Karen’s Ka-BOOM!


by Lou Cespedes

Summer fireworks in Flatbush are as common as common sense, which is why the lack of thereof in discussing noise nuisance or public safety with recent fireworks activity in our community is so surprising, but not unexpected. This year the fireworks themselves have taken on a symbolism and meaning unique from years past. It’s important to provide a context, beyond the obvious circumstances we’ve been dealing with of late, for why this phenomenon is a particularly explosive topic today.

First, we’ve been quarantined for over three months. Many people have lost their jobs. The cancelation of many 4th of July events and relative inactivity of Memorial Day weekend has created a perfect storm of surplus fireworks, a black market for re-sellers and boredom for frustrated teens and adults alike. The availability of fireworks in neighboring states, plus those eager to turn a buck, and parents with little cash to spend, and kids to entertain are just that storm.

Now enter #DitmasParkKaren. Who is that you ask? That would be newcomers, particularly new white women in Flatbush that have made cause of “quality of life” complaints to their local precincts because they are “bothered” by the incessant explosions of fireworks. That of itself would be enough to warrant our collective anger, but we must now factor in conspiracy theories, resentment in the NYPD over BLM protests, and just plain racism and cruelty that comes with increasing gentrification and changing demographics. To be clear, this has little to do with education or wealth. This is a cultural phenomenon cloaked in a “public safety” narrative for the sole purpose of retaliation. I live in E. Flatbush, I am a homeowner, a professional, and I love the fireworks. For those of us that are initiated in West Indian ways, we hear and see nothing more than the sounds of summer – loud music, carnival atmosphere, open fire-hydrants, street barbeque and the like.  I rather have teens, parents, and communities gathered around fireworks, than gathered at the funeral of another child slain by gun-violence. I use this example because “the sound of gunfire” is one of the specific ways in which whites have complained to 911 or 311 resulting in NYPD SWAT teams raiding our community in full riot-gear. These active shooter responses in our communities and around our kids playing with fireworks is nothing less than “terrorizing” families in their own communities. The NYPD seems all too happy and eager to respond.

This is how institutionalized racism works. This is why we have been protesting! This is why the discussion around casual, racism is so important. This is why we must de-fang the NYPD. At the heart of the #flatbushfireworks debate, which has been highlighted on Twitter by the handle @flatbush_kloud is a simple question of “tolerance and outreach” – not “criminality and enforcement”. If you look up the hashtag, the chorus of Karens complaining about lack of sleep or contacting authorities is as incessant as the fireworks, setting off invisible and silent explosions in our community. I call it Karen’s KaBOOM!

I’m not usually this forward about my impatience for views that I find conflict with my values and worldview, but we aren’t discussing “life or death” public safety issues. We are discussing the weaponizing of “noise” complaints and putting our kids on a collision course with the NYPD!  Every white person marching in BLM protests, then going home to register noise complaints, please check your privilege at the door. You may be protesting in this community, but we dwell here. When you move in, you acclimate, you have conversations with your neighbors in person, you ask questions and participate, and you request. Becoming part of a community is not launching Facebook groups to plot how to ramp up 311 “noise complaints” against neighbors.

Beware! There is a logic to what is happening. Again, this is about culture! If you are black and among the long-term residents of our community, the fireworks are not new, but perhaps the intensity is. There are reasons for this that have everything to do with investing in community infrastructure in black and brown neighborhoods, funding social youth programs, and with economic development and jobs. If you want silence, we need a population that is working and learning, and growing in this time of quarantine. That is why it’s absurd that the NYPD budget is 6 billion (with a “B”) per year. To my white friends, that is the only thing that is truly criminal!

The task at hand is to not allow the discussion around the NYPD’s defunding to be derailed by this false narrative of “public safety”. This is a red herring. Leaders in our community should be using these occurrences to identify how the “enforcement culture” is destroying our community, and how white accomplices are facilitating this destruction, whether conscious or unconscious, because of the casual racism that underpins their attitudes and expectations about living in this community.

To my neighbors I say this: Be smart, be disciplined, and set your own limits and acceptable times among your community for use of fireworks. Let’s not give place to Karen!



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