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The unexplained increase of fireworks over numerous American cities has some convinced that they’re part of a large government plot.
Paranoia surrounding secret government schemes finds fertile ground in times of uncertainty. This year has brought with it the perfect climate for harvest.
It has been a noisy summer in the United States with Black Lives Matter protests sweeping across the nation. However, recent explosions of fireworks have by far been the loudest and most remarked-upon sounds thus far. Last week, the New York City news site Gothamist reported a nearly 4,000% increase in fireworks complaints from the same period last year. Los Angeles residents have reported an unusual amount of firework complaints too, same with Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. The advent isn’t confined only to the big cities either; Grand Rapids, Michigan and Hartford, Connecticut are two of many more towns and cities complaining about fireworks.
Some may like them and pay them no mind, but on the internet, where dramatic claims are implicitly encouraged, a fireworks-truther community has formed. With so many fireworks for such long stretches of time, they must be coordinated. They look expensive—could they be part of a government plot? Is this a symbol of an impending civil war? Is this a punishment for protesting? Several cities have acknowledged the fireworks, though announcing special law-enforcement units to deal with the fireworks has only energised the conspiracy theories.
The earlier conspiracy theories suggested the fireworks started at the same time as the protests over George Floyd’s death. However, Gothamist actually ran a story about “large scale firework displays late into the evening” on May 21, nearly a week before those protests began.
“My neighbours and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces,” wrote the novelist Robert Jones Jr. tweeted to his Twitter following of about 60,000 in a since-deleted thread. Jones hypothesised that the fireworks are meant to induce sleep deprivation in said communities, leading to tension and confusion. Alternatively, he wrote they could also be a desensitisation tactic to numb the population to loud noises. “It’s meant to sound like a war zone because a war zone is what it’s about to become,” he said.
“My neighbours and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces,” tweeted the novelist Robert Jones Jr. in a since-deleted thread. Jones hypothesised that the fireworks are meant to induce sleep deprivation in said communities, leading to tension and confusion.
Parts of the theory were retweeted 16,000 times and a corresponding Facebook post has been shared 20,000 times, reaching millions of people. The theory was amplified by New York Times Magazine editor Nikole Hannah-Jones when she retweeted the thread with the comment “Read this”.
However, there exist other explanations for the dramatic increase in fireworks. In New York, journalists have met and talked with people who have admitted to setting off fireworks, happy to tell them where they had purchased their stockpiles (on road trips to states where they are legal). “I am watching kids set off fireworks on my street, right now,” the journalist Gita Jackson tweeted in response to speculation that police may be setting them off themselves. It has been pointed out that firework retailers have recently started offering online sales and kerbside pickup—consumers are only too happy to take advantage.
Still, conspiracy theories usually have at least a shred of logic behind them, even if they’re not verifiable, says Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who specialises in government transparency. To be proved true, such theories need to be backed up by empirical evidence. However, such evidence is not always available until long after the speculation starts. For example, evidence of the FBI’s targeting of Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t come out until years after his assassination.
The entire situation is also perpetuated by generalised fear and anxiety that seems in piece with the pandemic. For months we have had to forgo what we once took for granted, living inside in silence. The fireworks are often filmed from the perspective of someone indoors, posted online with requests that someone else confirms the explanation behind them. The truth is up there.