Tire marks left on 20th and Folsom. Photo by Julian Mark
Tire marks left on 20th and Folsom. Photo by Julian Mark

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.” 

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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43 Comments

  1. “ They meet to discuss and implement a plan of action to disrupt the illegal activity”

    It’s the same corner every 2-4 weeks. How many new plans do they need to show up only 30-40 minutes after it starts?

    1. Somebody said it went on for 40 minutes.

      Is that what the cops call a rapid response?

  2. Sanctioned, ticketed sideshow events sound like a fine idea. We already do that for auto racing, demolition derbies, and car shows. Maybe they can even get auto firms and parts firms to do sponsorships.

    1. Been a SF resident most my life with a family history going back to 1944.. from what I recall, areas of the city were also closed for street drags at one time… I really like this comment on sanction areas with car dealer representation.. maybe even at the Cow Palace, like the Monster Car thing. A ticketed event. I also I think SFFD, should consider areas of city for illegal firework activity where it can be done safely during obvious holidays. Some thing to think about.

  3. Are you kidding?

    I’ve had it with this city’s inability and will to deal with the many issues comprising the quality of life.

    I’m leaving! You and the citizens who tolerate this can have this city.

    Bye!

      1. Gentrifier? Aren’t these sideshows a relatively recent phenomenon? So who’s doing what to whom in this situation? I must be misunderstanding what gentrification means. I thought it meant displacing residents through rent and cost of living increases. I did not realize gentrification meant refusing to accept degradation in existing quality of life.

        1. They’ve been happening since forever and especially the hype movement. Get with it or get lost! You cannot change the last bit of culture Sf and Oakland natives have.

  4. Was bicycling on Folsom at high noon 4 Wednesdays ago and stopped at 19th / watched one man in a beater car practicing his circles at 20th & Folsom. Noon time! So somebody was checking sites out in advance….

  5. Awww the gentrifiers are mad lmaoo why do ya’ll come to the Mission then? It’s part of the culture here in the Mission District. Move to Pac Heights then or don’t come to my city then.

    1. What a joke. People who say stuff like this should ask what families in East Oakland think of sideshows. Hint: they’re even less thrilled than the Oakland community organizer and longtime black resident in the mission interviewed in this article are.

    2. Part of the culture? Maybe, but they used to be pretty few and far between. I’ve lived in the neighborhood for around 30 years and this is completely different.

  6. A PRIMER:
    How to procure a vehicle for sideshow activity or, if you’re industrious, get you to work and back.

    Let’s face it – a car is a vital life necessity for commuting to work, making cop cakes or just general life.
    So – you’re young with little money and have unresolved stuff on your driving record like driving with no insurance, no valid license or expired tags (very common in the real world).

    Here’s what you do:
    1) Go to a junk yard out in the sticks. These days many vehicles get written off and totaled once the catalytic converter has been swiped.
    2) Negotiate a cheap cash deal for one of these running but no catalytic converter cars – the most documentation that will be offered is a bill of sale. This is fine – you ain’t registering the thing and it’s something to show the cops if you get pulled over.
    3) While you’re at the yard – pick up any old CA license plate lying around if your buggy is missing one (most probably will be).
    4) Get some flex muffler pipe and muffler tape and connect up the exhaust where it’s been cut so you ain’t roaring around attracting attention.
    5) Peel off some valid sticker tags off a parked car and stick ‘em on your plate.
    6) You’re good to go, not driving a stolen car and if it gets towed or impounded – rinse and repeat.

    The point of this explanation is that “sanctioned” events may involve a police presence or some organization that may require stuff like proof of insurance. That ain’t gonna fly with our sideshow beater.

  7. Impoundment cars doesn’t stop them. You have to crush the car infront of them. If you want it to stop you have to create something that will happen to them to discourage people from going to the sideshows.

  8. How about taking their cars and bikes from them when they’re not doing an actual sideshow? In the TL, these folks are tearing around the neighborhood – but eventually they get out and start hanging out with people on the sidewalk. If you have video evidence of them driving wrecker, or operating non street legal vehicles, that’s all you need to win in court, right? Impound the vehicles, they’ll have little choice but to capitulate. They’re endangering children and seniors, and they couldn’t care less about who they disturb. Why should they be allowed so much consideration? Start busting them when they’re not even in their cars. And if they try cry foul, show them video evidence of their car engaged in wreckless driving – whoever owns the vehicle should be held responsible.

  9. “we are afraid it might turn into a shots fired call”. So I guess that means sfpd won’t be responding to possible drug deals, break INS, or homicide calls. sfpd and other police units throughout our country should of done more to prevent what has been done and has created the reputation that now hangs over every law officer in this country.. that would be to remember you are here to protect and serve the community. Get rid of black cars that are hard to see, get rid of the dark almost black uniforms that make you hard to see. Instead be like Europe where there cars are bright blue and yellow so that are easy to spot and find . That way if I have been mugged or assaulted I can spot an officer for protection and they can possibly locate suspect before he runs out of the area. That time is critical in catching a criminal. Our current method of calling 911 and waiting 3hours or more for an officer doesn’t work.

    1. These are some very good observations and ideas about the dark attire and visibility of SF cops.
      Florescent lime green.
      We’re here!
      On the flip side – “spotting” an officer has about as much probability as spotting a taxi in The Sunset. Seems like they’ve checked out on the concept of a proactive/protective police presence.

