When there’s nothing to do during a pandemic, we can always turn to explosives. Complaints about illegal fireworks around Western New York have skyrocketed, part of a national trend. Grumbling on social media about the nightly chorus of booms, pops, and bangs since the start of warm weather is nonstop, and police have been inundated with reports.
Midway through June in Jamestown, for instance, the number of complaints to police were more than twice that received for the entire month the previous year. Reports have also inundated police in Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Angola, Dunkirk, Niagara Falls, Kenmore, Amherst, West Seneca, and Tonawanda. Fireworks, it seems, are the hot new pandemic pastime, but it’s nowhere near as bad here as in New York City, where, in the first twenty-one days of June, complaints had increased by 40,000% from the previous year.
Many of Buffalo’s neighborhoods rely on police acquiescence on the high holy day of pyrotechnic entertainment, July 4. In years past, illegal displays have been widely visible from city rooftops across the region. What distinguishes this year is that the unlicensed displays began in May.
Call the police!
Ironically, this comes at a time when Black Lives Matter protestors across the country are demanding the defunding of law enforcement. One version of this idea—and there are several—would only have police handle the big stuff, while social workers deal with day-to-day community problems. The spike in fireworks complaints puts police in a no-win situation. Either they ramp up enforcement of pyrotechnic laws and risk criticism for over-aggression, or they suffer the slings and arrows of an increasingly irritated public, who just want to get some sleep. It’s NYMBYs vs. reformers, with cops in the middle.
Sparklers, snakes, and confetti filled party poppers are legal, but firecrackers, bottle rockets, roman candles, spinners, and aerial fireworks are not. In recent years, Erie and Niagara counties have also legalized sparkling fireworks, which state law describes as "ground based or handheld devices that produce a shower of colored sparks and/or a colored flame, audible crackling or whistling noise and smoke."
The Erie County District Attorney’s Office released a statement last week, reminding the public that most fireworks are illegal. It wants people to be aware of the penalties associated with fireworks. The list includes unlawfully dealing with fireworks, possession of illegal fireworks, disorderly conduct, and reckless endangerment in the second degree (a felony). Section 293 of the Buffalo City Ordinance prohibits unreasonable noise, which applies twenty-four hours a day. Apparently, few fireworks users take this seriously.
Police say they intend to address violators in a nonconfrontational manner. "The goal is to have a conversation," says Captain Jeff Rinaldo of the Buffalo Police Department in a WKBW interview, "and get someone to comply to agree to stop shooting them off. If that doesn't work then, you know, potentially issue a noise ordinance violation."
Why are fireworks so popular?
People have been cooped up for months. There’s not much new on television. Movie theaters and music venues are closed. Many public fireworks displays have been canceled. According to Channel 4 News, the vice president of Phantom Fireworks William Weimer says, "With the 4th of July holiday around the corner, and people experiencing COVID cabin fever, sales have been through the roof." However, the constant sound of exploding fireworks can cause serious emotional distress, especially among people with PTSD and other medical conditions, as well as for pets and wildlife. Babies lose sleep. Dogs bark or hide under the bed.
Aside from the "bored kids" explanation for increased fireworks, several other hypotheses are outlined in a recent Vox article. Author Robert Jones Jr. suggests it’s "part of a coordinated attack on black and brown communities by government forces." The idea is that disgruntled police are supplying the inner city with fireworks to shift public opinion against people of color, while creating a demand for policing. Such a concerted national effort, coordinated nationally between police departments from major cities to small towns, is the stuff of wacko conspiracy theorists.
A more prosaic explanation for the increase in complaints is that people are spending more time at home, with more opportunity to notice auditory disturbances, particularly since cities are quieter in general. A New York Times article reports that urban street noise has declined significantly since the outbreak of COVID-19. There’s even a perception by some people that bird chirping is getting louder. Ornithologists say, no: everything else has gotten quieter. It’s also possible that with professional fireworks shows cancelled, a glut of pyrotechnics are making their way to the public.
Was that fireworks or gun shots?
On social media and neighborhood groups like Nextdoor, you see the same question almost nightly: did I just hear gunshots, or was that fireworks? Several social media tutorials and memes explaining the difference between gun and firework sounds have popped up recently in an effort to calm nerves.
