The Boom in Fireworks Conspiracy Theories
Updated at 4:48 p.m. ET on June 24, 2020.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been able to watch several hours of a free nightly fireworks show from my living-room window. They pop off over the rooftops of my Brooklyn neighborhood, where the usually busy sonic landscape was reduced to sirens during the peak months of New York’s coronavirus outbreak, then to helicopters and cheering during the longest nights of the area’s Black Lives Matter protests. It’s been a noisy summer, but these recent explosions are by far the loudest and most remarked-upon sounds yet. Last week, the New York City news site Gothamist reported a nearly 4,000 percent increase in fireworks complaints from the same period last year. In Chicago , Los Angeles , Philadelphia , and Boston, residents have reported an unusual uptick in fireworks. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Hartford, Connecticut : fireworks. In Greenville, South Carolina , and Columbus, Ohio : fireworks!
I like the fireworks, and have mostly been swooning over them. But on the internet, where anxiety is profitable and dramatic claims are shareable ones, a fireworks-truther community has taken shape within a matter of days. There are so many fireworks, for such long stretches of time, they must be coordinated. They look expensive. Could they be a government plot? Are the police punishing people for protesting? Signaling the coming of a civil war? That several cities have already announced special law-enforcement units to deal with the nuisance has only fueled the conspiracy theories.
The fireworks are impossible to ignore—booming and bright and bittersweet to look at, recalling less fraught summers, when they might have seemed harmless. They’re also disorienting. In a year in which Americans have watched crucial information slip and slide and mutate , it seems almost natural that something so unrelenting and unusual would take on surreal significance. Creating a conspiracy theory about fireworks is one way of trying to hold the world still and make sense of it.
Though some of the conspiracy theories about the fireworks imbue them with meaning by saying that they started at the same time as the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Gothamist actually ran a story about “large scale firework displays late into the evening” on May 21, nearly a week before those protests began. Still, by the middle of June, everyone was talking about fireworks, and nobody knew why. “Too many ppl from major cities sayin this,” the rapper Wale tweeted on Saturday to his 6 million followers. “Something is afoot.”
The next day, the theories emerged . “My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces,” the novelist Robert Jones Jr. tweeted to his modest Twitter following of about 58,000 people in a since-deleted thread. Jones hypothesized that the fireworks are meant to cause...