Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fireworks, Anarchy, Freedom, & Flames

John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on the 3rd of July in 1776:

"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

We celebrate Independence Day on July 4, the anniversary of the date the signing was announced to the public. As Adams suggests, we celebrate with pomp, parade, sports, but especially with fireworks. Here in Santa Cruz, California the sale, distribution, possession, and use of fireworks is strictly forbidden by law. But, on Independence Day year after year the beaches in and around Santa Cruz are transformed into a war zone with what may be the largest illegal fireworks display in the world. It's awesome, magnificent, opulent, beautiful, scary, thrilling, and also may qualify as the largest annual act of civil disobedience in America.

Each year as local law enforcement ramps up its efforts to quell the celebration that John Adams encouraged, Independence Day celebrants double their efforts to skirt the law. In fact, all the police have been able to accomplish is establishing a traffic line keeping cars a few blocks back from the beach and forcing people to park and walk. Those with really huge collections of fireworks come down days earlier and bury their stash. Others just bring the fireworks down in coolers and picnic baskets. The ineffectiveness of the legal ban on fireworks in Santa Cruz is rivaled only by the laws criminalizing the possession of marijuana.

However, this year saw a dramatic increase in the use of high-end fireworks in the westside residential neighborhoods far above the relative safety of the beaches. It appears the ban on fireworks in Santa Cruz and patrolling of the beaches by the police has accomplished something. Some celebrants are now exploding fireworks over the shingled shake roofs of families. Pets and children must be shuttered at an early hour that day and kept indoors the entire night. Part of the allure of the anarchy of the beach displays was the fear of accidentally getting hit by one of the streaming rockets. Now that fear is no longer a choice but has been brought to the quiet neighborhoods of this sleepy fishing village.

The criminalization of weed created a seedy and dangerous black market supplying not only pot but all kinds of extremely dangerous and addictive drugs. The prohibition on alcohol fueled the rise of organized crime in this country. It can even be argued that the laws prohibiting consumption of alcohol by persons under 21 have contributed to the rise of teen alcoholism and binge drinking deaths among the youth of America. Now the totally ineffective prohibitions on the use of fireworks on Independence Day in Santa Cruz has created a dangerous threat to the safety of our children, pets, and property.

The beaches are about the safest place in Santa Cruz to set off fireworks. Most of them are backed by high cliffs protecting the houses above. The bay provides not only a natural means of extinguishing fireworks but a beautiful reflective surface. Why not declare certain beaches as designated celebration zones and permit the use of fireworks there? Focus law enforcement and emergency services on prohibiting fireworks in residential neighborhoods and combating fires and accidental injury.

Ironic that this police crackdown on our freedom of fireworks occurs on Independence Day. Also somewhat ironic is this blog posting calling for a curtailing of the anarchic celebration that's grown to astounding proportions here in Santa Cruz. Ironic because this call for limits on the anarchy is at the same time a call for the repeal of laws limiting our rights on that day. As the Freaky Executives used to sing - "We reserve the right, to party each and every night" - the pursuit of happiness is in fact one of the natural rights declared as protected by that signing we celebrate. It seems to me the wiser path would be to encourage that pursuit rather than ineffectually attempt to deny it.