Fireworks onslaught prompts community discussion

More than 370 people joined an online forum last night led by at-large City Councillor Julia Mejia aimed at finding solutions to the onslaught of illegal fireworks in Boston neighborhoods. Dubbed “Fireworks Trauma,” the event featured a diverse array of Bostonians who bonded over the common scourge.

Residents who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) talked about how non-stop fireworks around their homes negatively affect them. Youth organizers brainstormed creative solutions. And councillors and staff from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services listened and offered possible resources that could be rallied around an awareness campaign. Complaints to City Hall increased by 2,300 percent in May, according to Mayor Martin Walsh. But most on the call agreed that there needs to be a community-based approach that does not lean exclusively on law enforcement.

“We’re hoping to have a community-centered approach to this,” Mejia said during the forum. “I believe that folks who are living the realities have the ideas. We know what works, we know what our blocks look like and we know how to interact with our neighbors.”

Jerome Smith, chief of Civic Engagement and director of Neighborhood Services for Mayor Walsh’s office, said that the intensity of fireworks in Boston is like nothing he’s seen before, noting that some of the fireworks seized by law enforcement have come from out of state-- and not just New Hampshire.

“We’ve found that some individuals have brought fireworks in from as far as Michigan. Originally what we were thinking was that individuals were just crossing the border from New Hampshire with them, but these larger fireworks are from other states,” said Smith. “We believe that someone has brought in a ton of fireworks, there must be some sort of distributor place in the city so we’re trying to find that.”

Smith said that the city is game for supporting its residents in creating another process to address the issue.

“I want to listen for suggestions because right now the only tool we have is police enforcement,” Smith said. “The cases reported to 311 just go to BPD. We do agree that there needs to be more than just that process for residents. If there are any tools that the city can come up with to help you guys I’m all ears-- fliers, door posters-- I'm interested in any idea you might have. This has become a significant problem in a short amount of time.”

Ronald Odom, a Dorchester resident whose 13 year-old son Steven Odom was shot and killed near their home in 2007, said hearing fireworks brings him “right back to that day.”

“I’m coming from the lens of a survivor of homicide. I heard the gunshots when my son’s life was taken and when his body fell to the ground. Just the sound of the fireworks reminds me of my son’s life being taken, it brings me right back to that day,” said Odom.

“I had a vision in my mind of my son’s body falling to the ground and that was it for me for the rest of the night. It just kept me up. I shot firecrackers myself as a kid. But the sound of these fireworks re-triggered me to the point where I couldn’t sleep.”

Sean Terry, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor, also talked about PTSD and the triggering effect of ongoing fireworks in the South End.

“It took me a long time to realize the ripple effects that the experience had on me. Any sort of loud noise plus sirens, for me, just exacerbates [it]. Those are the biggest triggers for me.”

Anna and Ben Ahler, creators of the Facebook “Dot Parents” page, said many in Dorchester have expressed concerns over calling the police to stop fireworks.

“As much as the fireworks are really hard for us-- it’s hard to get sleep, we have a young daughter-- we really feel that given what's going, calling the police is not the right solution for this,” said Anna Ahler.

Added Ben Ahler: “We want to know how we can talk to the people and find some kind of common ground. There might be ways to invest in more community resources that don’t include policing. We don’t want to be choosing a solution that is causing other people issues.”

Alondra Bobadilla, Mejia’s youth liaison, emphasized the importance of recognizing the issues as a community issue, not just a youth issue.

“”There are a lot of people just blaming the youth, and I can tell you-- it’s not just youth, it’s adults too. If there’s one thing I have to say it’s that it’s really important that we don’t create conspiracy… This is a community issue,” she said. “As a community, there are certain things we have to take on by ourselves and I think we can come up with a solution based approach where we have different options and are not always talking to the police.”

Participants divided into breakout sessions, tasked with collectively surfacing three specific potential solutions. “We don’t need to have a conversation about the conversation,” said Mejia. “Let’s get into some solutions!”

Solutions brought back from breakout sessions included working to create a PSA awareness campaign highlighting the voices of PTSD/trauma survivors that could be shared on social media and with news organizations, signage or lit-drops through ONS, further investigation into the source of where the fireworks are purchased, community policing, and developing a time-specific framework with those setting off fireworks.

By the end of the forum, the Facebook live feed had more than 1,000 comments from attendees.

Next steps, Mejia said, will include identifying community volunteers which she called “captains” that will help her team-- possibly identifying a steering committee of sorts.

“Everyone who registered via Zoom will receive a little social media tool kit with fliers that you can print out and share with your civic associations and communities,” said Mejia.

“Right now we’re laying down the foundation for something that we’ll need to implement over time. So prepare for the long haul around this conversation and manage your expectations,” said Mejia. “We know that if the fireworks started in March, trust that they’re going to go on beyond July.”