30 years ago, the only police aerial bombing on US soil left 11 people dead
May 13, 2015 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Sodden from the spray of fire hoses, terrified by the thousands of bullets fired above and the teargas floating into the cellar below, 13-year-old Michael Ward was hiding under a blanket when a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof of his west Philadelphia home.
The raid killed six adults and five children, destroyed more than 60 homes and left more than 250 people homeless. It stands as the only aerial bombing carried out by police on US soil.
The Guardian looks back at the MOVE bombing.
posted by Ouverture (46 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
From NPR: What it's like to live on the block Philadelphia bombed 30 years ago.
"Today, as you see, we have at least 37 boarded up homes and all of them are owned by the city," Renfrow said. The homes on Osage Avenue in which people still live are well cared for, with flowers and benches out front. But most of those replacement homes sit unoccupied, with their plywood and padlocks on their doors and windows, while trash piled up. Walking down 62nd and Osage is eerie — it's empty and quiet, and it's hard not to feel that the potted plants in front of the occupied homes are, in part, an act of resistance.
posted by dnash at 2:32 PM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


I wonder what that must have felt like, too - to complain about the broadcasts, thinking, you know, maybe the police would knock on the door and say 'hey quiet down', only to find them bombing your neighborhood.
posted by corb at 2:33 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Holy shit, I had no idea whatsoever this happened.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:37 PM on May 13, 2015 [13 favorites]


"maybe the police would knock on the door and say 'hey quiet down', only to find them bombing your neighborhood."

There were several steps of escalation before that, beginning with MOVE members shooting at cops and firemen from a fortified, bullet resistant bunker they'd built in the house.

Not saying the cops weren't crazy and unnecessarily violent for bombing a residential neighborhood. But what happened here was crazy unnecessarily violent radical nutjobs getting killed by crazy unnecessarily violent cops.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 2:39 PM on May 13, 2015 [16 favorites]


In case anyone else was wondering about Michael Ward and why he's not attending, he apparently drowned two years ago in a swimming accident.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:40 PM on May 13, 2015


oh i see that link is further down in the article, i'm bad at reading today.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:41 PM on May 13, 2015


What also happened was a pattern of escalation and counter-escalation between the police/FBI and progressive/radical movements since about the early '60s that left the most intransigent elements in the driver's seat on both sides.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:43 PM on May 13, 2015 [12 favorites]


Also, does this count as the only police bombing on US soil when the strike-breakers used aerial bombs during the Battle of Blair Mountain? Are we counting private police and Pinkertons?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:48 PM on May 13, 2015 [19 favorites]


It was remarkable as a violent police action in Philadelphia that DIDN'T involve Frank Rizzo directly.

(Not that Rizzo didn't have his own shootout with MOVE years earlier, leaving a police officer dead and wounding those on both sides, firefighters and bystanders.)

In '85, once the bomb had been dropped and the fire set, there are conflicting reports of whether the police shot at those trying to escape the burning house. What isn't under debate is that firefighters were told to stand back and not put it out, allegedly out of fear that MOVE members would shoot at them. Needless to say, the neighbors whose neighborhood burned to the ground were less than amused, and reparations weren't up to par:

Today, after spending more than $43 million on redevelopment, the city has two blocks of boarded-up eyesores to show for its efforts. The homes built to replace those lost in the bomb-ignited inferno were so shoddy that officials stopped making repairs and offered buyouts.
posted by delfin at 2:50 PM on May 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


This story is so absolutely nuts. I watched the excellent documentary about it, but the Dollop Podcast episode about John Africa is a must listen. They go from cracking a fair amount of jokes (as is their way) to basically being in total horror of the fucked upedness of the situation.
posted by lattiboy at 2:51 PM on May 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


I was a student at Penn in those days, and lived on Spruce st., close enough that we sat on our roof and watched the block burn. Surreal experience, as the student government at the time was heavily involved in divesting the University from apartheid South Africa while this atrocity was happening right down the street.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:54 PM on May 13, 2015 [8 favorites]


There is no excuse for how police acted here, but this is in no way a one sided story. John Africa was a deeply disturbed sociopath and manipulator who seemed to want as much carnage as possible and had surrounded himself with unstable people and a stockpile of weapons.

