‘When we got to the door, they opened fire on us. This was not a plan to simply take Move people into custody. This was a plan to kill off the Move organisation.’ – Ramona Africa.
When a small, radical, religious community of African Americans refused to give up their home, the authorities returned hell. On 13th May 1985 the Philadelphia Police dropped a bomb made of 3.5 lbs of C-4 plastic explosives, the kind used in the Vietnam war, onto a house in a predominantly African American neighbourhood. 6221 Osage Avenue, Philadelphia, had 13 American citizens inside, including 6 children. Only two people survived, one adult and one child. Another 61 homes burned to the ground, and 110 were damaged. 250 other citizens were left destitute and homeless. The residents? Members of Move.
Vince Leaphart founded Move in 1972 and subsequently became ‘John Africa’. Members who joined also changed their last name to ‘Africa’. Move embodied a radical Black humanism. Members were dedicated to the freedom of all life. Move opposed not only the oppression of people through racism, and alienation through technology, but also the holistic and dehumanising effect of contemporary mainstream society. The members only ate raw food, eschewed technology, and celebrated human potential to live with nature. It was an attempt to reenvisage how humans live in society.
This had led to some complaints in the neighbourhood about the smell from the live animals they kept, as well as the unprocessed animal and human waste. Escalating tensions between the neighbourhood and Move led to increased conflict between Move and local authorities. In August 1978 police clashed with the organisation leading to the death of one officer and the arrest of 9 members, who came to be known as the Move 9. The group strongly protested their innocence, arguing the fatality was due to friendly fire. During another run-in, police allegedly beat Move members and killed an infant. In 1985 police obtained the warrant to search the Move home on Osage Avenue and take Move members into custody for firearms possession, unpaid bills, and inspection code violations.
The siege began when Move members refused to leave the house to be arrested. Police claim the members then started firing on them, at which point the police returned fire. 10,000 rounds of ammunition were fired by the police that day. Alongside this, the police fired tear gas through the windows and used a water cannon. Authorities argued that there was a bunker on top of the house, made from wood and steel which created a firing platform for Move. It was with this reasoning that, with the mayor’s authorisation, the police dropped a bomb on the house. Flames began immediately. Soon the entire house was on fire. With thick plumes of smoke now rising from the home, the fire department waited. They watched the fire develop before deciding to act in what the Fire Commissioner later described as one of the ‘toughest’ fires he had fought in his 25 year career. A fire where the firefighters themselves might fear for their lives. In the blaze four people came out of the house. Faced with the choice of the police or the fire, 2 turned back and re-entered the house.
The next day, a poll of 400 Philadelphians found that 69%, far from being outraged, actually supported and praised these actions by law enforcement. Only 24% rated the mayor’s actions against Move as ‘not very good’ or ‘poor’ (Teichner Associates, 1985). Even more surprisingly the respondent’s race had only a limited effect on their answers. A later academic study found that Black Philadelphians seemed more understanding of police actions than onlookers from the rest of the US. The fear of humanism for Philadelphians transcended some concerns of race.
The media coverage of Move in the run-up to and shortly after the bombing was hardly sympathetic. It focused on the group’s radicalism, painting them as dreadlocked gun toting maniacs, rather than people with very real concerns about the logic of mainstream society. By portraying the group as outsiders, the media effectively generated hostility towards Move and distracted from their critiques of systemic oppression in society. In a US recovering from the Cold War this had a powerful effect. By creating an ‘other’ that resisted being assimilated into mainstream society the media helped build up support for the police actions. Move was depicted as attacking society, rather than the oppression society perpetrated. There was little attempt by society to understand the group or take on board its critiques. It is easier to destroy something you do not understand than to face the realities of our imperfect society.
‘The people of MOVE are proof that poor people are capable of intelligently perceiving and analysing American life, politically and socially, and of devising and attempting to follow a different – and, to them, better – way. But because they are poor and black, this is not acceptable behaviour to middle-class whites and blacks who think all poor black people should be happy with jhern curls, mindless (and lying) TV shows, and Kentucky fried chicken.’ -Alice Walker, “Nobody Was Supposed To Survive: The MOVE Massacre.”
No US police department has been recorded bombing its own citizens in a White neighbourhood. Ramona Africa, the only surviving adult was arrested and served 7 years on charges of riot and conspiracy, for her part in the conflict. No police or officials have been prosecuted. 10 years on a federal jury found that police had used ‘excessive force’. 35 years on there are efforts to raise awareness about this act of brutality. There is yet to be a full formal apology from the city.
If you want to learn more about the atrocity, and the group itself, Move members have told their own story in the self-published text ‘25 Years on the MOVE’ (an update from their book ‘20 Years on the MOVE’).