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MOVE, 25 years after
May 9, 2010 8:57 AM   Subscribe

25 years after the siege at the MOVE house in Philadelphia ended with the police dropping a bomb on the house from a helicopter, killing 11 and destroying a city block, the Philadelphia Inquirer looks back on the events with contemporary footage and interviews with participants and those affected. The failure to rebuild adequately the houses that were devastated in the siege and fire remains an enduring scandal in Philadelphia.
posted by carter (48 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah, this is a beautifully designed interactive wonderfulness about a horrible atrocity, thanks for this!
posted by By The Grace of God at 9:09 AM on May 9, 2010


Wow! What a crazy story. I'm amazed I've never heard of it. It's staggering that someone thought it was a good idea to drop a 4 pound bomb in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
posted by Kattullus at 9:14 AM on May 9, 2010


as a new Philly resident, it amazes me how many potentially beautiful places in this town have just been left to decay.
i guess the site of the MOVE bombing would be no different, but still horrible. Thanks for posting this; I hadn't realized the bombing and fire involved 60 homes and five children among the dead
posted by angrycat at 9:26 AM on May 9, 2010


This is one of those cases where (at least for me) it's not 20/20 hindsight. The bomb seemed like a terrible idea even at the time.
posted by zippy at 9:29 AM on May 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've also never heard of this until now. This is insane. These cops keep saying "bunker" in reference to squatters in a row of houses. Nuts. Why isn't this mentioned in the same breath as Waco and Ruby Ridge when mentioning abuses of power? Oh, right. Black people.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:37 AM on May 9, 2010 [12 favorites]


I just learned about this a few months ago--I live nearby now. Floored.
posted by millipede at 9:38 AM on May 9, 2010


Lots of parallels to Waco here. On the one hand, you have a cult leader who gradually develops a siege mentality and is accused of, among other things, child abuse; on the other, law enforcement that has no real idea of how to deal with them and responded with overwhelming force. You'd think that this might have led law and order types to consider how they might better approach such a situation (even if, tactically, the situation was quite different), but apparently not.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:39 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whoa. I had never heard of this before. What a strange story. Those poor children...
posted by fermezporte at 9:46 AM on May 9, 2010


I've also never heard of this until now. This is insane. These cops keep saying "bunker" in reference to squatters in a row of houses. Nuts. Why isn't this mentioned in the same breath as Waco and Ruby Ridge when mentioning abuses of power? Oh, right. Black people.

Not to excuse any of the decisions made by the authorities, but describing them as squatters in a row of houses isn't exactly right either. They were well-armed, had apparently reinforced the walls of the place to prevent a breach, and the top of the house did essentially have what looked like a makeshift bunker or pillbox (though I don't know exactly what MOVE used that space for).

It should definitely be mentioned in the same breath as Waco and Ruby Ridge. In many ways, this event was far worse given the urban location and proximity to so many other homes. 200 or so people uninvolved with MOVE were left homeless as a result of the fiasco.
posted by drpynchon at 9:47 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was only 13 at the time but I've never forgotten this. I remember thinking what a cold-blooded and callous thing this was to do, and being puzzled at how muted the reaction was: nobody seemed too bothered that the police had laid waste to a whole city block and killed all these people. Waco has become a touchstone for the anti-government far right, but nobody ever talks about the destruction of MOVE.
I didn't know though about what had eventually led to this confrontation:
After a months-long standoff, police tried to force MOVE out with fire hoses. Gunfire broke out, and a police officer, James J. Ramp, 52, was killed. Nine MOVE members - five men and four women - were arrested and charged with murder....
The prosecutors never showed which of the nine fired the deadly shot; indeed, none of the four women had ever been seen brandishing a weapon. The District Attorney's Office argued that all nine shared responsibility.
Judge Edwin S. Malmed agreed. Without a jury, he found all defendants guilty and sentenced them to 30 to 100 years apiece, triple the typical Pennsylvania sentence for third-degree murder. They are still behind bars.
"They have repeatedly shouted they were a family and that they act in concert," the judge said. "I have therefore treated them as a family with equal guilt shared by all."

posted by Flashman at 9:52 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Burhanistan: I've also never heard of this until now.........Why isn't this mentioned in the same breath as Waco and Ruby Ridge when mentioning abuses of power? Oh, right. Black people.

