Did you have “mystery fireworks” on your 2020 bingo card, after murder hornets and federal agents attacking peaceful protesters with tear gas so the president could pose in front of a church with a Bible? Congratulations. Yes, there are a LOT of amateur fireworks this year. Several cities where fireworks are restricted or illegal have reported an anecdotal increase in fireworks complaints. In New York, there are 80 times as many complaints as the city received in early June 2019. The New York City Police Department says it has logged more than 12,500 911 calls about fireworks this month.
Askin has no idea where all these fireworks are coming from. She has called the police, the mayor’s office and her state senator, to no avail. She’s used to unsanctioned city fireworks in the summer, but it feels different this year. She’s heard similar reports from friends in other cities.
It’s a mystery — and yet, midway through a year that has been marked by a deadly pandemic, massive protests and widespread anxiety about the future of American democracy, it seems like a fairly natural development.
Askin has heard some theories about why there have been so many fireworks lately. The first is straightforward: Neighborhood kids who have been trapped at home during the pandemic are blowing off steam by blowing up illegal fireworks. (One of her neighbors, Rivky Fieldsteel, told The Washington Post that some kids aimed fireworks directly at her moving car.) Other theories are more sinister and conspiracy-minded.
Not that Askin is particularly caught up in the why.
“I’m like, I don’t care what it is,” she says. “Make it stop.”
Setting off illegal fireworks has been a beloved summer pastime in many city neighborhoods for years. As some neighborhoods have gentrified, newcomers may be more likely to be bothered by the noise. And with everyone spending a lot more time at home these days, and a pandemic and unemployment pressing on our nerves, maybe we’re all just a little more sensitive.
But the intensity of this year’s amateur fireworks, in the context of recent clashes between police and racial justice demonstrators, have made some people suspicious.
The weekend after Juneteenth — a big fireworks day in many cities — a theory exploded on Twitter. The author Robert Jones Jr., in a tweet thread that received tens of thousands of retweets, proposed that the fireworks were “a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces; an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement,” he wrote.
Jones and commenters suggested that police and government were supplying the fireworks to black communities, to desensitize them to explosion noises so that “when they start using their real artillery on us we won’t know the difference.” They point to a New York Post story showing New York firefighters setting off fireworks at a station close to midnight last week. Also: unverified reports on social media of mysterious men selling fireworks at steep discounts, and pallets of professional fireworks being left in minority neighborhoods for teens to discover. (New York is planning a multi-agency task force to investigate the spike in fireworks there. A D.C. police spokeswoman said the department is not distributing fireworks.)
Many of the fireworks reports are coming from communities that have good reasons to be suspicious of authorities, which may be why the theory has taken hold. Jones points out the country’s history of having “denied doing things to black and brown people,” only for those populations to confirm their suspicions later on. There’s a connection to explosives, as well: Only 35 years ago, Philadelphia police bombed a house that contained members of a black liberation group called MOVE, killing 11.
“I don’t want to think of myself as someone that sees every single little thing as some sort of attack on the black community,” says Jones. “But this seems odd.”
Tara McManus, a New York state-licensed pyrotechnician who works on large fireworks displays, has seen the fireworks in her Brooklyn neighborhood, and can tell by their sound and appearance that they are consumer-grade. Not to say those aren’t powerful. “The biggest shells that you can get consumer are five-inch shells,” McManus says, “and they go 500 feet in the air.”
Firework sales and possession laws differ widely by jurisdiction. Only sparklers are legal to own in New York state (but prohibited in New York City), for example, while the District prohibits exploding fireworks such as cherry bombs and Roman candles, but permits certain sparklers and “torches, cones, box fires, fountains, dip-sticks” and a few other types of fireworks. Professional-grade fireworks can only be purchased with a license, and aren’t customarily lit with just a lighter; special equipment is typically used to launch them.
“I would love to go all in on a theory because I don’t appreciate the cops either,” McManus says. But the notion that “the police are supplying the streets, and they’re doing this to terrorize us, I think that’s a huge jump. I think people are really riled up and they haven’t been able to let off steam. And that setting off fireworks is a great way to do it.”
That’s what fireworks companies think is happening, too.
“There’s no concerts to go to. There’s no baseball games to go to. People aren’t eating out, going to bars,” says John Sorgi, owner of American Fireworks in Hudson, Ohio. “It’s one of those things that you can do at home, and have fun.”
American Fireworks sells both consumer and professional fireworks. With municipalities canceling Fourth of July parties and summer festivals, sales of more lucrative professional fireworks are down 80 percent, he says. But, “from the consumer standpoint, we’re seeing just massive spikes in sales,” Sorgi says. Since May, he estimates sales have been up 30 percent compared with previous years.
“Usually around here, you don’t really hear them outside of July 1st through the 4th,” says Sorgi of his small Ohio town. “But, like, we’re hearing fireworks pretty much every night. It’s crazy.”
It’s the same story at Phantom Fireworks, another Ohio-based company that has stores across the United States. “Three months ago, when we closed all of our retail units, we feared the worst,” says William Weimer, the company’s vice president and general counsel. “And then when we reopened, which would have been mid-May, I have to admit, we were totally shocked at the volume of customers.” Many are first-time buyers. (For those tempted to connect the fireworks to the protest, Phantom’s sales uptick began two weeks before the May 25 killing of George Floyd.)
It doesn’t hurt that there are good deals on fireworks. “We have the deepest discounts we’ve ever offered this year,” Weimer says. For example: A Phantom Fireworks Groupon was offering a $129 36-shot fireworks box for $40 this month.
In summer evenings, when the fireworks begin — earlier and earlier, it seems — Sarah Acciani knows where to find her 7-year-old rescue dog, Rose: in the bathroom, cowering and trembling. It’s a part of life in the city, especially because she lives near Navy Yard, not too far from Nationals Park. But this year, Rose, a black, mixed-breed dog with the silky ears of a spaniel, practically lives in the bathroom. Acciani has tried using a white noise machine to soothe her dog. She is on her last nerve.
“What if people have babies and they’re trying to keep a sleep schedule, or people who have PTSD?” she says. “I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know why it’s happening, but all I know is it cannot continue.”
On that point, she and Jones agree.
“It’s happening across New York City. It’s happening in California. It’s happening in Illinois. It’s happening in North Carolina, in D.C.,” he says. It “could be a strange coincidence, but I need an explanation.”
This story has been updated with information from the NYPD. In addition, a line about the conditions under which professional fireworks typically are ignited has been clarified.