Waco is a distant, but not unrelated event. (VERY DISTANT!)
posted by lattiboy at 2:57 PM on May 13, 2015 [9 favorites]


The anniversary is, of course, getting a lot of local coverage --

Protesters mark 30th anniversary of MOVE disaster
As the cars crawled Wednesday morning on Cobbs Creek Parkway, they were greeted at Osage Avenue with about 100 protesters bearing pamphlets and signs decrying the events of 30 years before. Passersby pointed their smartphones at 6221 Osage Ave. for photos.
Thirty years later on the bombed Move block
Standing behind her white security door, Nadine Foskey peers down the 6200 block of Osage Avenue. "Look at it," she says, tapping her fingernail on the glass. The 17 boarded-up houses are markers of neighbors who have died or fled.

It might be time for her to move, too, she concedes.

"Sometimes it can be so numbing," says the 52-year-old. "You get used to seeing this. You shouldn't be comfortable with it. I'm not comfortable. I'm not comfortable with even living here. It used to be secure. I'm just waiting for my time."
And editorially --

30 years later, MOVE's lessons still not learned -- by H. Graham McDonald, deputy director and counsel of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission on the 1985 MOVE confrontation
At a moment when institutionalized violence against black communities is once again in the spotlight, the anniversary of the MOVE confrontation invites comparisons that suggest how little progress has been made. In its final report, the 11-member commission appointed to investigate the confrontation made the case that institutional racism had subtly informed critical decisions at every point along the way.
Why disaster can't define a mayor or a city - by former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr.
It was a shameful day and a regrettable day, but not a defining one.
posted by cjelli at 3:00 PM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


I remember seeing this on the news when I was 14. I remember the news anchor made it sound like this was somehow acceptable and was completely MOVE's fault. I knew even then, from within the oblivious fog of my adolescence, that the police shouldn't be dropping fucking bombs on people's fucking houses.
posted by double block and bleed at 3:14 PM on May 13, 2015 [26 favorites]


What also happened was a pattern of escalation and counter-escalation between the police/FBI and progressive/radical movements

This feels familiar....oh right.

*sighs*
posted by Fizz at 3:31 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


A defining moment in my own developing awareness of the reality outside of my Wonderbread existence in suburban Nebraska. MOVE's tactics were especially antagonistic but the overwhelming, unmeasured response by the Philly PD outstripped any sense of decency. Unbelievable that this was 30 years ago and we still find ourselves litigating the same issues in the public discourse. The only gain I can think of is that it is easier to counter the prevailing whitewash with real-time first person documentation. Perhaps the next generation can do better than ours.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:38 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think you lose the right to call people crazy sociopaths when you start bombing them. At that point, you reset your definitions for comparison to the crazy people dropping bombs.

Like, I think running a marathon is kind of crazy, but only compared to a 5k. Compared to 100 mile ultramarathons, regular marathons are pretty sane. (Only in this case lots of innocent people died and lost their homes.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:42 PM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also, does this count as the only police bombing on US soil when the strike-breakers used aerial bombs during the Battle of Blair Mountain? Are we counting private police and Pinkertons?

There were claims of incendiaries being used during the Tusla/Greenwood massacre.
posted by 99_ at 4:01 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've seen a few documentaries on the MOVE movement, and Let The Fire Burn is great in that it examines the aftermath and public hearings. There's at least one other documentary that explores the group and John Africa in better detail. LTFB paints the group with a dim light, as I recall, but at least it does point a firm finger on the racist cops who most likely shot at children who were trying to escape a burning building.
posted by Catblack at 4:03 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


The Let the Fire Burn documentary is a must-watch. It contains the story of the officer who went to Birdie Africa/Michael Ward as he stumbled out of the flaming house and led him to safety. That same officer was ostracized as a "n****r- lover" and left the department. Uniquely among officers quoted in the documentary, he mentions imagining Birdie/Michael as his son. Heartwrenching.
posted by epj at 4:04 PM on May 13, 2015 [10 favorites]


This is why I have a really hard time believing anything will come of the current media attention to how awful American cops1are. You can't get much more "Surely this" than a fucking airstrike.