I don't understand your "Oh, right. Black people." comment.
The bomb was authorized by a black mayor (W. Wilson Goode) on (mostly) black people.
Maybe if it had been a white mayor, you might have heard about it before?

I agree with drpynchon, that it should be mentioned in the same breath as Waco and Ruby Ridge.
posted by NoraCharles at 9:56 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I was thirteen or fourteen I wrote to Merle Austin Africa in prison. I had read about MOVE and wrote to her I guess sort of randomly and naively. (I also exchanged letters with Noam Chomsky who, as others here can probably attest, answers an incredible amount of mail.) I unfortunately lost the letters Merle and I exchanged -- would be interesting to see how they read now. I imagine that the MOVE story is well known in Philadelphia but it remains obscure for some fairly obvious reasons and most people are surprised to learn of it.

One day a letter I had written to Merle was returned to me with a stamp on the front saying only "Patient deceased." Ramona Africa and other MOVE sympathizers said that the official cause of death was declared to be "stomach flu" and suggested foul play. Merle's letters and the literature she or Ramona sent to me, were fairly disturbing. The atrocities that transpired lead some to overlook the fact MOVE constituted a cult, complete with a god in John Africa, a group of blind followers, and an apocalyptic vision. They might have been motivated by social justice concerns that were legitimate but they became an armed cult.
posted by inoculatedcities at 9:58 AM on May 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not to excuse any of the decisions made by the authorities, but describing them as squatters in a row of houses isn't exactly right either.

Yeah, my reaction was a bit hyperbolic and these people weren't all love and roses, obviously. But, the language the police were using during the hearings was obviously employed to justify their actions. "Bunker" usually conjures an image of a concrete box behind some howitzers for people, and repeated use of such a word can often shift sensibilities, even if subconsciously.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:03 AM on May 9, 2010


Maybe if it had been a white mayor, you might have heard about it before?

No, maybe if it were white people then nutters like McVeigh would have mentioned it.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:04 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


NoraCharles, it isn't really about the skin color of the person doing it. Let me draw a parallel: years ago, when I was tutoring someone majoring in criminal justice, we went through a number of studies on the death penalty and how it is applied. What really stood out, numbers-wise, wasn't the race of the perpetrator. No, what mattered most in getting the death penalty was the race of the victim.

In other words, White People Are Worth More. Not that a black person did it or a white person did it, but that the lives of your basic Caucasians are valued over those of other races/ethnicities/$dividingline.

So, when some says, "Oh, right. Black people." it means that the lives and livelihoods and neighborhoods of blacks are viewed as being less valuable, and therefore less notable, when the atrocity du jour occurs. That a black mayor ordered it doesn't factor in.
posted by adipocere at 10:04 AM on May 9, 2010 [20 favorites]


MOVE: An Oral History
posted by fixedgear at 10:07 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've never heard of this either. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Big_B at 10:19 AM on May 9, 2010


I'm shocked that city police have the capability to bomb a house from the air. I guess I'm still naive about what cops can do. Not so shocked that they panicked and thought this was a good idea.

I wish there was a way to attract wiser cops with a serve and protect mentality. Better salaries? A different kind of training?
posted by ignignokt at 10:25 AM on May 9, 2010


According to a MOVE pamphlet I read a few days ago, the police did not own any of the explosives they used; they were shipped in illegally by the FBI.

