This week, the Philadelphia City Council voted to formally apologize for bombing the homes of the MOVE activist group, which left 11 people dead, including five children, and burned down 61 homes in 1985.
The measure was introduced by Jamie Gauthier, a city councilor who grew near where the attack occurred. Gauthier also suggested an annual remembrance on May 13 but that is being put on hold due to the ongoing pandemic.
Gauthier announced the passing of the measure in a tweet on Thursday, expressing relief that the injustices of that day are finally recognized.
MOVE was a Philadelphia-based organization formed by Civil Rights leader John Africa in 1972, with the goal of sparking a radical change in society by creating self-sustaining communities that lived according to their own rules and values. They also rejected the authority of the police and the federal government. MOVE crowdfunded the purchase of multiple adjacent homes in the city to build a headquarters, where members of the group lived communally and planned protests. Unfortunately, it was not long before they caught the attention of local police, who were threatened by their philosophy and their presence in the community.
Most mainstream coverage of this story highlights the fact that neighbors were unhappy with the living conditions in the compound, and it is often claimed that the police only became involved because they received complaints from concerned citizens who were uncomfortable that such a radical activist group was “in their backyard.” However, it is important to point out that this was during a time of great social tension when racists would often use police as a tool of violence against their darker skinned neighbors.
In 1978, MOVE had their first major standoff with police after the city attempted to forcibly remove them from their homes. When police attempted to enter the house to take people away, a shootout erupted, and Philadelphia Police Officer James J. Ramp was caught in the crossfire and killed.
Members of MOVE have insisted all these years that Ramp was actually killed by one of his fellow officers in a case of friendly fire, which is an extremely plausible explanation considering that Ramp was shot in the back of the neck. Seven other police officers, five firefighters, three MOVE members, and three bystanders were also injured.
Despite the fact that there was no evidence tying any particular person to the single bullet that killed Ramp, nine members of MOVE were each sentenced to a maximum of 100 years in prison for third-degree murder. One person was killed with one bullet and nine people were sent to jail for their entire lives.
After the conviction of these political prisoners who would eventually come to be known as the “MOVE 9,” the organization understandably became more militant and radical. Then, in 1981, the group established a new headquarters across town at 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia. In addition to rebuilding their commune and staging protests, MOVE also set up a bullhorn outside of their headquarters that would regularly blast anti-government messages out to the community.
In 1985, after years of legal conflict, Mayor W. Wilson Goode and Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor classified MOVE as a terrorist organization and planned a full-scale raid of their headquarters. This time, police fully evacuated the entire neighborhood before moving in on the compound.
“There were nearly 500 police officers gathered at the scene, ludicrously, ferociously well-armed—flak jackets, tear gas, SWAT gear, .50- and .60-caliber machine guns, and an anti-tank machine gun for good measure. Deluge guns were pointed from firetrucks. The state police had sent a helicopter. The city had shut off the water and electricity for the entire block. And, we’d come to learn, there were explosives on hand,” one witness described the events to NPR.
After a standoff lasting several hours, police gave MOVE a 15-minute warning to surrender around 6 a.m. and they were met with gunshots from inside the building. That is when police returned fire, unloading over 10,000 rounds at the MOVE headquarters over the course of 90 minutes.
Next, the police dropped a bomb on the building from a helicopter, igniting multiple homes on fire.
Ramona Africa, one of the few survivors of the attack, spoke about her experience in an interview with Democracy Now in 2010, saying that:
“In terms of the bombing, after being attacked the way we were, first with four deluge hoses by the fire department and then tons of tear gas, and then being shot at — the police admit to shooting over 10,000 rounds of bullets at us in the first 90 minutes — there was a lull. You know, it was quiet for a little bit. And then, without any warning at all, two members of the Philadelphia Police Department’s bomb squad got in a Pennsylvania state police helicopter and flew over our home and dropped a satchel of C4, a powerful military explosive that no municipal police department has. They had to get it from the federal government, from the FBI. And without any announcement of warning or anything, they dropped that bomb on the roof of our home.”
Sadly, police behavior in the United States, and in Philadelphia, is not much better today than it was in 1985, which is perhaps why it is so important to remember and recognize these acts of police terror honestly, as city councilor Jamie Gauthier is hoping to do.
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