OAKLAND -- All signs were pointing to a return of the infamous Oakland Sideshow.

Camaros, Corvettes and Mustangs lined MacArthur Boulevard for blocks -- proud possessions of the Burn Rubber Boys, the Bay Area Stunnaz and Hyphy Muscle, just to name a few of the car clubs ready to strut their stuff.

But it soon became apparent that this late-night celebration of horsepower and car tricks would be much different from the ones several years ago that squealed and raced through East Oakland streets, tormenting police and residents alike.

A Highway Patrol officer pulled up to the gathering across MacArthur from Castlemont High School shortly after midnight Sunday, Dec. 16. The officer peered into a phalanx of 60 faces, almost all of them brown or black. Then he turned up the volume on his radio.

A driver burns tires in a parking lot in East Oakland in the wee hours of Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012.
A driver burns tires in a parking lot in East Oakland in the wee hours of Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. ( Ray Chavez)

It was a hip-hop song. The officer sped away.

No one could name the tune, but everyone knew what it meant.

"I guess we got the OK," Tony Bush Jr. said.

Bush, a 27-year-old muscle car enthusiast and filmmaker, is part of a movement that over the past few years has transformed Oakland's sideshows from often violent and spontaneous drug-fueled gatherings into more organized and less disruptive events that police appear willing to tolerate.

While muscle car gatherings and car tricks are a Bay Area fixture, the sideshow is a uniquely Oakland spectacle unrivaled in size and, in later years, sheer unruliness.

The biggest change helping to tame the sideshows is that Bay Area car clubs began organizing the events.

Striving to be more responsible and avoid run-ins with police, the clubs have moved most of the action off the streets of Oakland, choosing instead to take "cruises" to Sacramento, Hayward and Oakland where most of the tire-squealing car tricks are performed in isolated parking lots.

Sideshow complaints are down fourfold in Oakland since 2009. Many residents mistakenly think they've disappeared altogether.

Light it up

With the CHP apparently not objecting to last month's sideshow, Bush addressed his comrades, who had come from as far as Los Angeles.

"We're going to smack it out all night long, till the gas is gone," he said. "Light it up. Have a good time. And be safe."

Soon a caravan of eight-cylinder engines churned up MacArthur to the 106th Street intersection. That's where one car started spinning doughnuts -- the favorite trick for muscle car fans. Another car joined, and then another.

Tires screeching, the three cars spun in circles like juggling pins, somehow never crashing into one another or the dozens of young men filming it on their camera phones.

Police arrived within five minutes, and a quick cat-and-mouse game ensued: first to another nearby intersection and later to a commercial parking lot.

Bush said it was obligatory to do stunts at a couple of Oakland's traditional sideshow intersections. But most of the action, which lasted past 3:30 a.m., took place in a deserted East Oakland industrial zone, out of sight and out of mind from officers.

Good party gone bad

Today's sideshows are a distant cousin to those from the 1990s, which took place outside the Eastmont mall in East Oakland, or the much more dangerous and violent successors that terrorized sections of the city during the following decade.

(Ray Chavez)

The original sideshow essentially was an outdoor dance club where guys showed off their cars to impress girls. Many people lament its loss and remain angry at the city for chasing it out of the Eastmont mall parking lot -- a space that it was outgrowing -- and unwittingly forcing it into the streets.

The next iteration also was an outdoor party, but one increasingly infested with club drugs, gangsters, out-of-town thrill seekers and parades of old Buicks and Oldsmobiles speeding through sections of East Oakland mostly on summer weekend nights.

"We literally had to force officers to work them," former Oakland Deputy Chief Dave Kozicki said. "You'd roll up on these things and there would be hundreds of cars all going down the street. It was highly volatile and the people were in your face."

Oakland threw everything it had at the sideshows. A law made it a crime to even attend a sideshow, and cars towed from the sideshow were impounded for 30 days.

In 2005, police recorded more than 700 calls and incidents that referenced the sideshows. Over the next four years the average dipped to about 450. Then in 2010, it plummeted to less than 100 and has barely gone up.

The sudden drop, which occurred several years after passage of the anti-sideshow laws, couldn't have come at a better time for Oakland police. The department was able to end special sideshow enforcement just as layoffs and attrition were sapping its manpower. If the old sideshows returned, Chief Howard Jordan said last summer, "it would cripple us."

Detente, awakening

The biggest help police got came from some of the very people spinning doughnuts on city streets last month.

Many muscle car enthusiasts who had been going to the sideshows since they were teenagers didn't like how violent and destructive the events had become. Working with organizations such as Youth UpRising, they pulled out of sideshows and started urging others to do the same.

"There was really an effort among ourselves to become a better element in the community," said Yakpasua Zazaboi, the first sideshow filmmaker and a leader in organizing the car clubs. "We were tired of being the bad guys, and we were trying to step up and do our part."

The Oakland Car Club Association, representing five clubs, formed in 2009 -- just months before the sudden drop in sideshows.

"We didn't like what the sideshow was made out to be," said Bush, whose club is called Self Made Campaign. "We're not just a group of people that go out and do doughnuts. We're people who go out and do things for our community."

The sideshow event Bush organized last month followed an afternoon car club-sponsored toy drive in Hayward.

Oakland police Capt. Ersie Joyner refused to disclose tactics deployed against sideshows in 2010. But he did say that police reached out to Youth UpRising and other community groups to help dissuade sideshow participation.

"It just goes to show that when you collaborate with different entities outside the police department, things go the right way," he said.

Policing themselves

The car clubs have reduced the frequency of sideshows and limited the invite list to keep out troublemakers.

There was no sign of any alcohol during Bush's event last month, and just an occasional whiff of marijuana. "It's almost like we police ourselves," he said.

Police appeared more interested in working with Bush to minimize disruptions than trying to bust the sideshow. When several patrol cars arrived at one intersection, an officer said over his loudspeaker, "Start moving them," an order Bush followed.

Oakland police tallied six calls or incidents referencing sideshow activity at 106th and MacArthur that night, Sgt. Chris Bolton said. No one was cited or arrested, and no cars were towed.

For now it appears the sideshow cease-fire will hold: enthusiasts being more responsible and police less aggressive.

But Bush and Zazaboi say the key to a lasting peace is for Oakland to officially sanction sideshow events -- a suggestion that has never had the political will or financial backing to move forward.

"If it's given the space to work, it won't return to the streets," Zazaboi said. "The seeds of responsibility have been sowed in the generation that is carrying the torch right now."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.