I was so frightened by fireworks as a boy that my grandmother had to ask a friend to come and speak to me once as I hid under the kitchen sink in a downtown apartment she’d rented in Tampa for the annual Buccaneers’ Parade. The guy, dressed as a pirate, convinced me to crawl out of my hidey-hole. But as soon as the next string of pops went off, back under the sink I darted.
As my city’s inched towards Independence Day, I’ve spent many a night wanting to head under the kitchen sink again. Fireworks have swamped Albany, and have been popping off nightly since the first protest march’s accompanying riot several weeks back. It’s felt like an answer to the local police force’s use of stun bombs to buttress their use of tear gas. The booms shake the windows and send our cats a yard up from the bed every time they occur.
The fireworks have come with a string of shootings: 16 people in three locations over the past week, two fatal. One a block from our home. Nineteen shooting deaths this year – a record. A hundred confirmed shootings, 50 people hit by bullets. About a month ago that included a dude shooting another dude’s dog in afternoon sunlight.
I spoke with members of 518 SNUG Outreach last week. They’re a modern-day version of the Black Panthers made up of ex-gang members, ex-cons with state funds working to keep guns off the streets. Jerome, their branch leader, said that the new shootings aren’t gang-related, as they were just a couple of years ago. They’re coming from a younger crowd, mixed with more “ghost guns” getting sold from people’s trunks. The shootings are the result of social-media disses, or old debts getting paid for those just out of prison.
The fireworks are also getting sold out of trunks. We’re not certain if there’s overlap, but do know the M-80s and other loud-bang items have tended to get fired off on the same streets as the gunfire. The SNUG dudes said it all has to do with the quarantines. With no work and their families needing food on the table, many men took up petty crime when they noticed the streets were empty, or the police were busy watching for riots. People are letting off steam.
It all plateaued, somewhat, on Juneteenth. Whole blocks shut down up here, unofficially, as people created their own fireworks displays. But there was also a massive shooting, in the early hours of June 19, where seven were shot on a single North Albany block, leaving the police to located 70 spent cartridges.
I’m writing this on a Father’s Day getaway further Upstate, the far horizon of Lake Ontario in front of me. This is Trump country. We passed several self-advertised militia headquarters on the way to our cabin.
Checking in, the woman at the desk asked about dinner reservations. I said 7:15 p.m. for both nights. “That’s nice,” she replied. “Regularity is always nice.”
I realize the fear here, away from all urban areas, is greater than on my street in the city where the fireworks mix with targeted gunfire, but lives go on regardless on stoops and sometimes in the street itself.
We’re still a single nation with shared challenges. But we increasingly fail to recognize how solutions can be shared.
On to Independence Day.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.