Monday, July 7, 2014

Remembering the Ancient Celebration of the 4th of July in Santa Monica

How should Americans celebrate the Fourth of July? Should it be in comfortable, respectable, middle-class suburbs with tepid, but safe, fireworks shows? Or should it be an exuberant recreation of that famous artillery barrage from long ago when the enemy cannon fire illuminated the battlefield with explosions at night and revealed to all sides that we stood defiant? Should it be boring, safe, sane, and white, with only people like us participating, or should it be filled with immigrants of every type who have come to this country to try to have a better life in this uncaring and corrupt world?

Santa Monica, a notorious “beach city” as Raymond Chandler related in his various works of fiction [My friend Nick reminds me that it was called "Bay City" in the Chandler novels], and the City of Los Angeles participated for many years in what they planned to be a respectable Fourth of July show.  To their amazement, and with absolutely no intention or planning, the celebration took on a life of its own, and became a day at the beach for hundreds of thousands of people from all over the city, of all colors and financial means.  Although they could barely speak English, if they could speak English at all, they somehow found their way from East LA, South LA, the east and west ends of the valley, Pomona, Compton, and even Watts to celebrate America's birthday.   I suspect that this tradition built up over decades until when I witnessed it, in the late 1970s, it had become a phenomenal street festival.   The estimates for the number of people who attended each year are fairly mind-boggling, but lets just say that many hundreds of thousands would be an estimate on the low end.   Kids came with their friends, or parents brought their children, to spend the day at the beach and then, when darkness fell, to set off, ignite, explode, and hurl through the air vast numbers of legal but mostly illegal fireworks.

A picture of the Santa Monica Pier with lots of people.

Packed nearly shoulder to shoulder on the Promenade in the darkness, barefooted and in shorts, an observer would hear languages and laughter in all the world's languages as he or she tried to navigate the masses of apparently very happy people who threw exploding and illegal M80s and cherry bombs, Picolo Petes and roman candles at and around each other. One friend of mine from the RAND Corporation described it as similar to being in Vietnam in which one moved in darkness and smoke while the native populations jabbered in languages you did not understand while throwing or firing munitions in all directions in some sort of wild frenzy.  The smell, not of napalm, but of black snakes and expended roman candles filled the air. Sparklers were lit, waved around, and thrown at random into the air or through the crowd.  Broken glass and the expended munitions, used sparklers and any other type of portable, hand held, fireworks and some firearms littered the beach and yet barefoot participants of all ages seemed to navigate the broken glass and expended sparkler field without concern or apparent harm.

At 9 PM the main fireworks show was detonated from the Santa Monica pier and presented the usual community fireworks show as one might see in many places in this country, with the added value of having a nice Pacific Ocean to reflect off of when, that is, the evil Santa Monica fog did not obscure everything which it usually did about half the time.  When that was over, the crowd gradually dispersed, many of them having been there all day, and being out of ammunition, went to their homes in every part of the city, somehow.

This is the new-style Santa Monica Pier.  The pier in the 1970s was much more tacky and authentic.

The next day the City of Santa Monica would awaken to the unenviable task of trying to clean the beach of massive amounts of broken glass, unbroken glass, sparklers, expended cartridges and generic trash of all possible types.   Recall that when walking barefoot on the beach, a former sparkler resembles nothing so much as a nearly invisible spike of dirty metal ready to puncture the unwary foot.  It would take all the next day and often the day after that to clean the sand and beach of dangerous, sharp objects.

Every year would come reports of wounds, burns, broken bones and unhappy and damaged children of all ages, some of whom had been actively hurling fireworks at each other at the time, and some of whom were just hanging with the family and became collateral damage.   Of course, every year, there was a call for someone to arrange a Fourth of July celebration that did not have so many injuries involved.

Finally the Cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica decided to put a stop to this very unhealthy but entertaining situation and made fireworks of any type illegal on the beach.  They encouraged people to attend fireworks shows in their own neighborhoods and told everyone that if they were found with fireworks on their person that they would go to jail.

Some of us, more conspiracy minded, wondered if they woke up to the realization that they had created the potential for a serious civil disturbance.  Lets say on a very hot Fourth of July some Latino got hassled by the incredibly racist and violent LAPD and did not fall to his knees in abject submission as all minority groups are supposed to do.  The LAPD would naturally beat the miscreant into bloody unconsciousness which is their standard procedure in such circumstances (see, for example, Rodney King).    And suddenly you might have a riot on your hands with the minority groups already in the wealthy parts of the city and armed with M80s and other minor explosives.

But probably those who mismanage LA are actually not smart enough to come up with a reason like that, and simply wanted to lower their costs and minimize the injuries to try and prevent the otherwise inevitable lawsuit.

I am glad that I was able to observe this celebration on several years running and regret that it no longer exists in spite of the undeniable fact that it was insanely dangerous and out of control.  It was, in retrospect, a lot of fun for everyone involved.


Wikipedia Page on M80s

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