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