The MOVE Bombing

Do you remember Waco? The standoff? The shootout? The fire? The deaths? Years later, the wound left by Waco still festers in American society. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was motivated by a desire to avenge the Waco dead; the date he picked, April 19th, was the date that the Branch Davidian compound burned down. Who can forget the endless, breathless television coverage, the justifications and condemnations, the desire to “get to the bottom” of how so many good, regular-looking Americans could be charred to death by federal agents? Despite the violence of the Davidians, despite their many documented crimes, it seemed generally understood that the government had overreacted and caused a tragedy. Which is correct.

Do you remember the MOVE bombing?

Many don’t. It’s not something that we like to talk about. Perhaps it’s an artifact of its time. The MOVE bombing was in 1985, the Reagan years, almost a decade before Waco. The mass media apparatus that broadcast the Davidians’ burning compound was still gathering strength at the time. Or perhaps it was the smaller scale of the tragedy. Seventy-six died at Waco, only 11 on Osage street. But it’s hard to avoid the simplest conclusion: The Waco victims mattered in a way the MOVE victims did not because they were white.

MOVE, originally the Christian Movement for Life, is and was a black liberation movement founded in Philadelphia by a man named John Africa (MOVE members changed their last name to Africa to pay homage to what they saw as their home continent). MOVE were not the Black Panthers. They were a radical back-to-nature movement, advocating sustainable primitivist living. In addition to black liberation, they pushed for animals rights, and would often use bullhorns to deliver profane denunciations of what they saw as injustice in modern society. They lived communally in a house in Powelton Village, West Philadelphia.

In 1977 they were ordered to leave their building, supposedly because of complaints by neighbors. When, a year later, they had not vacated, the police raided MOVE. A shootout ensued which took the life of one officer (MOVE has continually denied responsibility for the officer’s death, citing the fatal wound, which was to the back of his head; they claim he was facing them). In the aftermath of the raid, nine MOVE members were sentenced to life imprisonment, of whom seven remain.

In 1981 MOVE relocated to a house on Osage Street, still in West Philadelphia. The members were by this point embittered and convinced that the police meant to destroy them and their organization. Once again, their neighbors complained about their bullhorn use and unauthorized construction, adding a wooden bunker to the roof of the house. In 1985 warrants were issued for the arrests of four MOVE members, charging them with making threats and illegal possession of firearms. MOVE was classed as a terrorist organization and the police were sent in to evict and arrest them.

Once again, an armed standoff ensued, with the police attempting to clear the building with tear gas and gunfire. This time, nobody was killed, but the MOVE members still refused to vacate. Using explosives provided to them by the FBI, the Philadelphia police hovered a helicopter over the building and dropped two bombs onto it. A gas-powered generator on the roof was ignited and started a fire, which began to spread.

The firefighters refused to fight the fire, supposedly in fear that MOVE members would shoot them. One of the witnesses, Ramona Africa, claimed that police were firing on anyone trying to escape the burning building. In the end, six adults and five children died, and the spreading fire destroyed 60 homes in a predominantly black neighborhood, leaving over 250 people homeless.

The city appointed a commission to study the MOVE bombings, which determined that the use of bombs to target a civilian house was unacceptable. Still, nobody was charged. Over ten thousand rounds of ammunition were expended by the police in attacking this building — a building where multiple children were living, a building full of American citizens entitled to the protection of the law.

During the initial 1978 raid, Philadelphia’s mayor was Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner who had been elected campaigning to crack down on crime. He famously said “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” His tenure was marked with rampant, unchecked police brutality, especially against minorities and leftists. In 1985, though, the mayor was W. Wilson Goode, an African-American community activist. Though he lacked Rizzo’s noxious racism, he still approved and condoned the 1985 attack.

It is not exactly revelatory to say that white supremacy is alive and well in this country. But when a militarized police department drops a bomb on an American house in an American neighborhood, destroying dozens of American homes, it is fair to wonder if there is any depravity against Black Americans that the white majority will not stomach. How far is too far? How many dead is too many? How much property damage, how blatant an overreach is required? MOVE are not the most sympathetic victims; they were militant, loud, weird. They were surely not good neighbors. But they did not deserve to be bombed and burned out of their home.