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Fireworks Conspiracy Theories: Why You Should Be Skeptical

When Anne-Marcelle Ngabirano first began hearing the fireworks at the end of May, she found them to be welcome sounds of celebration. But over the next few weeks, they sounded closer and closer to her three-bedroom apartment in Sunset Park, until the booms began rattling the walls and the apartment filled with smoke.

“My roommate had just recovered from Covid,” she said. “It was difficult to breathe.”

So one night last week Ms. Ngabirano, a documentarian, set out on foot, compelled to investigate the source. What she found instead showed how the proliferation of fireworks in recent weeks has led to an array of unproven and far-fetched conspiracy theories.

The flood of illegal fireworks, heard in nightly booms, bangs and fizzles across the city and the country, has intensified to such a degree that some people are desperately seeking explanations for the chaos, with many suggesting government complicity.

The conspiracy theories have been shared widely on social media and appeared on fliers in New York City parks. They have flourished as nationwide scrutiny of police brutality and racism has exposed deep distrust of law enforcement.

But interviews with city officials, industry experts, fireworks retailers, law enforcement officials, and people who buy fireworks tell a much different story. As is often the case with conspiracy theories, they said the truth is not an elaborate government plot, but very simple: After months of quarantine and social distancing, people are bored, and setting off fireworks for fun — and seeing fireworks just makes fireworks enthusiasts want to set off more fireworks.

Fireworks are being sold legally just over state lines in neighboring states like Pennsylvania. They are on sale in huge quantities at bargain prices as businesses, only recently reopened because of the pandemic, meet consumers eager for a flashy diversion or illegal resale opportunity, particularly as the weather warms and Independence Day nears.

Ms. Ngabirano’s video, which she posted to Twitter, showed fireworks bursting right next to a police station, and she said officers were standing outside, seeming to not care.

The footage was shared thousands of times and people flooded her account with messages saying her video was evidence that the government was using the fireworks as a form of psychological warfare, with the light and noise meant to desensitize people to potentially escalating levels of force.

Ms. Ngabirano, 25, said she did not believe that.

“I’m very wary of social media and conspiracy theories,” she said. “I was like this is what I have, this is what I can show you. What you make of it, I can’t take responsibility for that. It was happening in front of me. That’s all I can confirm.”

A video also emerged recently of what appeared to be fireworks being set off in front of a fire station; the Fire Department said it was under investigation.

The N.Y.P.D. denied that it had given anyone fireworks but did not respond to additional requests for comment on where illegal fireworks may be coming from or whether they had seized an unusual number of fireworks this year. The Police Department typically detonates illegally seized fireworks every summer before July 4.

But before the fireworks even get to New York City, many seem to come from stores in Pennsylvania, where a 2017 law expanded the types of fireworks people could buy in the state to include aerials, or products that can shoot more than 100 feet in the air before exploding.

Some of the conspiracy theories mention the size and seemingly professional nature of the fireworks. But Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said that most of the fireworks she has seen on social media or the news do not appear to be professional and can be legally purchased in several states.

Entrepreneurs are buying fireworks in bulk, advertising them through social media accounts, with some people ultimately illegally selling the products out of cars in New York neighborhoods.

“The past few weeks it’s been like the day before the 4th of July every day,” said Kenneth Crissinger, assistant manager at Phantom Fireworks in Matamoras, Pa., about 75 miles northwest of New York City. “We can’t keep our shelves stocked.”

On a recent trip to Phantom, one of the largest fireworks retailers with stores and showrooms across the country, the parking lot was full of cars with out-of-state-plates. Packs of young men braved the un-airconditioned warehouse on a 90-degree day and stuffed their trunks to the brim.

“We’re looking at the reasons as being everybody having pent-up energy from being in lockdown during the quarantine,” said Pat Moran, the manager of Phantom Fireworks. “Fireworks is a great venting release. It really is. You can go out and enjoy some noise and color and explosions.”

He said that the stores had just reopened in the last few days of May, and as recently as last week, Phantom was running a buy-one-get-two-free special. Mr. Moran said that the special sale happens annually, usually at a time when no one cares about fireworks. This year, it coincided with fireworks season.

Mr. Moran said he believed the promotion explained, in part, the uptick in fireworks in New York.

“And you can say the same about Boston, because we have stores in New Hampshire, right across the border,” he said. “Or our stores in Nevada, which are the closest locations to California.”

On Monday afternoon, Derian Torres, 23, of Passaic, New Jersey, hunted for fireworks at Phantom with friends. But he was also fulfilling orders for others via FaceTime.

“A lot of people are saying, since I first took the chance, buy this for them or buy that for them,” he said. “I bought for three people today and plan to come back tomorrow and spend another $700.”

Instagram accounts that resell Phantom products show how lucrative the resale market for fireworks can be. A small cube called the Fiery Discus, which shoots red and blue bursts of light, was recently selling for $34.99 with a buy one, get two free promotion in the store but was being resold on Instagram for $50.

On Monday afternoon, about 10 Phantom employees helped unload a 53-foot truck containing roughly 50 pallets, each holding about 12 boxes of fireworks. Some 90 minutes later, entire sections of the store were completely empty, except for a few assortment boxes with names like Grounds for Divorce, priced at more than $1,400.

At Keystone Fireworks, a competitor store just a parking lot away, people from Queens, the Bronx, Delaware and Connecticut filled cars with fireworks. Keystone was, after all, running its own promotion to buy one and get one free.

Mayor Bill de Blasio finally vowed to crack down on illegal fireworks earlier this week, after the city received thousands of complaints on its help and emergency telephone lines.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. de Blasio said the effort will center on using law-enforcement agencies to disrupt the supply of fireworks to the city, including sting operations.

On a recent Tuesday night, a man who was selling fireworks from his car in Washington Heights said he got them from a warehouse in Pennsylvania. The man spoke on the condition of anonymity because his business was illegal.

“The warehouse will actually run out of stuff,” he said. “So when we go back, we come with two car loads.”

He sells the fireworks for double the retail price. On a recent Sunday, he said, he spent $1,500 buying fireworks in Pennsylvania. By Monday night, he said, he had made $4,000. He said he sometimes gives fireworks away.

He said he had not heard the conspiracies being shared on social media about the police or government supplying fireworks.

“I am not too in tune with the police,” he said. “The cops don’t really mess with us. They don’t really bother anybody. I don’t see them stopping anyone, but they don’t hand us fireworks. They just drive straight by us. They don’t even stop.”

Yet the conspiracy theories continue to spread on social media, in particular through one Twitter account, SonofBaldwin, belonging to an author, Robert Jones, Jr.

Mr. Jones declined to comment through his publicist.

A thread he posted on Twitter suggesting the government was providing young people with fireworks had been shared more than 16,000 times.

Barring significant government intervention, there are few signs that the barrage of fireworks will slow. Brandon Gecaj, 20, a junior at Syracuse University, said he spent $716 on fireworks from Phantom — more than he intended to.

“When you start shopping, you just want to keep buying stuff,” he said. “It’s like an addiction.”

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