Boom, pow, bang – these are just a few of the sounds that residents of New York City have come to terms with over the past three weeks. Many in “The City That Never Sleeps” indeed have not slept at all, as illegal fireworks are fired off nightly into the wee hours, without any law enforcement intervention whatsoever. The Black Lives Matter protests have evolved into what many believe to be a general sense of lawlessness and anarchy, as youths of various denominations have found joy in keeping tired New Yorkers on edge.
Neighborhood residents are kept awake, as the sounds of fireworks are heard until two or three in the morning. Locals are frightened to leave their homes at night for fear of injury, pets cannot be taken for walks, and seniors and the medically vulnerable communities are in a state of constant worry. Many have pointed out that these explosives are like those appearing on the Independence Day displays; they’re not run of the mill sidewalk displays.
In the communities where residents see people lighting the devices, screams for them to stop are met with laughter, while calls to 911 fall flat and no action is taken. In other areas, residents recorded members of the police department ignoring live firework shows. The recent illegal fireworks have almost 9,000 complaints this month – compared to around 30 during the same time last year.
Rivka M. and her family, of 73rd Avenue in Kew Gardens Hills, are regularly awakened terrified, as they have terrible flashbacks. “I grew up in Northern Israel, where we would often run to bomb shelters to escape mortars,” explained Rivka. “This is the exact situation that I feel I am reliving now, and I do not want to put my children through these terrors.”
For over a century, fireworks of all kinds had been banned throughout New York State. The Federal government started taking an interest in fireworks around 1910, in response to a national society called the “Safe and Sane Fourth” movement that hoped to restrict their sale that often contained dynamite and packed an explosive performance. In 1966, cherry bombs, M-80s, and Silver Salutes were banned nationwide, with an exemption for farmers, who are allowed to use them to ward off birds. Things changed in 2014, when the laws for the sale of these whizzing flares were modified. Sparkling devices were declared legal in most of New York State’s 62 counties – illegal only in the City of New York and in Columbia, Nassau, and Schenectady counties. To be clear, the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services allows for “ground-based or handheld devices that produce a shower of colored sparks, and/or a colored flame, audible crackling, or whistling noise and smoke.” This was the device used by members of the FDNY in Crown Heights at Ladder 123 this past week, when some of New York’s Bravest thought it smart to awaken families at 11:30 p.m. Crown Heights has been one of many neighborhoods severely plagued by the nuisance of fireworks crackling from dusk till nearly dawn on a near-nightly basis. But the constant bombardment is not just in Brooklyn; each of the five boroughs has dealt with its fair share of torment from the fireworks without a peep from FDNY, NYPD, elected officials across the board, or the mayor. This past Sunday saw the beginning of an outcry, as the media finally began to address the situation and politicians voiced their opinions.
It is important to note that if you are caught allowing a person under the age of 18 to handle any form of a firework, you could be charged with a crime. This means, if you light a sparkler on a wooden stick, twirl it, and hand it over to your 13-year-old, even for just a second, you are committing a crime.
Addressing the situation, local police officers explained that they have bigger fish to fry, with an uptick in shootings, and are concerned that getting involved with those shooting off fireworks may ultimately result in them having to turn in their badges. “We only intervene if there is a pressing need, and the current standing simply does not warrant our attention,” explained one officer patrolling Union Turnpike, who declined to give his name.
The nightly disturbances promoted Council Member Chaim Deutsch of Flatbush to publicly call for an end to the chaos. The Queens Jewish Link and Bukharian Jewish Link followed suit and emailed a petition that garnered many signatures, calling for an end to the scary, sleepless nights.
The next day, a grassroots group of Orthodox Jewish individuals, mostly from Crown Heights, decided they had had enough, and chose a unique tactic to grab the mayor’s attention. On Monday night, they organized a honking caravan in front of Gracie Mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “During these trying times, when people are trying to get their lives back together, all you hear is fireworks shooting at people out in the streets,” shouted Council Member Chaim Deutsch from a microphone. “People are just afraid to walk out of their homes.”
Sam Stern, the lead organizer of the protest, spoke with the Queens Jewish Link to further detail the origins and goals of the honking caravan. “In 1991, the Jewish community of Crown Heights was under attack and nothing was being done to quell the insanity. Law enforcement had their hands tied by the then mayor, David Dinkins, and a similar gathering was coordinated. Mordechai Levy, now the head of the Jewish Defense Organization, devised a concept to gather those concerned and meet at the steps of Gracie Mansion just before midnight,” explained Stern. “Our group was given orders to arrive quietly and await the signal from Levy to call out in unison ‘Dinkins must go!’ for 20 minutes and then disperse.” This went on for three consecutive nights, first with almost 60 individuals, then the group doubled, and on the last day, there were 200 people chanting loudly until action was finally taken and it became clear the mayor had gotten the message. “They are keeping me up,” Dinkins was quoted as saying following the third day. Stern continued, “Maybe our mayor is choosing to be ignorant, but nobody is safe, and lives are in danger!” Radio personality Heshy Tischler, host of The Just Enough Heshy Show, joined the organizers at the protest. “We want to be able to sleep and all we want is to be protected; he is just incompetent,” said Tischler of the mayor.
The mayor’s team had gotten wind of the protest and in turn had the streets cordoned off by the NYPD prior to the arrival of angry parents. “This is our cry for help,” concluded Stern. “We were left no choice but to take matters into our own hands.” The hope is that the demonstration worked, as the mayor also noted at his press conference that he was aware of ongoing concerns but was already at work on a plan of action. His press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, issued a tweet mentioning the task force shortly before the protest was set to launch: “Tomorrow we’ll be announcing a multi-agency crackdown on illegal fireworks suppliers. More details in the morning.” Activists explained that their voices will grow louder and stronger if the fireworks continue to be a burden on their neighborhoods. “If we cannot sleep, we will not let the mayor sleep,” affirmed Deutsch from the back of a pickup truck at the protest. He led over 250 gathered in chanting, “If we don’t sleep, you don’t sleep,” calling on the mayor directly for immediate leadership. At the march, NYPD did not taunt those present and were respectful of the peaceful mission.
On Tuesday morning, June 23, de Blasio issued a call to use sting operations to find the sources for the illegal sale of these fireworks with the creation of a special 42-person multi-agency task force. “As complaints skyrocket, NYPD, FDNY Fire Marshals and Sheriff’s Office take action to disrupt the fireworks supply chain,” read a statement from his office. The mayor noted at his Tuesday daily briefing that he hopes to disrupt the supply chains by following operations within and outside of the City, “cutting it off by the knees.” The mayor also announced a public safety campaign illustrating the dangers of illegal fireworks to be headed by the FDNY. Although no direct reason was given for the skyrocketing use of illegal fireworks, there was finally an acknowledgement of quality of life issues throughout the City.
Some involved in setting off the fireworks have rationalized their behavior as a celebration of survival from the coronavirus and effects of quarantine in close quarters for over 100 days. “I have a lot of pent-up aggression, and this is how I chose to release it,” stated one teenager who was shooting fireworks just off Queens Boulevard in the Rego Park section of Queens. His friend went further: “I light the cracker in defiance of the NYPD, because it is illegal, and they still do not do anything to stop us.” However, when asked by a neighbor to disburse, they readily obeyed.
By Shabsie Saphirstein