Chieko Hara / The Porterville Recorder

Nate Gomez, 13, left, and Nick Huie, 13, pick out fireworks Saturday at the Porterville High School Boosters’ booth.

Joe Mathews: Fireworks remind us of freedom on the Fourth

Published: Thursday, Jul. 3, 2014 - 12:00 am

If you venture out this Fourth of July weekend, you’ll probably hear about how Independence Day celebrates things we Americans supposedly have in common: rights, freedoms and equality under the law.

Yeah, right – and I’m Thomas Jefferson.

If you want to know what the Fourth is really all about, head to the intersection of Huntington Drive and Alhambra Road in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley. There, in front of Cheney’s Tropic Liquor and the 99 Cent Store, you’ll find a fireworks stand – one of hundreds that go up across California for a week each year.

In our bone-dry state, most fireworks – the kinds that explode and go airborne – are illegal to sell or possess. But liberty is never without exceptions. And this week, the state permits the sale of “safe and sane” fireworks – sparklers and things that don’t fly. You can buy such fireworks between noon on June 28 and noon on July 6, with sales funding local nonprofits

But there is an important caveat: Cities can choose to ban even “safe and sane” fireworks, and about half of California’s nearly 500 municipalities have done so.

The result: California for eight days is a crazy quilt of fireworks sales and bans. And the intersection of Huntington and Alhambra is perhaps the best illustration of that. Three cities converge here. Two of them ban fireworks: Los Angeles and South Pasadena. But the third – Alhambra – is a hotbed of fireworks sales. Indeed the large fireworks stand on this corner is just steps away from cities that have banned them.

In these times, this may sound like another example of how our country is divided. The wise men of politics and punditry are currently afraid that America is too polarized, that we are splitting into red and blue states. How, they ask, can we be the “One Nation Under God” the Founding Fathers intended if gay couples can get married in Boston but not in Birmingham?

In California, people in power are similarly worried about the divides between regions – especially the split between the liberal, prosperous coast and the conservative, struggling inland.

But would we truly be better off if our laws and freedoms were the same everywhere?

The fact that we have such different laws in different places can create peril: You can buy a firecracker or automatic weapon in one place and wreak havoc elsewhere. But it also makes us freer. If you have a little bit of time and the ability to travel, you can do just about anything in this country, for better or worse.

We may even be less divided because of our differences. In California, our biggest political conflicts involve areas – taxes, prisons, water and budgeting – where we all have to live under the same rules. We get along much better when our communities do their own thing.

James Madison, who may have set off fireworks in his day, knew well that American liberty created divides. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires,” he wrote in the Federalist Papers. “But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

While Madison died long before California entered the Union, I suspect he would have felt vindicated by a July Fourth in our state. He also might have been overwhelmed by the choices at that Alhambra fireworks stand. When I visited last weekend, there were dozens of individual options –from the Mini Monster to the Zombie Zapper – and combo packages all the way up to The Big Bang, which, for $500, provided enough firepower to wage war against San Diego.

I don’t care much for fireworks, but this stand supports an admirable band, the Mighty Moors of Alhambra High. So I purchased a six-pack of Piccolo Petes, which whistle and produce gold sparks. So what if the neighbors call the cops or I set myself on fire? It’s the American way.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

Read more articles by Joe Mathews

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