That pamphlet has a table in the back detailing all of the people (including children) killed by police and judges, none of whom ever went to trial for their murders, followed by the list of MOVE members still in jail for killing no one.
posted by shii at 10:32 AM on May 9, 2010


Frank Powell: Around 4 or 5 p.m., they call me into a meeting. Sambor asks if we could use a helicopter to blow the bunker off. I don’t know, I say. I never dropped a bomb out of a helicopter. What happens if they shoot the helicopter down and it lands on a house? What happens if I miss?

James Berghaier: We hear that a helicopter is going to drop a bomb. We’re supposed to take a defensive position. I blew it off: You’re not going to drop a bomb.

Tommy Mellor: They had pulled us out of the house, so I went to Cobbs Creek Parkway. Ducking bullets all day tires you out. I went to sleep in the dirt. Somebody woke me up, and I heard they were going to throw a device to knock the bunker off. Of all the strange things going on then, it didn’t seem strange.

Gregore Sambor, in testimony: The use of the device itself gives me the least pause. It was selected as a conservative and safe approach to what I perceived as a tactical necessity. I was assured that the device would not harm the occupants. What has imprinted that device on the mind of the city is, in fact, the method of delivery. If it had been carried or thrown into position or if it had been dropped from a crane, the perception of that action would be quite different.

William Richmond: So the decision was made to take a helicopter, and use a satchel charge — that’s the term for explosives in a gym bag. The helicopter made two or three passes with Frank Powell strapped in.

Frank Rizzo Jr.: I’ll never forget it. My father was in the family room, watching it all on TV. When he saw the state police helicopter, all the intelligence he had started coming together, and he said, “Son, they’re going to drop a bomb on this headquarters.”

Frank Powell: As soon as I dropped the satchel, the pilot got the hell out. The rotor wash blew it across the roof. I said, “Oh shit!” And then it went off. There was a football-shaped hole. It missed the bunker.
posted by fixedgear at 10:35 AM on May 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


It was a state police helicopter used by city police. The bomb was in something like a duffel bag dropped as the chopper hovered over the house. It was makeshift all the way except for the overwhelming amount of explosives in that bag. Add to it the wooden frame house and the gasoline that may or may not have been stored on the roof, and it was a recipe for disaster.

I am surprised how many people have not heard of this. I was in my 20s when it happened, but it gets brought up the news every now and again. Definitely not to the depth of the article though.
posted by lampshade at 10:37 AM on May 9, 2010


NoraCharles, it isn't really about the skin color of the person doing it. Let me draw a parallel: years ago, when I was tutoring someone majoring in criminal justice, we went through a number of studies on the death penalty and how it is applied. What really stood out, numbers-wise, wasn't the race of the perpetrator. No, what mattered most in getting the death penalty was the race of the victim.

In other words, White People Are Worth More. Not that a black person did it or a white person did it, but that the lives of your basic Caucasians are valued over those of other races/ethnicities/$dividingline.

So, when some says, "Oh, right. Black people." it means that the lives and livelihoods and neighborhoods of blacks are viewed as being less valuable, and therefore less notable, when the atrocity du jour occurs. That a black mayor ordered it doesn't factor in.


Says you. Did your "study" correct for things such as crimes that were actually eligible for the death penalty? Because a lot of murders aren't. Racial demographics versus the applicability of the death penalty?

To make such a sweeping accusation onto society is really hateful and offensive. And shortsighted. A society can't hold opinions or act or be racist- only the individuals in the society can. Some are, some aren't. Blaming behavior on anything but the individuals doing it just gives them an excuse.
posted by gjc at 10:40 AM on May 9, 2010


Why isn't this mentioned in the same breath as Waco and Ruby Ridge when mentioning abuses of power? Oh, right. Black people.

Well, I think both sides are guilty of this sort of oversight. While you don't hear right wing anti-government types mention the MOVE house as an example of abuse of government power, you also don't hear Waco or Ruby Ridge when people on the left give their litany of abuses by the government. Ignoring victims who don't look or act the way you want them to isn't something that only affects inner-city blacks.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:54 AM on May 9, 2010


Says you. Did your "study" correct for things such as crimes that were actually eligible for the death penalty? Because a lot of murders aren't. Racial demographics versus the applicability of the death penalty?

