At least one industry is not suffering during the coronavirus crisis: To judge by the incessant noise in neighborhoods and flood of complaints all across the city, business for makers and sellers of fireworks has been, well, explosive.
“[W]hy do I have to put up with people setting off fireworks for the past week in Boston??? EVERY NIGHT!!!” tweeted a South End resident on May 30. “It’s not even June … I’m fed up.”
The fusillade of illegal fireworks, coming at the very moment the city is gripped with protests over police violence against Black people, illuminates a central question for police reformers seeking to reimagine law enforcement: If sending armed police officers to respond to quality-of-life issues isn’t the right response, then what is?
There’s not much doubt that fireworks are worse this summer. The city’s 311 reporting system and neighborhood social media groups are bursting with complaints about the sudden increase in fireworks activity in Boston and beyond. “I can’t take another sleepless night,” said Lesley Heney, a Milton resident, on Nextdoor. “I’ve got the window AC on, a white noise machine, a sleep meditation, a pillow over my head, but I’m still jolted awake. . . . The fireworks usually happen the entire week of the 4th. This is wild that it’s happening every night. I think people are just bored?”
In my own block in Hyde Park, it’s been nonstop every night for the past few weeks. Every time I hear them, I think it might be gunshots. Sometimes the bombardment starts as early as 5 p.m. (One has to wonder — what’s the point of lighting up fireworks in broad daylight?)
Fireworks, basically explosive devices sometimes treated as toys, are illegal in Massachusetts for a reason: they’re a fire hazard, they’re frightening and trauma-inducing, and at the most fundamental level they’re a public nuisance.
But a city in which cops don’t get involved with minor crimes is exactly what protesters are asking us to imagine. The problem with calling the cops on kids setting off fireworks is that it risks confrontations that can turn deadly, especially for Black Americans. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis came after a 911 call about a fake $20 bill. Eric Garner, who was killed in 2014, came under police scrutiny for selling loose cigarettes.
Right now if a Boston councilor ran for mayor on a platform of "shut down BPD turn it into a full-time fireworks prevention force of social workers" they'd be in office for 100 years— Gustavo Quiroga (@GooseQ) June 9, 2020
It’s a dilemma that many residents and officials are grappling with, even as they demand the city crack down on the barrage.
Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia is one elected official advocating for “community-based solutions that will be much more peaceful than police involvement.” On Thursday, she is hosting a community conversation on Zoom about fireworks trauma, “the social, emotional, and physical impact of fireworks.” The event is attracting a lot of interest from affected constituents, including a Boston Marathon bombing survivor, whose PTSD has worsened in the last few days due to the fireworks noise, and an elderly resident whose cat keeps hiding in complete fright when the fireworks begin, Mejia said in an interview.
“I don’t think that the government is going to fix this,” Mejia said. “Community residents can address this issue.” She said she has heard from many Bostonians who are interested in solutions that don’t involve calling the police because it can disproportionately hurt communities that are already suffering from racial oppression.
Meanwhile, though, police continue to field a wave of complaints. “Fireworks calls to the Boston Police Department this year were up by 2,300 percent,” Mayor Marty Walsh said in a press conference Wednesday. "When I saw that number, I thought it was a misprint. 2,300 percent — this May compared to last May.” The police have made a few arrests and seizures, with no incidents spiraling out of control. BPD urges city residents to call 911 immediately for a police response if they hear fireworks.
But what would an alternative to a police response to fireworks look like? Boston area residents are talking on Nextdoor and Twitter threads about calling on the fire department to step up education efforts around the dangers of fireworks, using drones to locate where fireworks are being used, in order to identify offenders and issue them fines, and even suggesting that the city should implement a fireworks buy-back program. (Brian Alkins, the city’s fire department public information officer, said the department does not typically conduct education sessions on illegal fireworks; but he said he would like to remind Bostonians about an incident last year during the early hours of July 5 in Dorchester, when a four-alarm fire that involved three buildings and caused $1 million in damages was set off by illegal fireworks.)
The push to shift money away from policing, and reduce the presence of police on the streets of American cities, is a sensible step to rein in law enforcement forces that, for far too long, have escaped accountability when it comes to racial justice. But it leaves a huge unanswered question — what replaces them? In Boston, that conundrum is suddenly very real — and sleep-deprived residents (and their cats) want solutions.