Local Business

Black Fireworks Industry Left Out of Local Festivities

D.C.-Based Wholesaler Implicates DCRA, Illegal Fireworks Vendors

Throughout the July Fourth weekend and well after, the sights and sounds of aerial pyrotechnics and cherry bomb explosions will likely continue to draw the ire of District residents who’ve complained about the nightly cacophony that’s gone on for more than a month with a near-unprecedented level of intensity.

The situation and similar scenarios unfolding in other U.S. cities have compelled questions among social media commentators about the origins of the fireworks, and whether outside forces coordinated the nightly explosions to sow anti-Black sentiment in the middle of a full-fledged sociopolitical movement.

While James P. Peters III, a local fireworks wholesaler in a legal battle with the D.C. government, didn’t go so far to draw that conclusion, he argued that the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ (DCRA) decision to allow Costco Wholesale Corporation to sell fireworks while denying the same for 27 independent vendors — 22 of whom are Black — has allowed illegal, out-of-state fireworks to saturate the local market with products sounding much louder and shooting much higher than what D.C. law mandates.

“My vendors are not on the streets and they don’t have licenses. You’re gonna blame Costco? It’s not them either, because they don’t sell those fireworks. The illegal fireworks come from out of state — like Pennsylvania and Delaware,” said Peters, a 40-year fireworks industry veteran and owner of Capitol Works Fireworks, Inc.

On Saturday afternoon, hours before more allegedly illegal fireworks went off across the city, Peters, along with attorney Johnny Barnes, former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. and several local fireworks vendors, peacefully protested on the front steps of the Capitol Works warehouse.

This gathering happened four days after Peters filed a lawsuit against the D.C. government for what Barnes described as a decision lacking sound reasoning. The lawsuit referenced a June 17 email in which Vincent Parker of DCRA’s business and professional licensing administration told Peters that the agency’s denial of the 27 vendors’ licenses stemmed from the public health emergency, ongoing local demonstrations, and residents’ concerns.

Up until that point, local vendors had been waiting since May for Peters to give them the go-ahead to purchase legal fireworks from him. Peters even attended a Zoom conference call with DCRA officials in April to prepare for a fireworks season that had been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Plans to make sales would never materialize however, leaving Peters with a warehouse full of fireworks and 27 small businesses without a key source of income during the summer months. As Costco, and the out-of-town vendors of illegal fireworks, met market demand unencumbered, one of the District’s longest existing, majority-Black industry was at a standstill, particularly Capitol Works was working to become an importer of fireworks.

“Out-of-state companies inundate radio stations and social media. They’ll even ship to you, which is illegal,” Peters said, later expressing his belief that Bowser would reverse DCRA’s decision.

“They’ll sell you the aerial stuff that explodes. I tried asking the powers that be to do something about illegal fireworks. It will drive us all out of business.”

‘It Shook My Apartment Window’

In the District, fireworks that explode and shoot into the air — including firecrackers, sparklers of more than 20 inches, and Roman candles — have been deemed illegal. Even so, some District families have been known to travel to Pennsylvania and other states to purchase such products.

With local vendors out of the picture, illegal fireworks have garnered more attention from residents and local officials alike.

For instance, complaints about loud explosions, as well as a fire at King Gas Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, prompted Ward 8 Council member Trayon White’s office to send an email to constituents differentiating between legal and illegal fireworks.

While Bowser’s office hasn’t commented on Capitol Work’s lawsuit, the mayor has weighed in on how she thought residents navigating a city in Phase 2 of its reopening should conduct themselves on July 4. On Saturday, she advised people to enjoy the fireworks display at the National Mall from the comfort of their homes.

Some people, including ANC Commissioner Robbie Woodland, said they want to hear more from Bowser about the noises they’ve experienced at night.

Woodland, whose single-member district in Southeast includes Mississippi Avenue, Wheeler Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, launched a campaign earlier this week to pressure Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue to tackle the proliferation of the alleged illegal fireworks in her neighborhood.

“We heard booms that were so loud, it shook my apartment window and set off every car alarm on my street, including mine,” said Woodland, adding that she’d like to see an outright ban on fireworks much like what Massachusetts implemented, or at least the designation of open spaces for such activities.

“A lot of people complained to me about these fireworks,” said Woodland, who represents single-member District 8C03. “They’re already illegal, except the sparklers and the little snakes, but it’s not enforced here in D.C. — along with a lot of other things. There were times when I would call the police because people lit the fireworks in the park until 1 or 2 a.m. I even went as far as flagging down police officers, and they would tell me the park is not their jurisdiction.”

Inside the Local Fireworks Industry

On Saturday, Peters, a former D.C. fire inspector, opened the doors of his Northeast warehouse to allow city officials to tour the facility. Though none appeared, he carried on with his plans to outline key differences between the illegal fireworks on the streets and the legal products he was set on offloading this season.

At one point during the tour, guests walked into a spacious room with hundreds of boxes stacked along the walls and in the middle of the floor. Pointing at one of the boxes, Peters told guests that an inspector from the D.C. fire department scrutinized and signified approval of those boxes with an official stamp.

Had they been allowed to sell on the streets this year, vendors could’ve shown the stamped boxes as a sign of their legitimacy, Peters said.

As some of the vendors who rallied in front of Capitol Works recounted, gaining governmental approval to sell fireworks on major D.C. corridors involves doling out thousands of dollars for licensing and permits, and making arrangements with the carpenter who builds the stand and the owner of the land where one would make their sales.

Kiara Stevenson, a vendor for eight years, called the investment well worth it, but only if all steps are carried out in a timely fashion.

“You have to get a lot done in two weeks — get a permit, go through zoning, everything a commercial building goes through except an elevator permit,” said Stevenson, 30, of Johnson Fireworks, which served customers along Alabama Avenue in Southeast for years.

“The timing makes it impossible for me to snap my fingers,” she added. “I don’t have a business anymore essentially. We didn’t even have a choice to sit out this year. They took away our choice to walk away.”

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