Public tensions were raised by rioting during Black Lives Matter protests and the use of explosives by police. And it doesn’t help that there has been a recent spate of actual shootings. Ten people were wounded in six incidents over Father’s Day weekend. Four of those were on Sunday at the foot of West Ferry Street, near Niagara Street.
Again, COVID-19 is getting the blame for the increase in gunfire. In a WGRZ News report, Rinaldo says he believes the coronavirus pandemic has become a factor in the way people behave. "There's been three months of lockdown from COVID." says Rinaldo. "People don't really have a place they can go to recreate. They don't have any place that they can do things, so as the weather heats up, people are looking to get out into public spaces." Rinaldo says that these shootings are occurring late at night. Alcohol is involved, and then a fight or argument breaks out, which leads to gun violence.
One reason firework complaints are more common is that fifteen states have passed laws in recent years allowing greater access to consumer fireworks. Fireworks retailers with ample supplies after COVID lockdowns have lowered prices, and are racking up big sales. Some can be purchased on Indian reservations. Highway billboards advertise shops in Erie, Pennsylvania that sell items that are illegal in New York. Trying to stop their use has been about as effective as curtailing cannabis.
As the nation rethinks the role of community policing, citizens plead for a law enforcement respond to noise complaints. Hopefully, everyone will get some relief once July 4 has passed.
A tale of two states
To mask or not to mask, that is the question.
This much-debated topic had once seemingly died down, but the question of whether it is nobler to don masks during an ongoing pandemic, or defiantly go without, has returned with a fury. In social media posts, memes, and articles, the discussion has become so intense, that one local Facebook user created a proposed no mask agreement for people who choose not to wear them.
"Rather than waste valuable time debating the merits of wearing or not wearing a mask during the pandemic, when social distancing is not possible," it begins, "my recommendation is that we encourage anyone who is of the no mask persuasion, to exercise their God-given right, and go ahead and chuck their mask into the garbage can." The agreement would require signatories, should they become sick, to give up claims for themselves or their families to things like medical care, insurance, sick leave, or financial aid.
Signing the agreement would, however, entitle signatories to:
"Free admittance to any Republican sponsored event. This will include transportation aboard Air Force One and backstage tickets to meet and greet anyone from the GOP that might be there."
Honorable mention in the 2020 Darwin Awards."
It’s satire with a cutting message, but why has mask-wearing become such a polarizing topic?
Florida vs. New York
The following story illustrates how events can be filtered through an ideological lens, resulting in starkly divergent views.
A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend—whom I’m not naming to protect her privacy—posted a comment that went something like: "Funny how all the Republican states are doing so well without restrictions, and the Democratic states that are so afraid have high levels of infection." I responded to the former Buffalo resident, who now lives in Florida, that there were recent infection increases in several of those Republican states, while New York’s rate has been steadily declining. My friend answered that the supposed spike in those states is due to increased testing, echoing similar claims by President Trump. She kept saying that people in Buffalo are simply "afraid," while in Florida they are "doing great."
Seeing in black and white
There’s usually a middle ground to every debate, but too often people retreat to one ideological corner or the other. It’s true that there are Buffalonians who could be described as overly cautious, sanitizing groceries or fretting over sixty-five-foot bicyclist airstreams. But each person must find their own level of personal comfort and risk aversion. The irony, as I pointed out in the May LSS, is that many social media users had been grumbling for weeks that locals weren’t taking social distancing and mask-wearing seriously enough!
In a private message, I sent my Florida friend images of Buffalonians gathering in public without masks or distancing (which hasn’t caused a spike in infections). Far from being fearful, I said, they’re behaving in a way many people consider to be inconsiderate. That argument, she replied—in a masterful piece of circular logic—comes from people who are afraid. "Wearing masks will not save you from a virus, nor will it protect others," she messaged. "I used to work in the field; I know what I’m talking about." Of course, there is a great deal of solid research that supports the effectiveness of masks, but it’s true what they say about a little knowledge.
As the conversation progressed, we entered into conspiracy territory, with my friend improbably claiming that she visited four Florida hospitals that were alleged to be overrun (which in fact was not being alleged at the time), and they each told her they had so little to do they were bored, but had been instructed not to talk about it. "Shutting down the whole world was the stupidest, most inconsiderate thing ever," she claimed. Then she veered into anti-vax territory, arguing that the whole intent is to push vaccinations. That’s when I ended the conversation.
