Stretching to Understand Renegade Urban Fireworks

This piece by Marika Plater is the first entrant into the Fourth Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We invited graduate students to “write about a moment in urban history when the inflexible was asked to bend,” and in this essay Plater asks readers to stretch their interpretation of the fireworks that seemed ubiquitous in American cities this summer.

On New Year’s Eve in 1827, as many as four thousand “idle young men, boys and vagabonds,” marched through the streets of New York City. They sang and shouted, reported the Commercial Advertiser, while beating drums and “cracked kettles,” shaking rattles, tooting horns, and setting off firecrackers. Reaching the tip of Manhattan Island in the early hours of the morning, members of the crowd tried to take down the fence that surrounded a park called the Battery. Unable to break the strong iron, they turned towards the fine houses that fronted the park and started smashing windows. This “wanton destruction,” according to the merchants’ newspaper, was unprovoked.[1][2]

But these were not meaningless acts of an unthinking mob. Scholars like Saidiya Hartman, Ranajit Guha, and Paul Gilje teach us to stretch archives that prioritize the perspectives of the powerful and privileged to find missing and defiant voices.[3] Judgements and biased interpretations shape our sources, but we can separate this chaff from the grain of actions, reconstructing the context related to each detail of what the voiceless did in order to guess why they did it.

During this night of clanging metal, shouts, explosions, and shattering glass, members of the lower classes were practicing the New Year’s Eve tradition of taking over the city and turning the world upside down. “Callithumpian bands” like the one that marched to the Battery gloried in raucous revelry and mischief.[4] These clamorous musicians had reasons to take down the railing that encircled the park. The iron bars were new, having just replaced what a reporter described as an “old worm eaten wooden fence, which a passionate cow could have easily broken down.”[5] Free roaming livestock that impoverished people kept as a crucial food source had indeed entered the park to graze when the rails were made of wood.[6] People could also access the grounds all night—to sleep if they had nowhere else to go or when their cramped apartments were too hot, to have sex, to hold mass meetings, or to celebrate.

Replacing wood with iron was part of a decades-long effort to regulate and control impoverished people’s use of the Battery and other parks. Driving this endeavor were affluent New Yorkers who built luxurious residences facing these shared lands. They advocated for a vision of parks as refined sites of polite leisure—not of subsistence, festivities, or political expression. Elite citizens convinced authorities to erect fences, ban the keeping of unpenned animals, discourage protests, and institute strict rules against playing, scavenging, sleeping, and swimming at the parks.[7] The Battery’s railing symbolized the surveillance and restrictions that working-class and impoverished New Yorkers increasingly faced when they went outdoors. When members of the Callithumpian band failed to destroy this fence, they next lashed out at private property owned by the people who drove efforts to control public space.

No one asked the musicians why they made a racket, railed against the railing, and then broke windows. Newspapers just complained that these actions made “a whole city…sleepless.”[8] But considering the context makes it possible to see a destructive action that was illegible to elite critics as an act of rational resistance.

There have been many complaints about sleepless nights recently, as renegade fireworks fill the sky in New York and many other cities across the nation. Fireworks launched without permits are normal features of urban summers, but the explosions seem to be happening much more frequently than ever before, sometimes starting even before dark and lasting late into the night. The fireworks are mysterious. The voices of people who set them off are hard to find, and their reasons for doing so are unclear. But like archives, our minds can stretch to fill in the silences of today and find meanings in acts that might at first seem senselessly disruptive.

Renegade fireworks are happening at the same time as a historic uprising against police brutality and white supremacy. The blasts of colorful light do not convey clear messages the way that chants, banners, and cardboard signs at protests do, but as some activists have suggested, these explosions might be resistance too. Let us look to the context, suspending judgement for a moment about the booming noises that make it difficult to sleep, trigger people with PTSD, and startle pets. Officers have been brutalizing Black people for as long as policing has existed, but this truth has now been caught on video too many times for widespread denial to continue.[9] Black people are voicing their rage and grief. Joining them in the streets are more non-Black people of color and whites than ever before. Police departments have reacted to swelling protests against police brutality with more brutality.

