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Remember When People Thought Fireworks Were a Government Conspiracy?

Things were too fucked up to be explained by the slow drift of history, political dysfunction, and economic inequality.

(Illustrations by Mattie Lubchansky)

The summer we became boompilled started four months into pandemic quarantine, long enough to see how badly this was all going. In New York, many had spent the spring getting used to the sight of refrigerator trucks for corpses, along with the constant din of sirens. The president suggested that Americans should inject bleach. On May 25, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, provoking a renewed wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the country. The president later used the military to clear some of those domestic protesters, wanted to have them shot, and staged a photo-op instead.

In that heady period, some Americans were encountering for the first time both the country's grim history of domestic counterinsurgency–Google searches for COINTELPRO spiked massively that May–and its more radical political movements, such as police abolition. It was a time when the aperture of possibility expanded, however fleetingly.

On June 20, 2020, a Brooklyn-based writer named Robert Jones, Jr. began a tweet thread that aimed to identify a phenomenon that was frustrating sleep-addled city dwellers in New York and beyond. Along with regular civil unrest, the skies seemed to be exploding nightly with powerful fireworks that more resembled extravagant professional displays than the simple sparklers and rockets of our shared nostalgia.

"My neighbors and I believe that this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and Brown communities by government forces; an attack meant to disorient and destabilize the #BlackLivesMatter movement," Jones tweeted, accumulating tens of thousands of retweets along the way. "We think this because there is NO WAY IN THE WORLD that young Black and Brown people would otherwise have access to these PROFESSIONAL fireworks," Jones continued. "These are Macy's July 4th/New Year's-level displays and sonic booms reserved generally for the wealthiest people and institutions."

As a kind of proof, Jones offered video of New York City firefighters getting in on the action. Why would city employees, first responders no less, be contributing to this problem?

Jones asked anyone reading to "educate" these well-meaning, unwitting pawns "about how this is an attempt to undermine the struggle for liberation and try to persuade them to not allow themselves to be used by the enemies of the people."

"Please share this message," he tweeted.

Jones's lengthy thread went viral, pushed along by prominent personalities like the New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones, who had won a Pulitzer Prize weeks earlier. "Read this," she wrote, quote-tweeting the original thread.

Journalists sprung into action, promising to get to the bottom of the fireworks mystery. Soon enough, reporting in The New York Times, Time, Slate, and elsewhere confirmed that men in black were not responsible. The increase in firework activity–which was very real–owed itself to a convergence of pretty prosaic factors. Fireworks were cheaper and in abundant supply, the laws governing them loosening in recent years. If they weren't legal in your state, they probably were somewhere nearby–Pennsylvania was a popular stop for New Yorkers. The first COVID stimulus checks had gone out in April, and perhaps, one counter-theory went, young people were especially stir-crazy and had a little cash on hand. In the midst of so much stress, it was fun to blow something up.

Whether out of sincere belief or idle curiosity, a lot of credentialed people helped spread the fireworks theory, but none that I reached out to wanted to talk to me about it on the record. Some anonymously expressed regret.

Nikole Hannah-Jones later deleted her fireworks tweet, telling National Review, "That was an irresponsible use of my platform and beneath my own standards." Other promoters of the theory, like the novelist Roxane Gay, and the FBI agent-turned-national-security analyst Asha Rangappa, have also deleted their tweets.

A request for comment to Robert Jones Jr.'s publicist received no reply. The thread that the novelist posted on June 20, 2020 was up for all to see until late this past weekend, when the account was deleted. Last month, Jones announced that he was leaving social media. Among his reasons, he cited the fact that a social media audience "seems to require increasingly higher levels of drama and conflict to be satiated."

The CIA would neither confirm nor deny its complicity in distributing fireworks in New York City that summer, at least inasmuch as the agency did not respond to my request for comment.

I live in Flatbush, where there were many, many fireworks. Some nights I fell asleep on the couch and woke up to a boom and streaks of colorful light whistling past my window. It was loud and occasionally irritating, but it only seemed to burnish the narrative of what was shaping up to be, for many people, a wild summer, when the enormity of pre-vaccine COVID met a period of widespread political unrest.

Anti-police protests became daily occurrences, inspiring a new generation of leftist activists and an even more powerful reactionary backlash. Steeping ourselves in the culture of protest, we learned how to secure our phones, and that masks might inhibit facial recognition. We memorized numbers for pro bono lawyers. We saw police beat peaceful marchers on camera and that there was nothing the mayor wouldn't excuse, including running down protesters with a police vehicle. Cops with batons chased protesters down my street. A couple blocks away, a police car burned. It was a summer of violence and possibility.

A year after the lead-footed release of the Mueller report into alleged Russian collusion with Donald Trump's presidential campaign, many cooped-up liberals and newly identified leftists were looking for some conspiratorial jerky to chew on. Things were too fucked up to be explained by the slow drift of history, political dysfunction, and economic inequality. So why couldn't this firework epidemic be some sort of government PSYOP? They knew better. It was time for some game theory.

The internet may never forget, but people do, quite easily, and the spreaders of "the CIA is doing fireworks" conspiracy theories have been mostly forgotten. This isn't a call for some belated accountability or admission of contrition from people who did something more embarrassing than offensive. Still, the fireworks paranoia reflects the sort of evidence-free, roving neurotic concern that has been recapitulated in reporting on Havana Syndrome, among other media phenomena. People want to live in interesting times, and the world is more exciting if Russia has secret microwave guns and the NYPD is giving fireworks to teens in Brownsville.

Misinformation is not some novel innovation of the social-media age. Rumor, gossip, confusion, social manipulation, mass hysteria–these are perennials, although they undoubtedly are shaped by the culture that produces them and the communications tools through which they propagate. In the case of Twitter, there's something satisfying about alighting upon a snappy, discursive thread that seems to take a problem and set it in its proper place. There's a temptation to react immediately, to tout one's own discovery, to join the early adopters on the thin limb of conspiratorial speculation and tell whomever will listen, "Read this."

As is often the case with evidence-free paranoid conspiracizing, the real crime isn't what we suspect is going on in secret–it's what's legal and right in front of us. It's the police impunity and racist violence that, for some Americans, are a feature of everyday life. It's the corruption and humanitarian disregard that defined the Trump administration's COVID response and that lingers today. Our system is practically built to perpetuate a political inertia that makes reform impossible. Unable to meaningfully exercise our political imaginations, we look for answers wherever we can, even if it means hallucinating a web of intrigue around a tired American pastime.  

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