May 13, 1985: Police terror bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia

By Betsey Piette

Anticipating a renewed police attack, MOVE fortified the group’s new home in the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in a predominantly African-American area of west Philadelphia. They used a loud speaker system in an effort to educate their neighbors about the case of the MOVE 9 and the ongoing danger of police attack.

Saying they were responding to neighbors’ complaints, 500 police evacuated the neighborhood at dawn on May 13, 1985, then surrounded and attacked the house with over 10,000 rounds of ammunition in 90 minutes. Small explosive charges and water from fire department hoses were also used to attempt to penetrate the house. All the while, police and city officials were aware that several children were inside.

In January 1985, four months before the siege, a special agent of the FBI had given the Philadelphia police bomb squad 30 blocks of C-4, the most lethal of military plastic explosives. In the afternoon of May 13, a police helicopter dropped a bomb containing C-4 on the roof of the MOVE home on Osage Avenue, starting a fire.

The fire, which started on the roof of the house, was allowed to burn for 45 minutes before fire hoses were turned on. By then, the blaze was starting to devour the entire block. MOVE members who attempted to escape from the rear of the building were shot at by police. Only Ramona Africa and 13-year-old Birdie Africa escaped the fire. Eleven MOVE members were killed in the fire, and 250 area residents were left homeless.

#tbt Another journey to the AFSC archives! This week marked the 28th anniversary of an unforgettable use of violence instead of peaceful resolution in Philadelphia, where AFSC is headquartered. A bomb was dropped on Americanhomes, killing 11 people and injuring several others. To learn more about the MOVE bombing you can check out this multimedia overview from the Philadelphia Inquirer:http://www.philly.com/philly/news/inq_HT_MOVE25.html

Today in history: May 13, 1985 - In one of the most outrageous acts of political repression in modern U.S. history, Philadelphia police bomb the MOVE Organization house on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia. The police attack destroyed two full blocks of homes (65 homes) and killed 11 people, including five children.

(image: crowd watches the results of the police bombing on May 13, 1985)

Via Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back!)

A New Documentary About the Time Philadelphia Dropped a Bomb—Yes, a Bomb—on a House Full of Black Radicals
Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder’s powerful debut documentary, opens with period footage of a soft-spoken boy with two names: Michael Moses Ward and Birdie Africa.

Michael was known as Birdie as a child—he was one of several kids raised by a small black liberation group that occupied a Philadelphia row house on Osage Avenue. They called themselves MOVE, and they wanted to live without technology and without government interference. But the group and the city were constantly at odds.


I'm From Philly. 30 Years Later, I'm Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing
Philly native Gene Demby was four years old when city police dropped a bomb on a house of black activists in his hometown. Thirty years later, he's still trying to make sense of it all.

Talk to some of the folks who lived through the bombing of 62nd and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia 30 years ago, and you’ll notice that they refer to the event by its full date. May 13, 1985.

That’s how Gerald Renfrow refers to it when we talk about the inferno. His house is about 30 yards from the compound on which the bomb was dropped — practically ground zero. He’d been living there since long before the bombing, and now he’s the block captain, trying to hold on to the home where he grew up and raised his own family.

That’s how Perry Moody refers to it, too. His house is on the north side of Pine Street. On that day three decades ago, he had been evacuated from the block, but watched as the houses on the other side of the street were swallowed up by flames.

So does Ramona Africa. She was actually inside the targeted house at 6221 Osage as it was battered by police bullets and deluge guns and, eventually, brought down by a makeshift bomb dropped from a police helicopter. She managed to escape the burning building. Her fellow MOVE members , the radical organization to which she belonged that was standing off against the City of Philadelphia, were not as lucky.

The MOVE bombing was a cataclysm for my hometown, a part of the collective memories of Philadelphians of a certain age. I grew up in South Philly, about a 20-minute drive from ground zero, but I was just four when it happened, too young to remember the actual day. But as I got older, I would learn in bits and pieces about it, and the central role it played in the history of policing in my hometown.

I started revisiting the story of MOVE in earnest again last fall, when the issue of race and policing had started to become a regular feature of the news. Almost every chord from that larger meta-story — the mutual distrust between the police and black communities, the militarization of local law enforcement agencies, incidents of police brutality — seemed to resonate in the particular story of the bombing. But in the case of MOVE, the volume was turned way up. City police had killed nearly a dozen people and, in the process, leveled an entire swath of a neighborhood full of middle-class black homeowners. Neither the mayor who approved the bombing nor the officers who carried it out faced any official repercussions.

Today, the narrow block sits eerily quiet; most of the houses that were built to replace the ones destroyed by the fire are now vacant, boarded up, and padlocked. The remaining residents, like Renfrow, are in limbo. Maybe the city will rehabilitate them. Maybe it will raze them. But since most of the people responsible for the tragedy and the city has moved onto grappling with new dilemmas, it’s been pretty easy to forget 62nd and Osage altogether.

But a few residents never left the 6200 block of Osage Avenue, and they’re quick to recall what their neighborhood was like before the spring of 1985: a nice block right by the Cobbs Creek Park, part of a safe, close-knit community where folks barbecued together while their kids played in the narrow street. I wanted to talk to them and others who lived through that day in Philadelphia, about what they remembered.