1 Yes all of them, fundamentally. Not even joking.
posted by PMdixon at 4:12 PM on May 13, 2015 [9 favorites]


Google Street view - 6200 Osage; 12 blocks away; 18 blocks away
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:13 PM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yes all of them, fundamentally. Not even joking.

Are there systemic problems that affect a great many US police departments, perhaps the majority? Sure. But this kind of mass demonizing is unhelpful and wrong. It's wrong when cops do it to certain demographics and it's just as wrong if we reverse it on to cops. There are good people in that job, and it won't help them improve their departments if we start stereotyping every person who chose that profession.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:22 PM on May 13, 2015 [15 favorites]


There are some systems so soaked in blood that working in them is fundamentally immoral. (Arguably all of late stage capitalism, but there is no outside of Capital any more.) Everyone's favorite AZ elected official Sheriff Joe is the model, not the exception.
posted by PMdixon at 4:26 PM on May 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


Golly. I had no idea...

This was also the first reaction of a fellow UK Mefite when we IM'd each other about it. The chances of anyone who cares to in the UK or the US or most places not knowing about a similar incident these days are zero. That's only slightly lower than not being able to follow it in real-time, probably with live video, anywhere we're likely to be.

Which I think points to the probability that cumulative pressure to fix the damn cop problem will build much more easily and quickly now.
posted by Devonian at 4:30 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Waco/Move is thought diffiernt only by partisans, don't be fooled.
posted by Mblue at 4:39 PM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


When this happened, I was eleven years old and so very confused. The police did that? In America? In 1985? While even then I understood that racism was a problem and the police weren't always models of restraint, but come the fuck on. Firebombing a building? Really and truly I thought for several years afterwards that I must have imagined it. My childhood was a sheltered one.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 4:55 PM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


Which I think points to the probability that cumulative pressure to fix the damn cop problem will build much more easily and quickly now.

You're assuming that "knowing about" implies "does not actively approve of and cheerlead", before we even get to "wants stopped". A lot of people, especially in the US, see police brutality, particularly of black men, as a feature not a bug.
posted by PMdixon at 4:59 PM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


It wasn't just the bombing but letting the fire burn when you knew there were kids in there. Monstrous.
posted by emjaybee at 4:59 PM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


...,letting the fire burn with kids in there. Monstrous It.
posted by Mblue at 5:08 PM on May 13, 2015


Madness. Total madness.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:12 PM on May 13, 2015


double block and bleed, I was 14 at the time, living outside of Trenton, NJ. This was, of course, all over the news, for as long as the siege lasted, and all I can remember is that it all seemed so wrong, so unnecessarily escalatory and horrifying, at the time. Granted, the majority of my opinions on such matters were formed from M*A*S*H , Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Bloom County., but in hindsight, I guess I was lucky enough to have reasonable cultural influences, as I really don't want to know what my parents thought of it. I'm curious, does anyone think this can't happen again? Does the ubiquity of cameras and the ability to disseminate video alter the calculus the authorities might use when deciding on something like this?
posted by mollweide at 5:31 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


. . . . . . . . . . .
posted by RogerB at 5:47 PM on May 13, 2015


US cops have bombs?!
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:08 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Seconding that the only thing that surprised me was Rizzo wasn't involved. But it enraged me all the same, at just 13, that the police could do this and get away with it. That they felt it better to burn the whole block to the ground, children and all, than to tactically address whatever the problem actually was. Now I think the problem is we have a heavily armed, paramilitary police force with zero oversight and few if any consequences for waging war against civilians.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 6:41 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've always thought it was a trial balloon. See how much they could get away with. Turns out, cops can do damn near anything, drop bombs with no accountability, rollout tanks to face unarmed protesters, shoot kids, gas populations, sound cannons, freedom zones.