You obviously don't know this literature, so maybe it would be worthwhile to approach it with an open mind. There are many published articles on the issue that have been fairly consistent in this conclusion, so the point about death penalty outcomes and victim race is more than an "accusation." Here is a summary statement from Amnesty International about the issue with a longer, more academic review here.
posted by drpynchon at 10:56 AM on May 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


MOVE was on the 6200 block of Osage and my grandmother still lived on the 6200 block of Race Street less than a mile away at that point so I remember the panic that tore through the household sending my parents scrambling to West Philly to check on her. At school they cancelled classes and we watched it live on TV's they rolled into our homerooms. MOVE was the culmination of a long era of increasing racial tension that had spurred white flight from West Philly into the southwestern suburbs. My grandparents were the last hold outs in the neighborhood, my parents had moved a few years earlier when it came time to put my older brother in public school. That was the day that my parents pretty much swore they would never have anything to do with the city of Philadelphia ever again, and they have stuck to that. The racial resentments left over from this era are still omnipresent in the working class suburbs where the Teaparty has strongly taken hold over the last year or so.
posted by The Straightener at 11:21 AM on May 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


These cops keep saying "bunker" in reference to squatters in a row of houses.

They kept saying "bunker" in reference to a bunker on the roof.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 11:23 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


ONNA MOVE!
posted by symbioid at 11:24 AM on May 9, 2010


25 years ago? Christ, I feel old.
posted by rtha at 11:30 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


An earlier MetaFilter thread, with comments from MeFites who lived there/nearby.
posted by mattdidthat at 11:46 AM on May 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Of course, at Waco, there were no complaints from the locals about rats and roaches and outward facing loud speakers.

Branch Davidians may have been nutters, but they were not bad neighbors, and they had no prior history of violence. At least, as far as I know.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:04 PM on May 9, 2010


Keep in mind that right-wingers tend to be pretty okay with heavy-handed law & order tactics, the drug war, etc. What sets them off about Waco & Ruby Ridge is the federal involvement. Local police brutality and paramilitary raids just aren't their radar.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 12:15 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


on their radar
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 12:15 PM on May 9, 2010


This is absolutely riveting video.
I did not pay enough attention or understand this when it happened. Thank you for this link.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:18 PM on May 9, 2010


We were in Philadelphia when this happened and I remember it well. I was pretty young at the time and didn't really understand what was going on, but I remember my parents watching the events unfold and their increasing horror. Their reaction had a huge impact on me, I'd never seen my father so angry at something on the television. It also shaped my understanding of the police -- Philly cops weren't there to help people, they were more like an invading army that could drop bombs on people and burn down neighborhoods.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:25 PM on May 9, 2010


The last video with the residents talking about the substandard replacement housing is pretty grarrrr.
posted by yeloson at 1:08 PM on May 9, 2010


To make such a sweeping accusation onto society is really hateful and offensive. And shortsighted. A society can't hold opinions or act or be racist- only the individuals in the society can. Some are, some aren't. Blaming behavior on anything but the individuals doing it just gives them an excuse.

In fact, gjc, this is the true definition of racism. An individual may hold racist attitudes -- be bigoted -- but an individual is powerless to oppress an entire race by themselves. It takes a collective bigotry and -- this is the important part -- acquiescence to discriminatory enforcement to create racism in a society.

Failing to understand how the individual bigotry coalesces into the societal racism is, in fact, excusing the individual bigots.
posted by dhartung at 1:54 PM on May 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


I watched the MOVE incident from the very start live on TV & also the hearings the city held afterwards to figure out what happened & what measures to take in response (which was a farce from the get-go). The whole tragic affair is burned into my memory even now.

Yeah, my reaction was a bit hyperbolic and these people weren't all love and roses, obviously.

