Fireworks: they’re loud, they’re surprising, and if you live in a major metropolitan area such as New York City, their boom is probably all up in your ear canal every night.
Gothamist reported over the weekend that New Yorkers registered 236 times the amount of fireworks-related complaints between June 1 and June 19 as they did in the same time period last year. That’s 6,385 pissed off 311 dials compared to just 27 in early June of 2019. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams told Gothamist that he’s also seeing more “elaborate devices” — not just “simple firecrackers and little small toy-type rockets,” but “large displays along Brooklyn and in Manhattan.” Michael Ford, a piano teacher who lives in Inwood, told the New York Times recently, “These are not your normal kids playing with fireworks. These are real explosives, like Macy’s style fireworks.” (Anything stronger than a sparkler is illegal in New York, but the city has a rich history of illicit firework displays and the products being launched can be purchased legally in certain places out of state.)
The situation has become so extreme in New York that on Tuesday Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a multi-agency taskforce to counteract the illegal fireworks trade. The force will be made up of 10 NYPD Intelligence Bureau cops, 12 FDNY firefighters, and 20 Sheriff’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation members. “Illegal fireworks are both dangerous and a public nuisance,” said de Blasio at the City Hall briefing, adding that the force will emphasize disrupting the supply chain (methods include “undercover buys” and “sting operations”) rather than going after individual launchers. Still, the announcement angered activists, who raised concerns about the danger of such an aggressive police response amid weeks of protests and violent crack-downs from the NYPD. The prospect of bulking up enforcement also flies in the face of the growing movement to defund the NYPD. The announcement came after tired New Yorkers protested outside de Blasio’s residence at Gracie Mansion on Monday. Protesters created road blocks and honked horns; one shouted into a microphone, “We don’t sleep, nobody sleeps,” NBC News reports.
And New York is far from the only city experiencing an uptick in firecracker-related noise complaints. The Boston Herald reported that local police say they received 1,445 fireworks complaints in the first week of June, compared to 22 in the same week in 2019. Uncommonly frequent shows of fireworks have also been noted in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Hartford, Connecticut.
I think everyone will agree that fireworks — not as in the Katy Perry single but as in pyrotechnics — are the song of the summer. What people are less sure about is where they are coming from. Speculation coupled with a general lack of reporting on the ground has led to two prominent theories.
Theory 1: Bored Kids
The theory rests on the confluence of multiple factors. First, what was left of school is wrapping up, summer enrichment programs are largely canceled or stalled, parties have long been off the table, jobs are hard to come by, and the young people are bored out of their minds. Second, social distancing measures are finally beginning to ease up, protests are giving people a renewed sense of political possibility, and a time of celebration is upon us. The third and final most salient condition is a robust fireworks trade in cities across the country. And sales are up: American Pyrotechnics Association executive director Julie Heckman said at industry event on June 3 that the fireworks market is experiencing “a banner year.”
Some people who left their apartments to check out where all the noise is coming from have evidence to back this theory. The New York Times, for instance, talked to a 24-year-old man known only as Djani who was firing rockets with three friends in Crown Heights recently. “We’re basically celebrating the fact that we survived,” said Djani, referring to coronavirus and quarantine. He added that he also sees the fireworks as a show of courage against the police, “because this is illegal but we’re still doing it.”
Theory 2: Elaborate Psy-Ops
The second most popular explanation out there is a conspiracy theory that sees the fireworks as a government operation conducted by state forces, like cops, possibly to obstruct protests and other organizing efforts. The idea, which is based in decades of abuse of trust and bodies by police in black and brown communities, is that cops, or other state agents, are setting off the devises themselves so that they can blame the ruckus on young people of color and take disciplinary action against them, or breed suspicion and dissatisfaction in their communities. It’s hard to say at the moment where these ideas originated, but what’s clear is that they ended up on Twitter and spread like wildfire.
The back-and-forth about the conspiracy theory earned its own online moniker, the “fireworks discourse,” and raged all weekend long.
Video surfaced late on Saturday night that appeared to show fireworks being launched from a building directly behind an NYPD precinct, stoking things further.
Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President, told Gothamist that the theories have not been supported by any evidence. “I’m not seeing any diabolical plot being planned out by the police department or some unit in the police department,” he said. “I don’t buy that. I believe that there is a clear pathway of illegal fireworks into the city.”
The New York Times looked into it …
On Thursday, the Times published some much-needed reporting on the abundance of illegal fireworks in the city, finding no evidence of police work or other government scheming. Instead, the reporting bears out a likely pathway of fireworks sold legally in nearby states like Pennsylvania traveling into the city. A 2017 law made more varieties of fireworks legal in the state, including aerials, those very impressive bursts that fly 100 feet into the sky before detonating.
Phantom Fireworks, a major fireworks retailer with stores across the country, reopened at the end of May and has been running a buy-one-get-two-free special on fireworks. That’s a really good deal, and the resale market can be quite lucrative. Pat Moran, the manager of Phantom, told the Times that many of their stores are located pretty near all the major metropolitan centers that are experiencing a fireworks deluge: Boston, Los Angeles, New York. The Times also reported that at Keystone Fireworks, steps away from Phantom, people from Queens, the Bronx, Connecticut, and Delaware were seen loading cars up with fireworks.
To people who question how so many civilians could get their hands on what seem to be parade-grade, quality fireworks, there’s a good explanation for that, too. Heckman, the APA executive director, told the Times that the fireworks she’s seeing in images shared on social media don’t look professional, but like the type that can be purchased in many states — the kind that suppliers are reportedly buying in bulk and advertising on social media.
When questioned by the Times, the NYPD denied that it gave anyone fireworks and refused additional requests for comment as to where the unusually robust supply may be coming from.
The Times also interviewed Anne-Marcelle Ngabirano, the documentarian who filmed the viral video of fireworks bursting next to an NYPD precinct. She said that she’s “very wary of social media and conspiracy theories.”
This post has been updated.