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Let the Fire Burn: The "Morally Reprehensible" Attack on MOVE

Let the Fire Burn: The "Morally Reprehensible" Attack on MOVE

The aftermath, photo by George Widman/AP. Front photo by James G. Domke, Philadelphia Inquirer.

In what many deem "the pinnacle of police brutality" - and the only time the U.S. has bombed its own citizens - Philadelphia police 30 years ago today fired 10,000 rounds and many tear gas cannisters at a house holding the Black Power group MOVE, dropped an explosive on them from a helicopter, then infamously decided to "let the fire burn." The ensuing conflagration killed 11 people, including 5 children, and destroyed over 60 houses. There were only two survivors: A woman who used the name Ramona Africa, and a 13-year-old boy Birdie Africa. A subsequent investigation and report called the police response "a criminally evil act." Marking what is often viewed as a case study in policy failures by police, prosecutors and judges whose bloody legacy lives on today, no law enforcement was ever held accountable.

 The disastrous raid that incinerated the black working-and-middle-class neighborhood of rowhouses around Osage Avenue came after years of conflict between police and MOVE, a black radical "back to nature" commune formed in 1972; much of the antagonism stemmed from the 1978 killing of a cop in a shootout for which nine MOVE members were later and controversially convicted. Since then, the remaining MOVE members had holed up in a fortified house in West Philadelphia. When officials decided to evict them on May 13, 1985, over 500 police fired first teargas, then water hoses, then 10,000 rounds of ammunition before authorities ordered military-grade explosives to be dropped on the house from a helicopter. The bomb missed, and started a fire that quickly spread in the packed neighborhood. Despite the presence of the fire department and the reported 40,000 pounds of water they'd been blasting at the house, an executive decision was made to "let the fire burn." It ultimately destroyed 61 houses, leaving over 250 people homeless. Amidst the smoky inferno, Ramona and Birdie Africa staggered barefoot out of the wreckage; one officer recalled, “It was like he came out of fire.”
 
Much of what happened during the assault remains in dispute, including charges by the survivors that police fired on people trying to escape the flames. Not in dispute, according to hundreds of pages of documentation from both a MOVE Commission and subsequent Grand Jury investigation, was that the raid was an utterly disastrous "epic of governmental incompetence" perpetrated by all levels of law enforcement and government. Among the findings: "grossly negligent" police tactics, "excessive and unreasonable" firepower, "morally reprehensible behavior," along with "incompetence" and "cowardice," by the mayor and city officials, along with flawed intelligence, "an amazing leadership void," "terrible misjudgment," and the "unjustified homicides" of five children. “Dropping a bomb on an occupied rowhouse was unconscionable,” the Commission report concluded, with all but one member adding, "Police would not have done so, had the Move house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood.”

Astoundingly, despite the blistering criticisms, the grand jury cleared everyone involved - that's everyone, from cops to mayor - of criminal liability. The city's lawyers reportedly worked hard to make that happen; one of their most infamous arguments was that bombing children was not illegal because the force of the bomb "was applied only against" the adults. In the end, nobody - that's nobody - was ever prosecuted. Oh, except one person: Ramona Africa was charged with conspiracy and riot, and served her entire seven years after she refused to renounce her MOVE membership. In 1996, she and other plaintiffs won a total $1.5m settlement from the city. Birdie, who became Michael Ward, died in 2013. 

The raid's 30-year anniversary is being commemorated by a march and rally featuring Cornel West, Alice Walker and other activists on the still-black but now mostly abandoned block where it took place. A resident describes today's once thriving neighborhood as a war zone full of shootouts and drug dealers: “It’s hell living on Osage Avenue. We are ducking bullets and chasing prostitutes.” Again, the why is disputed. City officials say some residents have declined to accept the terms of a 2008 settlement, part of a class action suit against the city for sub-standard housing, so they can't rebuild; residents say the city just wants to get rid of them so it can gentrify the area with white, high-income residents.

The MOVE debacle continues to haunt many in the city. Jason Osder, a white filmmaker who made the 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn using almost entirely archival footage, sees it as "a parable of how the unthinkable comes to happen...Everyone who was an adult in the city failed that day." Then as now, he says, it's about race and class “every single day of the week." Ramona Africa, now the only living MOVE survivor from that day, likewise links it to Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and all the rest. “These people that take an oath swearing to protect, to save lives – (the cops) don’t defend us. They kill us....It’s happening today because it wasn’t stopped in ’85. The only justice that can be done is people seeing this system for what it is.” And hopefully - see Baltimore - acting to change it.

Birdie Africa. Photo by Michael Mally/Philadelphia Inquirer

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