They were complete & total wack-jobs with an incoherent ideology & violent history. An inner-city back-to-nature movement that left raw meat around to attract vermin, harrangued the neighbors day & night with rants, threats & music from loudspeakers & endangered their own children with unsafe living conditions. They wanted a confrontation with the city's authorities & got what they wanted.

But, the language the police were using during the hearings was obviously employed to justify their actions. "Bunker" usually conjures an image of a concrete box behind some howitzers for people, and repeated use of such a word can often shift sensibilities, even if subconsciously.

It was a small cubical room built of railroad ties with holes in it suitable for pointing guns out. I call that a bunker.

None of which excuses the decisions to use fire as a weapon or drop 2 pounds of C4 on the rooftop bunker or even the 11,000 rounds of ammunition that were shot into the MOVE house. MOVE may have wanted an Armageddon but the city didn't have to give them one.
posted by scalefree at 2:22 PM on May 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


Thank you for posting this.

This picture has always scared the shit out of me. First thing my eyes hit, every time, is the bomb, which looks almost like a smudge, or some sort of photographic artifact. But no, on closer inspection, there it is, housed in what appears to be a plain ol' bag.

Looking up, you can see the faceless silhouettes of the men who held that bag as they got into a helicopter, flew it to the location, and dropped it. "I was assured that the device would not harm the occupants" my ass. It's a fucking bomb, being dropped into an urban, residential neighborhood. A bomb. What do you think it's gonna do?

MOVE was not composed of angels, and they deserve to be called out on their role in the escalation. But I just cannot wrap my head around the fact that an entire chain of command thought that—helicopter or not—bombing their own city was a good option.

You can see the boarded-up replacement buildings on Street View, btw.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:56 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


adipocere :
NoraCharles, it isn't really about the skin color of the person doing it.

I was speaking in regard to the (lack of) popularity of the story.
I think if it had been a white mayor, maybe more people would have heard about this. That aspect would have been played up by the media. But it wasn't a white mayor and people didn't have that issue to sensationalize, so perhaps it wasn't as big a story for so many people not to have heard about it.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:17 PM on May 9, 2010


I was speaking in regard to the (lack of) popularity of the story.
I think if it had been a white mayor, maybe more people would have heard about this.



That's what Clark DeLeon thinks:

A stunned city awoke the next morning, shocked and bewildered by the enormity of the mistakes made by the mayor and the police. Five children had burned alive, a city block destroyed. And yet no one in authority got in trouble for it. After a special MOVE commission investigation and a grand jury, no one was charged with wrongdoing, no one lost a job or was docked a day's pay. The mayor was re-elected. When it came to outrage, Philadelphia shrugged.

Complicating matters was the politics of race. The MOVE members were black. Their middle-class neighbors were black. The city managing director was black. And the man at the top, Wilson Goode, was Philadelphia's first black mayor. The police and fire commissioners, however, were white. In the realpolitik of urban America 20 years ago, everyone in Philadelphia understood without being asked what would have happened if five black children had been bombed by police and burned alive on the watch of a white mayor. Had Mother Teresa been there, she would have been toast. And so an unspoken deal was cut within us all, black and white. We accepted the inexcusable. Black Philadelphia and white Philadelphia were at last united by indifference. We wore our shame like the mark of Cain.

posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 3:47 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a big fan of Clark DeLeon, but he couldn't be more wrong here. People weren't indifferent, it transcended race. Guess what, you couldn't be back to nature johnson in the middle of a city block. You had to conform or else. Everybody, black and white, seemed to agree that MOVE got what they deserved. There was no other ending to that script. 1978 was prelude to the inevitable showdown.
posted by fixedgear at 4:17 PM on May 9, 2010


One of the things that's always horrified me is the way the police and other authority figures react so insanely to people holed up.

You've got them boxed in, they'll get thirsty eventually. Why the hell do they always want to go Rambo and try to force them out? Keep some police around to keep them boxed in, and wait a few days. Problem solved and no need for crazy shit.