May 13, 1985: The Bombing

Here’s what my mother remembers about the bombing. It was the Monday after Mother’s Day, and three days after her birthday. She took my twin sister and me to school before heading back to our South Philly apartment. She was taking a personal day from work — a day of peace and quiet that was meant to be a belated birthday gift to herself. But when she got home and turned on the TV, she saw that Philly was not going to oblige her.

All of the local stations were reporting from a standoff in West Philly between the police and MOVE, a radical group that had turned a rowhouse on 6221 Osage Avenue into a fortified compound. She wasn’t exactly surprised by what she saw on the grainy live feed; everyone had known that day was coming for a while, as tensions between MOVE and the police — and between MOVE and their neighbors on that block – had been rising for years.

As the residents evacuated their homes ahead of the showdown, the police told them to take some clothes and toothbrushes; they should be back in their homes by the next day, the police said.

There were nearly 500 police officers gathered at the scene, ludicrously, ferociously well-armed — flak jackets, tear gas, SWAT gear, .50 and .60 caliber machine guns, and an antitank machine gun for good measure. Deluge guns were pointed from firetrucks. The state police had sent a helicopter. The city had shut off the water and electricity for the entire block. And, we’d come to learn, there were explosives on hand.

No one knew how many weapons the MOVE folks had, or even how many people were in the compound — the police guessed that there were six adults and possibly as many as 12 children inside. The MOVE members had built a bunker on the roof of the house, giving them a clear view of the police positions below.

The final warnings from the police started that morning, a little after 5:30 a.m. “Attention, MOVE … This is America,” Gregore Sambor, the police commissioner, yelled into his megaphone to the people in the compound. “You have to abide by the laws of the United States.”

The police had come with warrants for several people they believed to be in the compound at 6221. Around 6 a.m., they told members they had 15 minutes to come out. Instead, someone from the MOVE house began shooting at the police. The police returned fire in kind — over and over and over. According to the official report on the event, the police fired 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the MOVE compound over the next 90 minutes; they eventually had to ask the police academy to send more bullets.

Meanwhile, SWAT teams tried to blast holes into the side of the compound via the adjoining rowhouses. It didn’t work. On TV, reporters at the scene ducked for cover while filing their dispatches. Spectators and residents gathered at the barricades nearby to watch. Over the next few hours, police set off more explosions to try to gain access to the building. The cops couldn’t get inside, and the MOVE folks weren’t coming out.

It was chaos, and it went on like that all day — gunshots and explosions and well-tended homes nearby being shot up and blown apart. In the afternoon, Mayor Wilson Goode held a press conference and told reporters that he wanted to “seize control of the house … by any means possible.”

In the afternoon, Goode made his fateful decision: the police got the go-ahead to drop a make-shift bomb onto the MOVE compound in an attempt to destroy the bunker on its roof.

Here’s how Linn Washington, a journalism professor at Temple University who was covering the siege that day as a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, remembers what happened next. He was was standing at a police command post nearby, flipping through his notes. There was a helicopter in the parking lot, he said. “I see these three guys come out [of the building]—all of them with nine millimeters [pistols] on, one of them had a submachine gun and one of them had a satchel,” he said. “And they said ‘Hey, you gotta get outta here!’”

“So the helicopter took off, made a circle, came back and then the whole neighborhood shook,” Washington told me. “It sounded like a gas main had exploded — but some of the media members knew it was a bomb. And things just went down from there.”

Everyone on the scene heard the explosion. Television viewers at home saw the moment of impact on TV, and they also saw that the rooftop bunker — the target the bomb was apparently meant to neutralize — was still standing.

But the roof had caught fire, and smoke began billowing over the tops of the rowhouses. The fire seemed to be getting bigger, but the firefighters were ordered by police commissioner Sambore to stand down. (“I communicated…that I would like to let the fire burn,” he later told the city commission.)

Within 45 minutes, three more homes on the block were on fire, too. Then the roof of the MOVE house buckled under the flames and collapsed. By the time the firefighters finally began fighting the fire in earnest, it was too late. Within 90 minutes, the entire north side of Osage Avenue was on fire.

Philadelphia’s streets are famously narrow, making it easy for the fire to leap from burning trees on the north side to more homes on the south side. Then the flames spilled over to the homes behind 6221 Osage, to Pine Street. By evening, three rows of homes were completely on fire, a conflagration so large that the flames could be seen from landing planes at Philadelphia International Airport, more than six miles away. Smoke could be seen from across the city.

“Drop a bomb on a residential area? I never in my life heard of that,” a neighborhood resident told a reporter that night. “It’s like Vietnam.”

By the time the fire was finally under control, a little before midnight, 61 houses on that tidy block had been completely destroyed. Two hundred-fifty people were suddenly, shockingly, without homes. It was the worst residential fire in the city’s history.

In the end, 11 people died in the fire. Five of them were children. It took weeks before the police were able to identify their remains.

Keep reading


31 years ago today the city of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the MOVE family home, killing 11 including 5 children, and destroying 65 homes on the 62nd block of Osage Avenue. No city official faced criminal charges. A year ago today I filmed a protest and Dr. Cornel West deliver a reflection on this state sanctioned mass murder. Mayor Goode claimed he mistook the TV static on the evening news as water being sprayed onto the raging inferno, which is why the fire continued to burn. I am not making this up. Watch Dr. West’s speech in full at hate5six.com/west-move.

For more information about MOVE, check out Jason Osder’s “Let the Fire Burn” on Netflix.
#move #johnafrica #cornelwest #mumiaabujamal #hate5six #philadelphia

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