You’ve probably heard them. The sun goes down and, before long, random squeals and explosions seem to emanate from all directions. By now, you’ve probably also heard the complaints, lighting up social media and neighborhood apps, claiming an illegal fireworks boom unlike any in recent memory. Some think the fireworks could be part of a campaign to suppress recent protests or a side-effect of prolonged quarantine. Other observers claim the number of explosions really isn’t that different than usual at all. So what’s really going on?
There are a lot of theories.
What we do know for sure is that people are calling the cops about fireworks a lot more. In Pasadena, authorities report they’ve had a 400 percent increase in calls about fireworks compared to this time last year. Similar increases have been reported by law enforcement agencies in Boston, Denver, Chicago, and elsewhere. In New York City, 12,582 calls about fireworks have come into the city’s non-emergency hotline since June 1; during that same period last year, only 17 fireworks calls were recorded.
But an increase in calls to the cops doesn’t in itself prove there actually are more fireworks being shot off. Many voices in the online Fireworks Discourse have said more calls to the cops could just mean residents are hearing the bursts more, perhaps because we’re staying at home rather than spending early summer evenings out on the town like we did before pandemic, or because big cities are quieter in general than ever before. Nervousness about tear gas and rubber bullet fire associated with recent protests might be another factor in Americans being extra on edge.
Pandemic and protests each figure into other, more complicated theories floating around.
One potential explanation for the explosions, popularized in particular by author Robert Jones, Jr. on Twitter, posits that the fireworks might be police tactic related to recent demonstrations against police brutality. Jones suggests that the goal could be to deprive potential protesters of sleep and keep them on edge, or perhaps to desensitize residents to the sound of explosions to provide cover for potential detonations by law enforcement.
Another, related, line of thinking suggests that police might be contributing to–or at least not responding to complaints about–the fireworks in an attempt to keep people up at night, alarming pets and PTSD sufferers, because they think that the public nuisance will make their departments seem more important. As conversations about defunding police departments or reducing the influence of police unions grow in cities, this theory goes, the police may be messing with people, particularly in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
Pasadena police claim a different explanation for not sending officers to investigate all the fireworks calls they’ve received. “We are really balancing our approach to policing and ensuring we’re not running around making arrests of young children for fireworks,” Pasadena Police Chief John Perez told ABC 7.
Perhaps the most popular explanation for the sudden increase in M-80s centers on the pandemic in two ways. First, naturally, the boredom of teens and families, cooped up at home since March, looking for something fun to do outside.
But there’s an economic element as well: with almost all professional fireworks shows canceled and with very few of the in-person stands that tend to set up shop around this time of year currently operating, there is widespread speculation that the black market has been flooded with cheaper and more professional fireworks than are typically available.
Evidence behind that includes a number of recent seizures of caches of explosives headed out for sale across the region. Sheriff’s deputies reportedly seized a truckload of illegal fireworks worth at least $10,000 in Carson; the LAPD nabbed a 2,000-pound load from a home in Irwindale.
Phantom Fireworks, an Ohio-based manufacturer responsible for many commercially produced fireworks sold to the amateur market, told The Detroit News that their sales are up between 200 and 400 percent over last year.
“If there’s a virus called inside isolation, fireworks appear to be the vaccine,” Phantom CEO Bruce Zoldan told the paper. He noted that, with many pro shows off and summer vacations replaced by staying at home, he’s seen a notable increase in families stocking up to stage their own DIY celebrations.
And then there are those who will insist that the fireworks in this year’s run up to the Fourth of July really aren’t that much more dramatic at all.
Ventura Police Commander Darrick Brunk told the Ventura County Star, “I would say this is pretty similar [to previous years]. After the graduations, we see a little bit of an increase, which grows as we get closer to the actual holiday.”
Another adherent to the not-unusual camp, Los Angeles Times journalist Gustavo Arellano wryly tweeted, “People wondering about late-night fireworks in cities obviously don’t kick it with Mexicans.”