They proved it by taking the lives of people whom the rest of the population feared, and now none of us are safe.
posted by dejah420 at 7:18 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


US cops have bombs?!


The FBI actually gave them that one.


Not even kidding.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:45 PM on May 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Found the Guardian story severely lacking in background details. Much more in the Philly Inquirer stories of the time: 1, 2, 3
posted by destro at 8:48 PM on May 13, 2015


Let the Fire Burn should be shown in US high school civics classes. The title is such the multi layered metaphor.

I'm pretty sure it's streaming via your favorite torrent-killer app. Stop reading this thread and watch it.
posted by eustatic at 10:37 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I saw the documentary, and one particular thing really shocked me.

There was an alley behind the house, where the basement windows faced, and where you could expect people to escape if they had to. The front of the building was viewable by cameras, but the back alley was closed off.

There were two police officers in particular, who had grudges regarding their previously filmed violence bringing people out and kicking and hitting them, and who had been the subject of law suits.

It was specifically these two cops who were set up alone in the alley with a gun on a tripod (disputed automatic weapon) to monitor the back of the building, and who shot at people trying to escape, forcing them to run back into the flames.

Earlier, there was so much shooting it sounded like a real battle, but then the shooting stopped completely for a while, and the TV reporters talked about a possible truce. Then the cameras caught a police vehicle arriving and unloading cases of ammunition, (police had run out,) and the shooting started up all over again.

The police chief talked ahead of time about "winning the war" and such. His job was not to win anything, but to bring people in front of judges.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:07 PM on May 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


US cops have bombs?!

In the immortal words of then Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode (for nothing):

"It was NOT a bomb; It was an explosive device."
posted by three blind mice at 12:57 AM on May 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


In the immortal words of then Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode (for nothing):

"It was NOT a bomb; It was an explosive device."


Wilson Goode did not say it was an explosive device, he said it was a percussive device, and Goode was the person that authorized its use. The joke at the time was:

What's the difference between Willie Goode and Solarcain?
Solarcain blocks the burn.
posted by Rob Rockets at 2:31 AM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


What's the difference between Willie Goode and Solarcain?
Solarcain blocks the burn.


Ah, yes, MOVE jokes.

I was 9 at the time, living about an hour outside of Philly. Close enough that it affected my parents' car insurance rate, but far enough out of town that across the street from us was a farm that had been in the same family for 200 years.

The gallows humor this event spawned was the beginning of a trifecta of grade-school bad taste: in that corner of Pennsylvania, the kids went jokes about MOVE, to jokes about dead shuttle astronauts, to jokes about how Bud Dwyer's hairpiece flew off when he shoved that pistol barrel in his mouth on live TV and pulled the trigger. Every school in the US had that second one, but in south-east Pennsylvania's Delaware Valley, as well as south Jersey, our "Need Another Seven Astronauts" jokes were bracketed before and after by events much more local.
posted by radwolf76 at 2:58 AM on May 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


This event taught me that the myths promulgated by authority figures were much closer to fiction than the novels I was reading, that Reagan's Morning in America should be treated as mourning for the principles of justice.
posted by Radiophonic Oddity at 6:31 AM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wilson Goode did not say it was an explosive device

Thanks Rob Rockets. It was a long time ago, but I lived in Philly then and distincly remember him saying something to that effect on TV. "Concussive device" fits the sound I have stored in my head. (Funny what one keeps in memory....)
posted by three blind mice at 11:38 AM on May 14, 2015


Nthing the recommendation for Let the Fire Burn. Wanted to chime in and note that as of today it is available on Netflix Instant.
posted by soonertbone at 10:11 AM on May 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


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