A reversal of fortune
As of June 16, Western New York entered Phase 3, and is guardedly on track to enter a controversially adjusted Phase 4 very soon. Meanwhile, many of those Republican-led states that reopened early have seen dramatic spikes in infection rates. Some Florida bars and restaurants shut within a week after reopening, as coronavirus cases spiked. On Friday, June 26, Florida reported a massive single day increase of infections. Florida and Texas governors have ordered bars closed and new restrictions put into place. The coronavirus has now infected 122,960 people in Florida and killed at least 3,327, according to the state’s health department. New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut put into place a two-week quarantine for travelers from states with high coronavirus rates, including Florida.
I won’t gloat about Florida’s bad news—celebrating disease and death is wrong—but I have a strong suspicion that the latest reports from the Sunshine State have not altered my friend’s views. As I write this, her two most recent posts are a copy of an unsigned letter to Governor Cuomo protesting the exclusion of gyms and fitness centers in Phase 4, and the following meme:
"Just wear a mask"
"Just let the government track your location"
"Just let then inject you"
"Just give them your guns"
"Just get in the boxcar"
In my friend’s mind, forcing people to wear masks during a pandemic is a slippery slope to concentration camps. Meanwhile, those on the other end of the debate post articles on how mask-wearing is a sign of mutual respect, which has little to do with their effectiveness and everything to do with the their social message.
Google the words "masks are…" and you get the following suggestions to complete the sentence: "not effective, not necessary, stupid, mandatory, terribly comfortable, bad for you, required, required sign, unhealthy." Add on the word, "sometimes" and you get…nothing. Even Google "thinks" in extremes.
This is not about what’s right and wrong. The scientific evidence is that masks and social distancing play an important role in preventing the spread of the virus. But it’s hard to find published articles—and certainly impossible to find social media memes—that attempt to understand why people take extreme pro- or anti-mask positions. One insightful article in the Atlantic titled The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks, offers a rare sympathetic look into the psychology and politics of mask resistance. It includes a warning to mask zealots: "Still, trying to shame people into healthier behavior generally doesn’t work—and actually can make things worse." Another key line points out that, "Empathy has its own kind of power." Empathy, however, is in short supply in today’s polarized society.
Another thoughtful story is Here's why some people are not wearing masks during the coronavirus crisis, from NBC news. "We find that when beliefs become shared by social groups and are part of how we identify that they are very difficult to change, even in the face of scientific evidence," says Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. "Sharing beliefs is one of the ways we bond with others, and the desire to bond with others is so strong that often it distorts the objective evaluation of information."
Sounds about right.
Pressure for police reform continues
Thirteen demonstrators who had occupied Niagara Square for eleven days were arrested around 1 a.m. on June 24, and charged with obstruction of governmental administration, being in a park after 10 p.m., and sleeping in the park. The group had been protesting police abuse and calling for the release of Deyanna Davis, who is alleged to have driven an SUV through a barricade during a protest, hitting several officers. It might have been a last hurrah for police in Buffalo, as they hustled to beat the start of the city’s new policy of issuing appearance tickets for nonviolent misdemeanor charges that began just hours later.
Off to see the mayor
By Wednesday evening a peaceful group of around 100 protestors calling themselves the Western New York Liberation Collective began marching, accompanied by a small motorcade, through the Elmwood Village to Mayor Byron Brown’s house in the Hamlin Park community.
When the protest reached Brown’s neighborhood, police held back the demonstrators, as the mayor was escorted to an unmarked police car, because unlike President Trump, he doesn’t have a bunker. Some of the police had covered their nametags, and wore thin blue line badges, both in violation of their own policy guidelines. The frontline marchers linked arms to form a blockade between police and other protesters. Apparently to avoid trespassing, protest leaders instructed the group to stay off the mayor’s property. After Brown’s departure, the march continued to Niagara Square at nightfall.
According to a group spokesperson identified in a WBFO new story as KK, the goal is to "stop police abuse, police brutality, and lack of police accountability." The group wants to defund police and disarm them by stripping funding for new weapons from next year’s Buffalo police budget. They plan to occupy Niagara Square while strategizing on what to do next. "We’re just really tired of police brutality, and systematic racism and oppression," says KK. "And, until then, we’re not going to stop."
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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