I swear it's more about legal dick length than actual need. "No two bit cult leader tells me he's not coming out!"
posted by sotonohito at 4:27 PM on May 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


to echo sotonohito, why didn't they just shut off the water and force them out that way?

Also, MOVE may have been some bad news, but the five out of eleven were kids, right? That's almost 50% completely innocent people.

Finally, I really don't see why Philly doesn't invest more in West Philly. There's some awesome old houses that are falling apart. The El is a pretty good way to get around. I don't want to see the place gentrified (even though I'm whitey in a mostly black neighborhood), but Jeez, Philly could do something.

Also, I was young when this happened, and on the other side of the continent, and I did hear about it. My household was leftist, so that might be coloring how I remember things, but I remember this being depicted as tragic.
posted by angrycat at 4:36 PM on May 9, 2010


This is news to me as well - just want to say that the site is great, the videos are great, my computer usually hates these kind of sites but I was able to view all the content with no delays. Big props to whomever set this up.
posted by chaff at 4:45 PM on May 9, 2010


I'm a big fan of Clark DeLeon, but he couldn't be more wrong here. People weren't indifferent, it transcended race. Guess what, you couldn't be back to nature johnson in the middle of a city block. You had to conform or else. Everybody, black and white, seemed to agree that MOVE got what they deserved. There was no other ending to that script. 1978 was prelude to the inevitable showdown.

I'm not getting a good read on where you're coming from here. My reading of the DeLeon quote is that it provides his explanation for why this event didn't become the subject of a wider public outcry. While he criticizes the handling of the matter, he doesn't seem otherwise favorably inclined toward MOVE.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 5:42 PM on May 9, 2010


Ramona Africa came to Minneapolis in about 1994. I was part of an anarchist collective that had brought her out to speak, and was charged with sort of looking after her, and her sister (IIRC) for the day with a friend. You know -- make sure she had water, drive her where she needed to go, get her to her speaking engagement. She didn't really want or need much of anything, but instead stayed in at her hotel, just keeping to herself. My friend and I were working on a zine then and thought, you know, what the hell, here's a good chance to interview her. She was amenable, and so we set up a tape recorded, and she told us about MOVE, and the attack on the MOVE house, and how she got out and didn't get killed, and how almost everybody she knew didn't get out and did get killed. She spoke quietly and without much evident emotion, just recounting the facts, lost in her memories. Don't know what happened to those tapes. Wish I still had them.

The next day, John Waters came to town. I was working for a local radio station then, and went to see if I could interview him. I was told that students had brought Waters to town, and he was only there for a very short while and then was headed back to the airport, and so he wouldn't have time. I said I just have one question, and they asked Waters, and he said okay. So we sat down.

I said, "Mr. Waters, I heard you went to the Ramona Africa trial."

"Oh my God, yes," he said. "I also saw her the day she got out of jail. She was picked up in a white limo and rode away from jail standing through the sun roof, waving. It was the most fabulous thing I have ever seen. Why do you ask?" he said.

"I spent the day with Ramona Africa yesterday," I said.

He spent the rest of his time in Minneapolis talking to me about MOVE, and about Ms. Africa, and, to an extent, about trials and criminals and small-press newspapers and how he wanted his next movie to be about guerrilla filmmakers (it came out years later as Cecil B. Demented.)

And that's my trick for how to insinuate yourself into conversation with John Waters, and both conversations, with Water and with Africa, were just astonishing and had a lot to do with who I am now, and to this day I can't believe they happened within a day of each other, and that they were connected.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:10 PM on May 9, 2010 [20 favorites]


NoraCharles, it isn't really about the skin color of the person doing it.

Bull. Shit.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 4:45 PM on May 10, 2010


I don't understand your "Oh, right. Black people." comment.
The bomb was authorized by a black mayor (W. Wilson Goode) on (mostly) black people.


NoraCharles, are you suggesting that black people can't discriminate against black people? Because, frankly, that would be amazingly naive.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:49 AM on May 12, 2010


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