In these circumstances, how might fireworks be a form of resistance? The explosions peaked in early June, when the leaders of many cities instituted curfews to criminalize our freedoms of assembly and speech. The fireworks not only defied the curfew, but might have also sent officers on wild goose chases away from protesters who refused to stop marching when night fell. Fireworks are tied to patriotism, and the struggle against deep and systemic racism moves this nation towards fulfilling the promise of “liberty and justice for all.” The sounds of these explosions evoke battle, and indeed Black activists are fighting for their lives. I’m just riffing here. The point is that stretching the definition of resistance allows us to consider possible messages underlying mysterious actions that might seem senseless at first glance, forging a link between a perceived nuisance and the struggle for change that this country so desperately needs.

But there’s another possibility too. On the way to the Battery on that New Year’s Eve almost two centuries ago, members of the Callithumpian Band got into an “affray with the watch, whom they put to rout.”[10] The watchmen who fled in utter defeat were fulfilling their mandatory and unpaid duty of patrolling the city. Vastly outnumbered, and probably tired after a long day of working regular jobs, the watchmen were no match for the rowdy musicians.[11] Furthermore, municipal authorities generally accepted a few riotous nights a year, recognizing that people of the lower classes needed to vent their frustrations once in awhile.[12] Since then, though, police departments around the nation have become huge, systematized, and militarized forces tasked with keeping order and containing dissent.[13] Hearing fireworks night after night despite such heavy policing, some activists suggest that officers are behind the blasts, either launching pyrotechnics themselves or supplying them. Those inclined to shrug off these accusations should remember that history is full of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true.

In the early 1970s, strange and unsettling things were happening to activists and some suspected that law enforcement had something to do with it. Many people involved in struggles for social justice—including the Civil Rights, Black Power, and American Indian movements—heard unusual clicking sounds when they picked up their phones. Some received frightening calls or threatening letters. Defamatory cartoons with mysterious origins inflamed disagreements between organizations, while internal drama and distrust deepened rifts between comrades.[14] Prominent donors and allies found themselves the subjects of harmful rumors printed in the press. Some began to wonder whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was cultivating a climate of discord, paranoia, and fear through clandestine surveillance and counterintelligence activities. But as anti-war activist Keith Forsyth remembered, nobody “outside of the movement…wanted to believe it.”[15]

Conspiracy theories became fact in 1971, when the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an agency office in Media, Pennsylvania. The activist burglars found reams of documents that exposed the secret Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). This evidence proved that FBI agents, colluding with local police departments, had placed hundreds of wiretaps, circulated inflammatory tracts and rumors, blackmailed leaders, conducted illegal raids of homes and offices, and invented justification to arrest or even murder activists.[16] Paid infiltrators were disrupting organizations from within or pushing towards more militant and dangerous means of protest.[17]

These exposures came too late for the powerful political movements that the FBI’s illegal tactics had seriously hindered or even crushed.[18] And though senate hearings forced the official halt of COINTELPRO, activities reminiscent of the program continue within the FBI and in local policing.[19] In 2018, for example, the New York Police Department settled a lawsuit over charges that informants infiltrated Muslim student groups and at least twenty mosques. Recent history confirms that it’s not a stretch to suspect clandestine counterintelligence activities.[20]

Those who suspect that law enforcement is involved with the fireworks recognize that the flood of complaints about the disruptive explosions make police departments seem indispensable at precisely the moment when longstanding calls to defund the police are becoming mainstream. Activists see an incentive for police officers to promote a sense of disorder to justify the continued existence of extensive and expensive policing. There are roots to this conspiracy theory, as authorities have swayed the tide of public opinion against social justice movements before. Through COINTELPRO, the FBI circulated misleading materials and planted false news stories to manipulate media depictions of the Black Panther Party and shape the views of the general public. Stereotypes that cast activists as dangerous and violent overshadowed the organization’s provision of healthcare, food, and education to communities in desperate need of these services. Discrediting the Panthers limited public engagement with their vision for a more just world.[21] Today, the loud blasts of fireworks threaten to drown out activists’ calls for a reimagining of safety in our cities.

The FBI circulated this document that seemed like a coloring book that the Black Panther Party created to teach children to enact violence against the police. The Panthers did not actually use this mysterious book, which was likely an FBI creation. But people who saw the images learned to see these activists as dangerous.Black Panthers “Free Breakfast” and Coloring Book, 1968,” Gallery, University of Minnesota Libraries.

