possible.”
The unit “has successfully disrupted numerous stunt driving incidents across San Francisco,” he added. “Participants commonly flee and move to alternate locations.”
But following last Sunday morning’s sideshow on Folsom — and perhaps another on South Van Ness, according to residents — officers responded to the area and “a dispersal order was given numerous times,” and “participants left the area,” Andraychak said. He noted that police responded to four other sideshows that night, including one at Mission and Persia, where the fatal shooting took place last September.
Sideshows do not only occur in San Francisco, Andraychak noted. And, indeed, they are a Bay Area cultural activity that began in Oakland decades ago, explained John Jones III, the community and political engagement director at Just Cities, a community-based organization in Oakland.
When Jones participated in his first sideshow in 1986, police allowed participants to do donuts in the Eastmont Mall parking lot, so long as they kept it contained and did not get violent, he recalled. But, eventually, police cracked down and stopped sanctioning the events, and “we’re seeing it spill over into other places today,” Jones said.
Jones identified a number of reasons why sideshows have become more common in San Francisco during the pandemic. The most prominent is pandemic-related angst and restlessness among young people between the ages of 18 and 25. With bowling alleys, movie theaters, and other places to socialize unavailable, Jones said, “there’s literally nothing for them to do.”
Covid-related fear was also to blame, he said, as young kids from low-income communities “deal with death” daily regardless of the pandemic. When “you’re bombarded with death daily,” he said, the mindset becomes: “I’m going to live life — I’m going to go out and have fun.”
To be sure, he believed many participants are not from Oakland or San Francisco, but cities further out. And indeed, following a January sideshow at Dolores and 30th streets, police cited 10 participants. None were from San Francisco and only a fraction were from Oakland. The rest were from San Leandro, Castro Valley, Petaluma, Antioch, Santa Rosa, San Mateo and Stockton, police said. All were between 18 and 23.
The answer, Jones said, is to sanction sideshows. He said the Oakland Coliseum parking lot, which is now largely unused, is the most logical place to hold the events. “Charge admission, sign waivers … hire people from the community to provide security,” he said. “And it’s easy to keep it isolated and contained. Easy to have it right there in the parking lot.”
Although Jones agreed that the idea is more idealistic from a policy perspective, it is far from outlandlandish. Many of the dozen Mission District residents that this paper interviewed put forth sanctioned sideshow events as the most common-sense solution.
“That would be a win for everyone,” said Erin, a resident who lives near 20th and Folsom. “I wish there was a better answer, because these days, I’m hesitant about calling the cops.”
Of course, Jones said, sanctioned sideshows would be more about “harm reduction” than eliminating the illegal events altogether. Some participants will inevitably be attracted to the illegality of spinning around a residential intersection and having to run away from the police.
“The knuckleheads,” Jones said, “are gonna be knuckleheads.”