  10. Thank Chesa Boudin and London Breed and all who supported these two excuses for public servants.

  11. The Mission is returning to its roots as it was in the 1980’s and 1990’s, prior to the invasion of Tech Gentrifiers.

    1. I lived in the Mission in the mid 1970s. Children were being shot to death on there way to and from school for wearing the wrong colors. The police were recommending that children wear white clothing since that was not associated with a gang.

  12. I don’t think sanctioning them gets you anywhere. A lot of the people participating (both as drivers and as onlookers) are drawn to sideshows because they’re illegal. That’s the thrill. There’s also the matter of where. Probably the only place you could do it and not gore someone’s ox is in Golden Gate Park. The Cow Palace is in another legal jurisdiction, so their parking lot is out.

    1. The article mentions how this is more of a “harm reduction” policy. Sure you can say “criminals will always break the law” but you don’t know that for sure. Maybe people would go to a legal event.

  13. Some jackass decided to do donuts in the intersection on 19th and S Van Ness on Saturday around 8pm, and as a result got hit by a car that had the right of way and then those cars both hit my parked car. Better my car than the parklet across the street at Bender’s but still…

  14. The culture argument is ridiculous, the same as southern whites claiming the confederate flag is part of their culture, it’s still wrong and so are sideshows. I honestly feel sorry for the participants, it is 2021 and this is what you get excited about ? Petrol-masculinity? the world is leaving you and your stupid muscle car behind.

  15. Man or man, Great Highway was the shit! Brotherhood Way too-we’d clock over 100 on great hwy. Additionally, there was large groups of kids and young adults who would hang out at the sea wall and Playland At The Beach who would get into trouble with each other and “the law.” 60’s-70’s; woohoo! Some things don’t change that much.

  16. “Figuring out how to deal with them” and “don’t want to clash” even the title “sanctioning them”? What is wrong with the so called authorities of this town. They refuse to serve and protect property, basic order and Life.

    The incidence of everyone reading this of being a victim of a violent crime here is 1 in 23. And you know why. People are finding out the hard way, through pain about the corruption of the “institutions” of this town.

    You can pretend it’s some kind of culture but it’s simply vagrancy and disrespect for others. As a native one starts to feel stupid for staying.

    Looking forward to my new peaceful home away from this mismanaged town. I feel bad for my neighbors and good People here who have to live like this. And feel sorry for the ones who refuse to see reality and insist it’s a great place and attack anyone who says otherwise.

    Anything to try and hide the shame, right? It stopped being a descent place to live and enjoy Life for the normal person so long ago.

  17. I’m a liberal, lived in SF for 20 years and supporter of diversity and culture. BUT…I’m sick of people coming from everywhere but SF to do stupid sh*t like sideshows in our streets. This isn’t just happening in the Mission, its everywhere!! Find something better to do with your time. You endanger people, property and for what? This is not culture, this is some brainless sh*t…go find something meaningful to do with your time.

    1. Hi there — 

      Your donations go to support the journalism. Not the comments. Those are provided for free.

      Best,

      JE

      1. The free fly in the soup. No thanks.

        Maybe I’ll sign up for your texts instead.

  18. Skaters love skateparks. I think it’s totally worth trying sanctioned spots for the sideshows. But I would argue it should be a “free space.” Charging folks seem counterintuitive. The whole point is to give the kids a spot that doesn’t disrupt or endanger non participants.

  19. Maybe instead of enabling these lawbreakers, why not just impound their cars permanently for repeat violations? This is antisocial behavior that has become more popular thanks to “Fast and Furious” movies and a lack of desire on the part of our city government to prosecute any crimes. I’ve lived here for decades, and this business hasn’t been going on this long, but rather, ramped up very quickly. There are many dangerous, antisocial activities that used to be considered “cultural” that are now illegal, such as cockfighting, bullfighting, etc. Just because someone claims it’s part of their culture doesn’t make it okay to endanger the lives of other people, deprive the neighborhood of sleep, and give everyone in a two block range an asthma attack!

  20. I’ve lived in the Mission for 50 years. The cops sat in their cars and watched a sideshow at 2am for an hour June 12. Just as it is illegal for a mob to seize the U.S. Capitol, it is illegal for a mob to seize the streets to play Fast And Furious. Laws apply to all of us or none of us. Why should we pay our parking tickets? Why should we stop at red lights? I know being a cop is difficult, but it is in fact the job they signed up for. They say their policy is to take down license plates but I didn’t see them even do that. They should either get a drone or show up and just start impounding. Or just remove all laws. In fact, if Trump breaks a few laws as president, why get mad? He can simply claim it’s his culture.

  21. The real danger is that angry citizens will start using vigilante methods against the side show criminals. These perps and cops standing and watching will all become victims. Perhaps then there will be alarm about job security. Most cops tell me that their hands are tied and the orders come from London Breed by way of the Chief. Since she is just a puppet, who’s behind her pulling the strings, deliberately refusing to arrest criminals and causing such chaos? Who is trying to drive people out of the city? Why our city and not wide open empty intersections in San Leandro or Castro Valley or Petaluma, wherever these perps come from? There is a bigger picture here, folks. It’s a sick one and leads to Gavin etc.

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