Wherever these colorful explosions are coming from, the reactions of sleep-deprived neighbors undercut the possibilities of this turning point, when more people without personal experiences of police brutality are listening than ever before and are joining the fight for deep reform or abolition of policing. I see fellow white progressives celebrate the protests and assert that “Black Lives Matter” in one tweet and then in another, urge authorities to take action against the fireworks. Calls for law and order validate enormous budgets for urban policing, while activists are on the streets demanding the redistribution of this funding towards education and social services. The protests stretch towards a vision of cities where safety grows from equality and shared resources, but complaints about fireworks constrain the potential for change. Demand for official action against the loud blasts has furthermore led to riot cops invading Black neighborhoods, endangering residents. White people who might be inclined to call on the police to address quality of life issues need to ask ourselves if we value our own comfort over Black people’s lives.

We are in a moment when history is being made, and history is messy and mysterious. Perhaps a document will surface many years from now and reveal the origins of the renegade fireworks, or maybe historians of the future will have to read the silences in the archive. But here in the present, we can look to resistance and conspiracy in the past and stretch to see the fireworks and the uprising in the same frame. Rigid thinking undermines a historic opportunity that could make the cities of the future safer and more equitable for all.

Marika Plater is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University who studies environmental inequality in nineteenth-century New York City

Featured Image (at top): “Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty – the illumination of New York Harbor [Bird’s-eye view of the statue, harbor and fireworks],” 1886. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

[1] “New Year’s Eve, Commercial Advertiser, January 3, 1828, 2.

[2] “New Year’s Amusements,” Evening Post, January 2, 1828, 2.

[3] Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020); Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies, eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 45-84; Paul Gilje, Rioting in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

[4] Paul Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 254-259.

[5] “New York Improvements,” National Advocate, October 24, 1826, 2.

[6] “Corporation Proceedings,” American, March 14, 1826, 2; Catherine McNeur, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2014), 31-40.

[7] Edmund M. Blunt, The Picture of New-York, or the Stranger’s Guide to the Commercial Metropolis of the United States (New-York: A.T. Goodrich, 1825), 256; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776, Volume III (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905), 341 [July 11, 1808]; Minutes of the Common Council, Volume V, 185 [28 May 1808]; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776, Volume II (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1905), 176 [September 8, 1795]; Paul A. Gilje and Howard B. Rock, eds. Keepers of the Revolution: New Yorkers at Work in the Early Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1992), 199-202; “Corporation Proceedings,” American, March 14, 1826, 2.

[8] “New Year’s Amusements,” Evening Post, January 2, 1828, 2.

[9] For the long history of policing in service to white supremacy, see Sandra Bass, “Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions,” Social Justice 28, no 1 (Spring 2001): 156-176; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[10] “New Year’s Eve,” Commercial Advertiser, January 3, 1828, 2

[11] James Lardner and Thomas Repetto, NYPD: A City and Its Police (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000), 3, 16.

[12] Gilje, Road to Mobocracy, 5, 17-19.

[13] On rising concerns about disorder that led to repression of political expression in the late nineteenth century, see Lisa Keller, Triumph of Order: Democracy & Public Space in New York and London (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[14] Ashley Farmer, “Black Women and the FBI,” in Antidemocracy in America: Truth, Power, and the Republic at Risk, eds. Eric Klinenberg, Caitlin Zaloom, and Sharon Marcus (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019) 185-190.

[15] “Burglars Who Took on F.B.I. Abandon Shadows,” New York Times, January 7, 2014, A1.

[16] Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 314-319; Curtis J. Austin and Elbert “Big Man “ Howard, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008), 171.

[17] Many thanks to Tourmaline for making the connection between COINTELPRO and the fireworks that inspired me to stretch this piece beyond my previous view of the blasts as resistance.

[18] Donna Jean Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[19] The Los Angeles Police Department developed an extensive surveillance and counterintelligence program during the 1970s that prevailed long past the exposure of COINTELPRO. Aiming to neutralize activists, police officers employed many of the unconstitutional tactics that Congress had censured the FBI for using. Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 139-156.

[20] Kitty Stryker offers thoughtful pushback against the conspiracy theory, suggesting that concern about police involvement in the fireworks directs suspicion towards an act that may be resistance (or fun), while encouraging neighbors to police one another.

[21] Austin and Howard, Up Against the Wall, 172; Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

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