Fireworks Theories: Safe & Sane to Conspiratorial

The numbers show that fireworks are popping off like crazy — but why?

A number of cities around the country have seen an unusual pattern of nightly firework activity in recent weeks: Like clockwork, beginning in the evening hours and sometimes lasting until 3 a.m., cherry bombs, bottle rockets, and professional grade mortars can be heard exploding in cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York. Nightly fireworks have been reported in several parts of the Bay Area, with the Alameda County Sheriff tweeting about “higher than normal” illegal firework usage.

The surge in firework activity has, expectedly, proven to be a nuisance. In New York City, over 1,300 firework-related calls over the last two weeks were made to the city’s non-emergency services phone number, compared to last year’s total of 25 complaints — an increase of over 5,000 percent. Firework-related calls are up in Boston by 2,300 percent, as that city’s mayor, Marty Walsh, noted that there were 650 firework-related calls to the Boston Police Department in May while only 27 calls came in the previous year over the same month. Even police in Hartford, Connecticut have been receiving upwards of 200 firework-related phone calls a day.

Neither the San Francisco Police Department nor the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (DEM), which maintains the city’s 911 system, were able to provide numbers of firework-related complaint calls in recent weeks or previous years, as there is no separate category for tracking firework-related complaints at either the DEM or the city’s Fire Department.

Fireworks that ascend into the air or do more than produce low-volume pops or crackles are illegal to set off without a special license in California. The state restricts consumer firework sales to ground-based — or “safe and sane” — varieties, such as sparklers, smoke bombs, or fire-spewing “fountains.” Even these are governed by restrictions: they may only be sold by licensed retailers from June 28 to July 6, and are illegal in San Francisco.

Michael Andraychak, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department says that the city’s prohibition against fireworks of all stripes is about safety. “Devices that launch into the air or move about the ground could ignite fires and those devices that explode pose a real risk of injury,” Andraychak said via email.

Dennis Revell, a spokesperson for national consumer fireworks manufacturer TNT Fireworks, says that while it’s normal to hear fireworks in Bay Area cities throughout the summer, this season has been unusual, as he began hearing fireworks popping off “a whole lot earlier, and in heavier volumes.”

When asked why he thought cities around the country were hearing more fireworks than usual the past few months Revell said he could only speculate. “But I don’t know if my speculation would be accurate.”

Still, plenty have theories. Some chalk it up to little more than bored kids blowing off steam. Others entertain conspiracy theories — including the notion that the nightly explosions are part of a psychological operations (psy-op) project undertaken by police departments to destabilize the protest movement that has swept the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

Quiet Streets Are The Devil’s Workshop

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias chalked up the firework frequency to higher sales and quieter cities, writing that fireworks “are more noticeable with less background noise.” 

The executive director for the American Pyrotechnics Association told Slate that they’re now anticipating “a banner year” for firework sales, and major cities have seen less noise due to COVID shutdowns. But now that California has entered Stage 2 in its “Resilience Roadmap,” cities like San Francisco have begun to reopen businesses, and the noises of city life are returning.

Accessibility Issues

Another theory maintains that cancellations of July Fourth events around the country due to COVID-19 have made fireworks more accessible. Some have even ventured to say that unsold professional-grade fireworks — the kind typically used for large, coordinated shows — are finding their way to consumers.

Explosive Ennui

Many will say it’s rather simple: the pandemic has left people feeling bored and restless.

“Young people have been cooped up and we know that on beautiful summer nights like we’re having now, unfortunately some young people are turning to the wrong approach, and that’s illegal fireworks,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a recent press event.

While some have said the fireworks are just kids blowing off steam, others have questioned how these individuals would go about obtaining illegal fireworks. A few Twitter users have tweeted about men in vehicles filled with fireworks entering neighborhoods and either giving the products away for free or at an extremely reduced price.

The Deep State

One of the most popular explanations on sites like Twitter and Reddit alleges that the fireworks and other loud noises are part of a planned psy-op undertaken by police or government forces.

A viral Twitter thread by Brooklyn writer Robert Jones, Jr. maintains that the nightly firework activity “is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces; an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement.” 

Jones, Jr.’s thread, which has tens of thousands of retweets, argues that the fireworks are a form of “psychological warfare” meant to deprive residents of sleep, desensitize residents to the “sounds of firecrackers and other fireworks” and “stoke tensions between Black and Brown peoples.” Jones, Jr. tweeted that the fireworks are an escalated response to the continued Black Lives Matter protests — a response which precedes an even more dire next step: “It’s meant to sound like a war zone because a war zone is what it’s about to become.”

In a viral Twitter video uploaded on Monday showing a scene in West Harlem at 3 a.m., around 10 New York Police Department vehicles with their sirens blaring appear to be driving slower than usual as fireworks burst in the background. In response, some users echoed Jones, Jr.’s claims, saying the loud noises are meant to create artificial stress and discord.

Whatever the case, the nightly fireworks shows have consequences. Shivering, fearful dogs are keeping their wards up all night, and those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder say that whether the fireworks are being lit by bored kids or shadowy government operatives, the result is the same for those who come from communities plagued by violence.

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