If you live in any kind of major city, small city, suburb, or area that could in any way qualify as “urban,” you’ve been hearing them.
Booms. Loud, repetitive booms. Bone-ratting explosions, nerve-shredding pops that maybe could be gunshots and maybe aren’t. They start as soon as the sun goes down, and they stop hours later. They can turn any street into the Green Zone in 2004.
They’re fireworks. And since mid-May, they’ve been going off all over the country, in almost every neighborhood, almost every night. The uptick in fireworks happens pretty much every summer, since Americans love blowing stuff up to celebrate freedom. Even in past years, Americans have shot off hundreds of millions of pounds of fireworks to celebrate the holiday.
But it really, truly has been much louder and more intense this year with high-grade pyro that’s usually only seen at county fairs or baseball games getting launched in the middle of big residential clusters – sparking online complaining and endless calls to the police. Unlike so much of what I write about, this is not a conspiracy – it’s a thing that’s happening. Or as Slate put it on June 10, “Yes, You’re Hearing Way More Fireworks Than Usual.”
But just because the increase in fireworks isn’t a conspiracy theory, doesn’t mean there aren’t conspiracy theories about the increase in fireworks. Because there are. And with America in the grip of both a pandemic and an epidemic of police violence, it’s not a shock that they’re catching on.
The conspiracy theory, which is being pushed almost entirely by popular left-wing activists on Twitter (and not all left-wing activists, either), is that “the cops” or “the government” are giving away huge amounts of military-grade ordinance and/or professional fireworks to young people of color in a complex psychological warfare operation.
The kids blow them up in the middle of the night, goad white people into calling the cops on the kids and give them excuses for more brutal behavior, keep everyone on edge during a pandemic and the increasing scrutiny of police behavior, and inure us to the sound of explosions going off in our neighborhoods for when “the cops” or “the government” begin their full-scale war on the inner city.
Not only that, but these massive psyops are being carried out around the country, with fireworks being distributed by the truckload – sometimes even by firefighters and cops. And it’s all being done to drive the relentless war that American police and justice have declared on people of color.
Except it’s not. At all.
Obviously, a lot of Americans in positions of power and privilege have done absolutely horrific things to people of color over the last, you know, four centuries.
But one thing being true doesn’t make another thing true. Despite the long Twitter threads and impassioned posts from people who know for sure what’s going on here, it doesn’t appear that there’s any evidence that anyone is giving fireworks to anyone else for nefarious purposes. In fact, the “fireworks conspiracy theory” appears to be nothing more than what almost every other conspiracy is: an attempt to find a better explanation than the explanation we’re being given.
In this case, the theory fails for a number of reasons:
There are other explanations that are much more plausible
We know exactly why more fireworks are going off this summer, and why they’re louder and better quality: a glut of high-quality product hitting the street because of cancelled 4th of July shows, baseball games, outdoor concerts, and other pyro-heavy events. We’re in a pandemic, and nobody is doing anything summery. So consumer fireworks companies are selling like crazy to people who have nothing else to do, and suppliers are probably trying to dump product that can’t be used and they don’t want to store. Because it explodes.
Many local fireworks suppliers are having the best sales years in their history – because people miss fireworks, can get them cheaply, and want to have fun. Assuming you consider maybe blowing off your hand fun.
Beyond that, the streets are much quieter now because most people still aren’t going out much – meaning the bombs bursting in air are literally louder to us. Police are mostly letting neighborhood fireworks displays slide for a variety of reasons, or they aren’t being called by neighborhoods who don’t want to get authorities involved in something that can be solved at the local level. Of course, the NYPD just announced they’d be aggressively taking down big fireworks displays, playing right into the hands of conspiracy theorists who think this is all a setup to bring the police hammer down. But generally speaking, more police are either not getting involved or not getting called. This isn’t going to play out the same way in every part of the country, so what the NYPD does might not have anything to do with anyone else.
But more than that, it’s obvious who is setting off the fireworks, because we’ve been dealing with the problem for months since the pandemic started: it’s bored kids. Kids aren’t burning off energy in summer school, at concerts, ballgames, or even at parks, which are still closed in a lot of states. They have nothing to do, and more waking hours than ever to do it. Plus, the run-up to the 4th of July *always* sees fireworks stands go up everywhere they’re legal. Like I said earlier, Americans already blow up millions of pounds of fireworks every year – some legal, some not. And fireworks laws around the country have been loosened in recent years.
So the most plausible explanation is the one that doesn’t require a conspiracy theory. Maybe it’s not the most satisfying one, but that doesn’t make it less true.
Its perpetrators and their motives are hopelessly vague
Just saying “the cops” or “the government” are doing this isn’t enough to prove it’s real. To claim that a plot is being carried out, you have to have some idea of who is carrying it out, how they’re doing it, and why? If it’s a “coordinated attack” on people of color, who is coordinating it? Who gives the orders? Whose idea was it? Who is funding it? How are they getting their product? How are they distributing it? Why has nothing about this leaked, given the enormous number of people you’d need to carry it out? And what’s their motive? Why are they doing it? What do they stand to gain? How will they know they’ve achieved their goals? Whose goals are they?
And can any of it be proven?
Maybe these seem like pedantic questions. But if you’re alleging a vast conspiracy to stoke racial division and desensitize us to urban warfare being carried out in literally thousands of neighborhoods on a nightly basis, then it feels like you might want to have answers to at least some of them. If someone wants to trace the flow of illegal fireworks from states where they’re sold legally to states where they’re not legal, and connect it to the US government or local police as part of a plot to provoke police into busting young black kids, go for it. But that’s hard, grinding work that’s almost certainly going to lead nowhere – because it’s not supported by evidence. Which is why nobody is doing it. Throwing out conspiracy theory threads on Twitter isn’t research, and it’s not journalism.
The evidence is entirely composed of data points that prove merely that more fireworks are going off
If you start digging into these conspiracy theories on Twitter (which is never a good idea) you’ll quickly find a whole lot of posts by people chiming in that “it’s happening” in their neighborhood too – just giving more credence to the conspiracy theory. But the fact that the proliferation of fireworks is so widespread actually does a fair amount to disprove the theory. Is it possible that cops in a certain city or neighborhood could be trying to provoke an incident by giving away high-grade fireworks, or setting them off themselves? Sure. But across thousands of cities and towns? That’s not evidence of connection, it’s evidence against it.
The bigger a conspiracy is, the harder it is to pull off, after all.
I expect that the fireworks frenzy will fade after the 4th of July, and the cheap product is all bought up. And I suspect that what we’re hearing is the result of a variety of factors, some of which aren’t applicable to some parts of the country.
None of these things need a grand conspiracy theory to make them plausible. They don’t need one at all. Some things just are what they are.
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