As the murder of George Floyd set the streets alight, revelers in New York City lit up the night skies with volleys of fireworks smuggled in from out of state. The celebration seemed fitting — the people had risen up, the Minneapolis precinct burned. Apparently overnight, the police had lost their legitimacy in the eyes of those who, just a few weeks prior, were including cops in their daily 7pm clap for essential workers. “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” the people, young and old, black and white, chanted together.
Demands to defund the police, decades in the making, have caught on like wildfire. The Minneapolis city council voted to disband its police force. DeBlasio agreed to cut $1B from the NYPD budget and invest in community services. For many middle-class whites, the revolution bloomed in a thousand Instagram infographics shared by the newly outraged who, ashamed of their long political slumber, now vowed to actively root out white supremacy wherever they found it. They promised to have tough conversations with family and friends, to never let an off-color joke pass unrebuked. They uplifted black voices, donated en masse to grassroots groups working to dismantle the police. They swore off calling the cops.
Two weeks into the protests, the large crowds continued to gather in the cool June weather, marching peacefully in all corners of the city. Night protests dwindled and the NYPD realized with characteristic slowness that massive shows of force punctuated by flashbang grenades, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds were only proving the protesters’ point. But the fireworks in Brooklyn did not stop. If anything, they got bolder, blasting off steadily from dusk till the early morning all across the borough. Few apartment dwellers have a line of sight to any given pyrotechnic display, but whole neighborhoods can hear them thundering through the night.
As the days and weeks passed without a cease fire, the nightly spectacles started wearing on people’s nerves. The fireworks, it turns out, sound like gunshots. They scare pets and wildlife. They wake up babies. They traumatize veterans and those who have fled war-torn countries. “Working people need to sleep at night,” one person told me. In Flatbush, a mostly black working class neighborhood that includes the wealthy, mostly white and disproportionately homeowning enclave of Ditmas Park, neighborhood groups on Facebook and Nextdoor filled with griping about the fireworks. Self-deputized spokespeople for the neighborhood’s “communities of origin” argued that the complaints were attempts by gentrifiers to suppress the local culture, and implied that criticizing fireworks was, well, a bit racist. Some longtime residents, often people of color, responded that that was bullshit — nobody likes being kept awake night after night.
It certainly was racist, the new students of social justice replied, to call the cops on your neighbors. Noise complaint calls to 311, a haven of compromise for recently-inducted abolitionists, were transferred to 911, and embarrassed yuppies frantically hung up the phone before they could be connected. They tried other ways: putting up posters explaining the traumatizing effects of nightly fireworks, and encouraging each other to write to the city council, state assembly, public advocate, Cardi B, or anyone else who might be able to bring the situation to a peaceful resolution. A law professor at Hofstra University, new to Brooklyn, rallied neighbors around a petition imploring the authorities to stop the fireworks without killing anyone. But the cops, probably missing the thrill of cracking skulls, were deployed to Flatbush in riot gear while a helicopter flew overhead. The petition, deemed to have triggered the raid, was denounced by community groups as pro-gentrification and pro-cop, and the law professor made the rounds on social media as the #DitmasParkKaren.
Every night, the fireworks continue to reverberate through the neighborhood. Every night, the crews of pyromaniacs set up their makeshift launching pads outside the windows of unlucky residents. At times it seems the fireworks are getting louder and more maddening. They’ve started going off before the sun’s even gone down, for crying out loud! Some maintain it is like this every summer, but others insist the scale this year is unprecedented. According to the radical community organization Equality for Flatbush, fireworks have become “an act of resistance and a show of solidarity with the global #BlackLivesMatter rebellion.” Whether that is actually true is unclear. A part of the increased fireworks activity this summer might well be related to the energy of the uprising, but some of it is probably just people antsy to get out at night after three months of lockdown. In a larger sense, though, the fireworks raise serious questions for the police abolitionist movement. To everyone except those striking the match, the fireworks are at best a serious nuisance, and at worst a dangerous health hazard in a pandemic during which tens of thousands of New Yorkers need their rest to recover from the coronavirus. But how do we address anti-social behavior in an anti-social world, a world in which the only tools we have to mediate people’s actions are the badge and the gun?
A woman who tried to run off a group of teens said one of them shouted back, “This is a new world!” A new world perhaps, but one that also resembles an older world too. The fireworks remind one resident of the 1980s, when the city was a “war zone.” In a neighborhood Facebook group, someone posted a picture of a smoking, apparently unexploded pyrotechnic device laying in the middle of the street with a caption feverishly warning about the danger of cars catching on fire and people losing limbs. A few nights later, a video was posted that seemed to show roman candles being shot from moving cars at the Victorian mansions in Ditmas Park. Another picture appeared online showing a blasted concrete wall. For many, weeks of irritation and the threat of property destruction have narrowed the political horizon. Some frustrated homeowners sound nostalgic for Giuliani, who aggressively targeted fireworks in the 1990s. Others with the means to do so are threatening to move out of the city. Calls to restore law and order threaten to fracture the consensus that seemed to exist a few weeks ago, when we all vowed to never again fall prey to this kind of drum beating for the thin blue line.
Some are reminded of the 1980s for different reasons: “This is the crack epidemic all over again.” How, they ask conspiratorially, are the roisterers getting their hands on endless quantities of suspiciously professional-sounding fireworks in the middle of a recession? And why, save the one raid, has the police presence been so muted, even as fireworks complaints increased 5000% since last year? To some, the only explanation is that the police or the FBI is trying to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement by supplying the disaffected with fireworks in the hopes that tortured residents start to miss the NYPD. But whether the cops are distributing the fireworks, using brute force to stop the fireworks, or standing by doing nothing, it doesn’t change the central fact that they sure as hell aren’t serving or protecting the people.
Whereas fair weather allies of the movement have reneged on their commitment to anti-racism after a few sleepless nights, the dream of a new world lives on. After moderators of a neighborhood group banned any further fireworks discussions, stating they would not let the debate about whether to call the police “divide the community,” some members started their own community page to organize around issues of social justice, joining millions of others this moment has moved to action beyond empty slogans and social media posts. “There’s quality of life, and then there’s quality of life,” said one poster. There has to be a way to fight for both.