UnderCurrents: Fireworks Exploding Over Oakland Neighborhoods

Friday July 09, 2004

Something happened in Oakland this week that will have significant impact on the direction of the city, but it’s probably going to take some time to understand how much impact, and in what direction. 

To talk about it at all, in fact, we’ve got to take a step back and get a longer perspective. 

A friend of mine, who lives near Jingletown, had been complaining to me for years about the problem of Fourth of July fireworks in her neighborhood. It was driving her dog into neurotic fits, she said, and making it impossible to stay in the area over the holiday. Calls to authorities got no response. I heard her, and nodded my understanding, but without much sympathy. She seemed oversensitive, at the very least. It was, after all, only one night of noise in a city beset by robberies and murders. How bad, after all, could an evening of firecrackers and bottlerockets be? 

But a couple of years ago I ended up in the 29th Avenue area after dark on the Fourth, by accident, and decided to hang around to see for myself. I got a bit of a shock. After blocking off the neighborhood entrances with barriers, a crowd of several hundred gathered in the middle of the streets to set off what can only be described as semi-professional grade, industrial-strength fireworks. Some we re propelled from multiple metal tubes that resembled miniature artillery launchers, the concussive explosions so heavy that you could feel the physical pressure on your eardrums, the initial lightbursts so bright that they momentarily blacked out the str eetlights, fooling them into believing that day had come. A moment hardly passed when the sky was not filled with explosions of color. Participants and observers alike seemed to be from the neighborhood itself, from the very young to the very elderly, whole families watching from seats on porch steps while sipping beverages or munching on snacks, as at a picnic, some mothers standing on the curb and holding up little children to get a better view. The festivities went on for several hours, a blaring live professional mariachi band providing musical accompaniment for most of the time (no, I’m not making this up). Who paid for the band, I never found out. 

About 10 o’clock, someone opened up one of the street barriers to let a police patrol car come through. The crowd parted to allow the police car to cruise by, and the fireworks momentarily halted. Well, that’s the end of that, I thought. But instead the officer turned a corner, disappeared into the dark and, as far as I can determine, never stopped or returned. The fireworks display immediately resumed. Clearly, either on its own or upon direction from a higher source, the Oakland Police Department had decided to turn a blind eye to this event. 

I was ambivalent then about the experience, and I remain so to this day. It was clearly awful for my friend, who had to huddle in her house and comfort her frantic dog all night, windows rattling to the booming concussions—it must have been equally horrible for many of her neighbors. But for others it was just as clearly a festive, community celebration—a chance for many to gather outdoors after dark in safety and reclaim their neighborhood in what is too often a dangerous and frightening city. 

Can these two competing community interests be reconciled—residents w ho want peace in their neighborhoods and residents who see such noisy, nighttime, outdoor festivities as a measure of community? It’s hard to say. It would be a tough issue to decide under any circumstances, but especially so during these last months of the administration of Jerry Brown, where official Oakland is focused on downtown development and violent crime, the upcoming mayoral race and cementing Jerry Brown’s legacy so that he can run to higher ground. In such an atmosphere, neighborhood relations takes a back seat. 

In any event, Oakland City Council finally took a stab this year at addressing the fireworks issue from a law enforcement perspective, passing an ordinance that upped the penalties for shooting them off, and adding a provision to make it illegal to even possess the devices. The results—depending upon your perspective—were less than satisfactory. 

By all accounts, neighborhood fireworks displays literally exploded all over Oakland on the Fourth this year—pardon the pun. I noticed it fir st in my own neighborhood—as soon as dusk slipped into dark, the skies lit up with sustained bursts. Usually we can just see the Coliseum displays over the trees from our back porch, but this year I didn’t even bother. Instead I walked out to the corner a nd watched the rockets rush skyward from multiple sites from all the blocks surrounding. These were not being set off by roving bands, but by families gathered on the sidewalks and streets in front of their own front doors. Unlike in years past, there wer e very few firecrackers out where I live—it was mostly aerial works, far more sophisticated than the usual fare. Later newspaper reports and conversations with friends confirmed that the same thing was happening all across the city. 

The flouting of the n ew, highly-touted anti-fireworks law was so apparent and so widespread that the Oakland Police Department was forced to offer a sheepish explanation. 

“None of us suspected there would be great results over Fourth of July, maybe before, but on July 4 it’s a free-for-all,” Lt. Lawrence Green told our friends at the Tribune. Green said it was “overly ambitious” to expect that the new anti-fireworks law would actually put a dent in fireworks shot off on the Fourth. Which is a little like buying a boat that i s guaranteed not to leak, except when you put it in the water. When else would the city need an anti-fireworks ordinance, except on holidays like the Fourth of July? 

Residents were also more than a little disturbed that a hotline set up for citizens to r eport fireworks abuse was not operated over the weekend, and therefore not available on the actual day that fireworks were being used, the Fourth having fallen on a Sunday. 

I’m not sure what the answer to this is. I’m not even sure, right now, what the q uestion is. Is this a trend towards people opening up their own neighborhoods to nighttime celebrations—a taking back of our mean streets—or is this callous, thuggish intolerant behavior, people who could care less about the effect of their actions on mor e peaceful neighbors? Maybe it’s both, simultaneous. Perhaps only time—and further observation—will reveal what direction we’re going.›