Right after George Floyd was killed, there were fireworks in my neighborhood. All night long. I live in Roxbury, on a sliver of Boston between two gang territories. So I assumed the noise was gunshots. But a few days later, fireworks actually lit up the sky. At 1am. 2am. 3am.
By the end of May, the fireworks out of our apartment window were amazing. Every night. High quality. They started at 10pm and by 3am, our neighborhood had seen serpents, rockets, willows, parachutes, and more that made me wonder: how much is this costing?
Based on YouTube research, the fireworks we were seeing cost about $250. It turns out that putting on fireworks is typically expensive because of government permits and logistics. There’s none of that in my neighborhood, but still, someone is paying $250 a night.
Then the mayor’s office of Boston reported that fireworks were not only in Roxbury but also in seven other areas of the city: Dorchester, East Boston, Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, and South Boston. Boston is one of the most segregated cities in the US, and the list of cities setting off fireworks is the list of places black people live.
That made me excited. This is a form of protest. And the protest is so layered in meaning and gorgeous to view that I think it qualifies as performance art.
For one thing, setting off fireworks is only sort-of illegal in exactly the same way harassing black people is only sort-of illegal. It’s against the law to have fireworks in Massachusetts. The fine is $100 and confiscation of the fireworks. The city of Boston created a fun, user-friendly pdf to inform citizens that there is little risk to setting off $250 worth of fireworks every night.
But, just like harassing black people makes life for the whole community untenable, setting off fireworks every night makes life for the whole community untenable. The complaints about fireworks are ironically the exact same complaints we would hear about gang-riddled neighborhoods: “thunderous bangs…not a minor disturbance…tearing the neighborhood apart.” It turns out that fireworks done right are a relatively safe way to show privileged rich people what it’s like to be terrorized.
People are amazingly dense about fireworks as a form of protest. Some people brush off fireworks complaints as a yearly event starting in May. But this year Boston had 2300% more complaints than last May. Slate is reporting that increased fireworks are due to COVID boredom. Is it a black-people only boredom? Because otherwise, I don’t understand the logic there. My favorite headline is: Nonstop Fireworks at Night Making Boston Residents Uneasy. When I read that, I knew I had to go straight to the source.
I waited until 10pm and Grace and I walked toward the fireworks to talk to the people setting them off. Grace just moved here so she didn’t have to do lockdown alone, in Seattle. I have lived here a year. So I was the guide, and I immediately got us lost.
We asked a group of teenage boys if they knew who was shooting off fireworks, and if we could talk to the people doing it. The boys directed us through a part of the neighborhood people have told me hundreds of times to never go.
I said, “Is it okay for us to walk there?”
One guy said, “Of course. It’s your neighborhood too. We need to all get along.”
That surprised me. I mean. There are very few white people in this neighborhood, and definitely no Asian people in this neighborhood. And I thought the problem of getting along in our neighborhood is black people were not getting along with each other. But then I thought, okay, we are all being Black Lives Matter now, and he is being really nice to me, and I need to be nice. So I said thanks a lot. And we walked on.
Across the line between the two gangs was a group of kids setting off small fireworks. They asked us if we wanted to do it with them. The boy who offered to share with us almost set his friends on fire. But no one seemed to mind.
We asked where the big fireworks are.
The kids said the people behind the next set of buildings set off the big fireworks.
There was a big courtyard with a lot of people. It was fenced in, so we went to the fence. People ignored us. I said, “Excuse me! Hello. Excuse me.” People ignored us.
Finally, a really big, tall guy came over. He said, “What are you doing here?”
“We want to know who is setting off fireworks.”
“Are you gonna report us?”
“No, we want to know why you’re doing it.”
“What do you mean?”
He walked away. I said, “Wait! Come back. No one will talk to us!”
He said, “No one will talk to you because we think you’re with the cops.”
“What? What!! That’s crazy! What? Look at how we’re dressed. What?”
“What else would you be doing here? A white woman and an Asian woman? At 11pm? You shouldn’t be here. It’s too dangerous.”
“We live nearby. We want to know about the fireworks.”
“What do you want to know? We put ’em off right here. ”
“Because we can.”
“Do you do it every year?”
“Not like this year. This year it’s like an F-you. It’s us showing people what’s up.”
“We wanted to tell you that we like it. It’s really effective. You’re bothering people in just the right way. And we want to help pay for the fireworks.”
“How’re you gonna do that?”
“We brought money.”
“Don’t take money out! Do not give me money. Don’t bring money here. You don’t know how dangerous it is for you to be here.”
“Okay. We don’t. You’re right. We just wanted to help.”
“You helped enough by coming here.”
Then he pointed the direction for us to go back home. It was not the way we had come. We got lost. Of course.
Since then, we think of him each night when the fireworks go off. And the next day we read the complaints to the police with glee; it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful, playful way for the black community of Boston to shine a light on the inherently oblivious nature of white people exercising privilege. And the more people complain about the disruption of peace in their neighborhood, the more profound this fireworks performance art becomes.