Blue History Month: That Time the Cops Bombed Philly
If the MOVE bombing were a person, even it would tell you it wasn’t that old as of 2021.
By 1985, the Korean War veteran now known to his native West Philadelphia as John Africa had been thoroughly disillusioned with the nation of his birth for years.
The fruitless international stalemate that resulted from his tour of duty along with a pernicious fusillade of government-sanctioned practices that had robbed his community of generational resources made it clear in his mind that American imperialism was no friend to him in practice.
His lived experiences cemented great distrust for the nation’s institutions.
Intense anti-capitalist, anti-technology, and pro-environmental sentiments swelled in his spirit over time, and he wove these beliefs into an ideology that formed the roots of the MOVE organization, essentially a communal tribe of families living together under John Africa’s vision.
Like many similar collectives, MOVE advocated for a lifestyle that emphasized oneness with nature. Natural hairstyles, home-schooling, and dietary practices that could be described as paleolithic were representative of the group’s doctrine, echoing oft-romanticized ideals about the idyllic state of the human animal.
Through its founder the group also carried an understanding of politics in practice, and so firearms were its sole concession to modernity.
MOVE was functionally indistinguishable from many primitivist groups that reside on various plots of land from sea to shining sea, endeavoring to commune closely with Mother Earth...at least, in theory.
In practice, a country founded by, designed for, and operating fully in the interests of wealthy white Christian landowners, John Africa’s only viable option for living his ideal of a lifestyle untouched by the mixed bounty of the modern world was a strip of row homes along his neighborhood’s Osage Avenue, a short 5-minute walk from where this sentence is being typed.
Forced from true freedom hundreds of years before their birth, MOVE’s desire to live an unfettered existence clashed with traditionally Western lifestyles. Noise complaints to police were relatively common, and their political views engendered widespread controversy.
After an array of appeals from city officials to vacate the premises failed, then-Mayor Wilson Goode issued a direct mandate to evict MOVE from their West Philadelphia enclave.
The neighborhood evacuation orders issued to surrounding residents soon afterward might have served as a grim foreshadowing of law enforcement’s planned course of action.
On 13 May 1985, Philadelphia Police arrived at the commune armed to carry out a forcible eviction. Patrol weapons and traditional crowd dispersal devices such as tear gas launchers were at the time--and remain to this day--standard fare for addressing civil disobedience among certain demographics.
However, what made this day notable in the history of policing in America was an additional apparatus: a bundled pair of 1-pound tubes containing an explosive liquid gel.
The device itself, tumbling to its destructive detonation, offers an opportunity to consider its systemic sources. Philadelphia police, in a helicopter provided by Pennsylvania State Troopers, delivered FBI-supplied plastic explosive to a rooftop in this residential neighborhood.
Law enforcement officials at every level of government had considered the eventuality of dropping a bomb on an American city and marked it as an acceptable outcome in this specific scenario.
The mind can only speculate on the experience of Birdie Africa that fateful August afternoon.
The 13-year-old boy, likely huddled in a hidden corner of the compound in hopes of avoiding the hail of bullets, must have heard the blast that announced the end of life as he knew it.
In mere moments, flames engulfed the walls of his family home, casting grotesque and chaotic shadows wherever they spread. The shrieks of loved ones punctuated the metallic rain of police shelling.
Terror must have filled the boy's heart as he scrambled for an exit from the building, naked and badly burned.
Although he was one of only two survivors of the attack, his route to survival was longer than many can imagine. Eyewitness testimony also reported police attempting to force survivors of the blast back into the burning edifice with automatic gunfire. While law enforcement representatives dispute this claim, official records indicate that police fired approximately 10,000 (ten thousand, not a typo) rounds during the overnight siege.
Neighborhood residents looked on aghast as scenes fit for a war zone unfolded on local broadcast news.
Tear gas and thick, acrid smoke filled the air as the inferno grew, rampaging unchecked through houses, consuming centuries of memories along the way. Gunfire was audible for miles, even at the mayor's home.
In fact, so many bullets were fired that night that police had to return to headquarters for more ammunition after deploying the bomb. Legitimizing such an egregious use of force, police reported finding a handful of single-shot weapons in the charred remains of the compound.
All told, 11 American citizens--including 5 children--died in the conflagration and gun battle that resulted from one of the only aerial bombings of any kind ever conducted on US soil.
65 homes in the neighborhood were destroyed.
Hundreds of Philadephians were left homeless, saddled with the expenses of finding shelter after their city was burned by its purported protectors. Countless dreams and innumerable investments turned to ash in the blaze.
The bombing, described in media reports as an “entry attempt” conducted using a “percussion grenade,” stirred up controversy even in its sanitized form.
Ed Koch, contemporary mayor of New York City whose own strained relationship with the black community would see him resist the official implementation of a city holiday for Martin Luther King until 1975, went on record as saying he would have fired any department official 'stupid enough' to suggest using a bomb as a crowd control tactic.
Indeed, municipal leaders nationwide expressed concern and dismay at this horrifying affront to due process and the rule of law. Accordingly, no criminal charges were filed against any party involved with the planning or execution of the bombing. A perfunctory investigation was performed, with the commission ruling that the actions of both the city’s police and fire department were negligent, even deeming the bombing of an occupied home “unconscionable.” No punitive action was taken, likely in the name of unity and healing.
The MOVE bombing evokes parallels to the infamous Waco saga, in which 76 members of the Branch Davidian sect were massacred in a fire sparked, unintentionally or otherwise, by FBI agents. However, police responded to MOVE with spectacularly deadly force in just hours in contrast with the Davidians, who were allowed to engage officers in multiple exchanges of gunfire over a 51 day period.
Public safety is paramount to a civil society, but these events unfolded in a nation where armed extremists can stage a month-long armed occupation of a federal wildlife reserve and even storm the nation’s seat of legislative power in a violent insurrection with minimal bloodshed.
Against this backdrop, it is difficult to argue that the coordinated response of local, state, and federal law enforcement was proportionate to the threat presented by MOVE.
You have to stop and ask yourself what the difference was.