Are Cops Responsible for Fireworks Blasting Off in US Cities?

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One night a few weeks ago, my dog Indy was being super weird. Like, weirder than usual. He kept crying and trying to climb in my lap as I was working. I thought maybe he needed a poo or something so I took him for a walk outside, at which point I realized that it sounded like an absolute warzone outside. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and we’ve had pretty much nonstop protests since the murder of George Floyd at the end of May. So when I heard the pops and booms, my first thought was that it was from cops using flash grenades and rubber bullets. But after listening a bit more, I realized it was fireworks. “That’s weird,” I thought, “for people to set off fireworks in early June, but hey, maybe it’s related to the protests or something.” Indy was happier seeing that no one was being murdered, so we went back inside and I didn’t think anything more of it.

UNTIL the fireworks happened again the next night. And the next night. And pretty much consistently for the past several weeks. I’ve lived here for about five years now and I gotta tell you, that’s not normal. Like every other place I’ve lived, we get some fireworks in the few days leading up to July 4th and that’s pretty much it. California doesn’t allow the sale of fireworks that explode or fly, and around here all fireworks are illegal in Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley and San Mateo. So that’s a whole lot of people who are somehow getting cheap, very illegal fireworks and setting them off every night for weeks.

In addition to blaming the protests, I also blamed quarantine. People have been cooped up and they want to go have some fun. But still, where are they getting all these fireworks, and how the hell can they even afford them? Like, 90% of our income goes to rent. The other 10% is for legal weed and the occasional burrito. That’s just how we live here.

In the past week, I’ve noticed other people noticing the fireworks, in my area and across the country. It’s not just happening here, it seems to be happening everywhere. And that, my friends, is why there’s now an official CONSPIRACY THEORY. That’s right: it’s aliens. I don’t want to say it’s aliens, but it’s aliens. Aliens what love fireworks.

Just kidding, this isn’t like the usual conspiracy theories I talk about here. There’s no UFOs or crisis actors or people straight up denying reality — this is a good one because it’s actually quite believable.

Here’s the idea: the cops are annoyed at people protesting police violence, so to retaliate they’ve handed out loads of fireworks to random kids and encouraged them to go nuts all night every night, which keeps residents from sleeping as a kind of torture. Some people also think that this is a way to sort of inoculate people to the sounds of explosions so that when they start actually bombing and gunning down protestors, people won’t really notice. Finally, some people suspect that giving kids fireworks is an easy way to give the cops an excuse to raid neighborhoods and arrest everybody.

I’m reminded here of the old skeptical chestnut “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” There is another, possibly simpler explanation for the fireworks: due to coronavirus, purveyors of fireworks aren’t selling as many since no towns with any sense are putting on largescale displays that will attract crowds. Considering that the virus was picking up steam just prior to the Chinese New Year at the end of January, there might be a huge stock of explosives sitting in warehouses gathering dust. So, they’re selling them under the table at cost. Kids and dumbasses get their hands on them and set them off, because that’s what kids and dumbasses do.

That explanation doesn’t require much of a conspiracy to work. But is it the truth?

Let’s adapt the zebra aphorism to something that you might tell yourself on the savannah 10,000 years ago: when you hear the grass sway, think wind, not snakes. 99 times out of 100 it would be the wind, but in this case that hundredth time would be a snake and you might end up dead because of your assumption. The odds would be on your side but the risk wouldn’t be worth it. So even though the snake is rare, it’s not impossible, and you’d be smart to keep it in mind.

Now let’s talk about actual things the cops have done, like drive around West Harlem at 3am with their lights and sirens on for absolutely no reason. Well, not “no reason” — the only reason I can think of is to, that’s right, keep residents awake and annoy the shit out of them as a type of torture.

And then there’s the fire department in Crown Heights, New York, where actual firefighters were caught on camera setting off illegal fireworks in the middle of the night.

In Jon Ronson’s book “The Men Who Stare at Goats” he discusses the military’s PsyOps department, which included playing Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” theme song at top volume nonstop to drive Iraqi prisoners of war insane. It’s common knowledge at this point that psychological warfare works, and if you can keep your enemy distracted, exhausted, and angry at a different target (like kids and dumbasses), you will have an easier time winning.

So, aside from the instances caught on camera, are the nonstop fireworks this month a horse or a zebra? Grass or a snake? I honestly do not know. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say both. Cheap fireworks flooding the market, cops and firefighters that look the other way and sometimes participate, and all of it leads to the same actual result: leaving people, especially those in poorer neighborhoods who are doing most of the work protesting police violence, exhausted, scared, angry, and rattled.

And remember those people who were worried that this would be an excuse for cops to raid neighborhoods? New York mayor Bill De Blasio has now sent cops in riot gear to stop the people setting off fireworks. Is it all according to a grand plan, or is De Blasio reacting in the only way our politicians, and our society as a whole, knows how to react? People are acting up, I guess it’s time to send in the riot cops. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is police with military-grade weapons, armor, and tactics, everything looks like a war.

The only way we’ll know more about all of this is if the press keeps pushing, if people keep protesting, keep filming, keep asking questions. And as Son of Baldwin notes on Twitter, don’t call the cops on kids with fireworks. If it’s safe to do so, explain that they are, unbeknownst or not, psychologically damaging their community. And for god’s sake, don’t be one of the dumbasses setting off fireworks in your neighborhood. We’re all on edge enough. Even Indy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. Well…the first rumbling I heard, or cooked up myself, was that it was defiant covidiots, demonstrating their fwee-dumb. Over the years, where I live in the East Bay, there have always been illegal firework outbreaks around the 4th of July, May 5th, and New Year’s–both calendar and lunar. But nothing ever matched the scale of the current incidents. The ‘normal’ outbreaks really did seem to be kids. Our current ones don’t sound like somebody’s party down the block. The scale, and proliferation, imply an adult action.

    The ‘professional fireworks dumped on the market under the table’ argument has initial merit. I don’t recall hearing mortar-launched star shells out on the streets before. Greed and commercial desperation can account for a lot.

    The venn diagram for ‘defiant covidiot’ and ‘police/firefighters’ isn’t QUITE a circle, but its easy to see how much suspicion can be generated. I still don’t see any real investigative effort generating information. Police seem to be responding in vague ad-hoc manners. My local department wants you to call DURING an episode. But since I’ll have 4-5 different outbreaks, each lasting only a couple of minutes, within a half-hour, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for police to do anything effective.

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