When the Hammer Falls: The 1985 Bombing of MOVE

MOVE bombing

The good thing about not being tied to the daily grind of the professional chattering class is you’re no longer compelled to add your commentary to their issues.   What do I have to say about Benghazi, the I.R.S. investigating right-wing groups or the Justice Department monitoring the phones and e-mails of the Associated Press?

Benghazi is political theater designed to embarrass President Obama and weaken Hillary Clinton in 2016.   The I.R.S. has some explaining to do, but it did the same thing to left-wing groups during the Bush Administration and I need more details before deciding where the blame lays on the Justice Department vs. Associated Press mess.

At present, I’m more interested in not allowing the 28th anniversary of a terrorist attack directed by American politicians against their own citizens go without notice the way the scandal-seeking mainstream media is ignoring the bombing of the radical MOVE group.

Every now and then the forces of authority send a clear, unambiguous message that they have the ultimate power to decide who lives and who dies.  It was 28 years ago in Philadelphia when the people in power declared war against a ragtag group of Black survivalists with a militant streak.   Mayor Wilson Goode authorized his racist police chief,  Frank Rizzo to take out a back-to-nature commune called MOVE by literally dropping a bomb on their house. It’s a shameful episode of American history many Americans don’t know a damn thing about.

In 1972, an urban commune called MOVE took root in the City of Brotherly Love.   Members gave up most modern conveniences and took up the surname of “Africa” on the orders of their leader, James Africa.    When MOVE moved in to Powellton Village in West Philadelphia, they came with an agenda and an attitude to match.

MOVE bombing2

MOVE members surrender to the police after the 1978 confrontation.

MOVE members staged bullhorn-amplified, profanity-laced demonstrations against institutions which they opposed morally, such as zoos (MOVE had strong views on animal rights), and speakers whose views they opposed. MOVE made compost piles of garbage and human waste in their yards which attracted rats and cockroaches; they considered it morally wrong to kill the vermin with pest control. MOVE attracted much hostility from their neighbors.

You’re probably not going to be the most popular house on the street if you’re cursing out your neighbors with a bullhorn at all hours of the day and night and on a hot summer day they are treated to the unlovely scent of fecal material gently wafting through the window.   But then the members of MOVE wasn’t trying to be featured in Better Homes and Garden anyway.

The tensions between the cops and MOVE had smoldered since 1978 when Officer James Ramp was killed during a confrontation after MOVE was ordered by Mayor Frank Rizzo to leave their compound.   Eleven MOVE members were convicted in Ramp’s death.

Rizzo ordered the MOVE compound burned to the ground in a eerie foreshadowing of things to come.   In 1984, Rizzo was out and W. Wilson Goode, was elected as Philadelphia’s first Black mayor.   New year, new mayor, but the same old MOVE headaches remained.   The remaining members of the group relocated to 6221 Osage Avenue.   MOVE continued to harangue their neighbors with profanity-laced, political speeches delivered at all hours of the day and night and their compost piles of waste products.   They ignored citations from the city about health code violations.

Finally, on May 13, 1985, police attempted to arrest several MOVE members indicted for parole violation, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terrorist threat.   When the cops attempted to enter the MOVE compound the residents fought back and a gun battle ensued.

W. Wilson Goode

A commission set up to investigate the bombing determined the Philly cops fired some 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the house.  The commission found  Goode and police commissioner Gregore Sambor and fire commissioner William Richmond, had been “grossly negligent” and called the deaths of the MOVE children “appeared to be unjustified homicide.”

Sambor would resign six months later, Richmond retired in 1988 and Goode was reelected the same year after making a tear-filled apology on television.  No officials faced criminal charges.  The city would pay out $1.5 million to a survivor and relatives of the victims after a jury in federal court determined “excessive force” had been used by the police.

From a helicopter, police dropped an explosive device on the MOVE row house killing six adults and five children, the youngest being a toddler.   The resulting inferno caused a six-alarm fire resulting in 61 houses burned to the ground.   Goode supposedly gave orders to put the fires out, but for some reason they were allowed to burn unchecked.   The bodies of the five children were found huddled together in the charred remains of the basement.

Using archival footage, filmmaker Jason Osder’s documentary, Let the Fire Burn, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.  “I was frightened that kids died. I don’t think I saw it in the way that most adults did – that is, through the lens of race relations, or the lens of class, or the lens of police brutality. All of those are issues that adults think about,” Osder said.

“I was just a kid, and kids were killed and their parents didn’t help them and the police didn’t help them, and that was scary to me. I thought, ‘Could that happen to me?’  The answer is “Yes it could if the powers that be determine you are a nuisance and a threat to be eliminated.”

MOVE was a cult as much as a revolutionary group.  Relations between the Black community and the Philadelphia police were as bad as anywhere in the country.   This made for a volatile mixture that eventually culminated with the unprecedented step of a mayor authorizing the bombing of a building in his own city.

Frank Rizzo

While MOVE’s predilection to resort to intimidation, harassment and violence makes them unsympathetic victims, the lethal response of the Philadelphia city officials was a complete and heavy-handed overreaction.   You don’t use a shotgun to kill a house fly and you don’t bomb a house where you know children live to get to their parents.   Before going to such extremes,  the city officials should have exhausted every other option to bring about a peaceful resolution, but they chose to drop a bloody hammer down on the heads of their own citizens.

Blame can be assessed to both sides, but the final responsibility for the tragedy of May 15, 1985 forever remains on the blood-stained hands of Wilson Goode and his fellow terrorists.

Related articles