How culture fueled the infamous police decision.
May 13, 2021,
By J.T. Roane,
Reprinted from The Washington Post (original link).
On May 12, 1985, Ramona Africa used a bullhorn to warn officers of the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD), which had been targeting her and other members of the radical liberation organization MOVE, against further attempts to violate the group: “We’re prepared for anything that y’all come with.” Africa’s message was in response to an attempt by the PPD to enter the organization’s rowhouse at 6221 Osage Ave. through an adjoining address the day before to enforce arrest warrants.
Unfortunately, though MOVE had experienced more than a decade of antagonism from the PPD, they were not prepared for what came next. On May 13, following the failure of Mayor Wilson Goode, the first Black mayor of Philadelphia, and police commissioner Gregore J. Sambor to create a reasonable tactical plan for extricating members, officers from the department’s bomb unit dropped a military-grade explosive procured illegally from a Philadelphia FBI field agent on the group. Officials knew the rowhouse was occupied not only by the adults they sought to apprehend, but also six children. Recklessly they bombed it anyway.
Philadelphia’s 1985 bombing of MOVE culminated more than a decade of the city’s hostility toward the group, which included police harassment as well as antagonism by social workers, school officials and politicians. The city argued that what it considered the group’s unsanitary lifestyle threatened its children and those living near it, while police and neighbors accused the group of intimidation. But the bombing should also be remembered in the context of the city’s broader indifference to Black lives and its contempt for its Black working-class residents.
MOVE, which in its name symbolized action over rhetoric, began in 1972 originally as the Christian Movement for Life. It included primarily working-class Black Philadelphians, ranging from former Black Panther Party members to residents like Janine Phillips (later Janine Africa) who had begun to use substances to cope with the effects of Philadelphia’s economic decline.
As Janine recalled in 1981, she was drawn to the organization’s message of a return to a state of harmony between people, the planet and other nonhuman species through her experiences with the economic and social context that left her in a constant state of anxiety. MOVE helped improve her mental and physical health and cultivate a stronger relationship with her children.
MOVE’s initial actions in 1972 and 1973 included protests against conditions at a long-term-care facility they condemned for mistreating Black elders and protests at the city’s zoo against the caging of animals. The group’s use of profanity and its radical abolitionist message drew the ire of police officers. Based on punitive 1972 Pennsylvania legislation, police classified the group’s use of profanity as riotous and designated them violent threats to public order.
Nearby homeowners complained about MOVE, accusing the group of health hazards and confrontations. During successive raids on the group’s original Powelton Village headquarters in the mid-1970s, police beat and arrested members with impunity. The group also accused them of killing Janine Africa’s baby, Life Africa, [and others] in March 1976, though police disputed this claim.
MOVE members refused to be passive victims of the city’s antagonism. A few days following the death of Life Africa on April 2, 1976, the organization invited city council members Lucien Blackwell and Joseph Coleman as well as future council member Janie Blackwell to the Powelton Village headquarters. After a shared meal, Janine led the three to the basement of the headquarters to view Life’s body to call attention to violent police attacks sustained by the organization.
Louise Africa also used her biweekly column at the Philadelphia Tribune, “On the MOVE” to call out police aggression. “We have time and time again run smack into these politically controlled cops,” who, as Louise went on to describe, exhibited sadism in relation to the organization. The PPD denied the death of Life Africa, going so far as to insist that the infant had not existed and, thus, could not have been killed.
When in response, the group began to arm itself in self-defense, seeking weapons through a member who had begun working with ATF agents, neighbors again demanded the city do something about the group and officials treated MOVE members as enemy combatants.
This posture culminated in 1978 with an extended siege in which officials blockaded MOVE’s headquarters, shut off its water supply and attempted to drown the group in their basement, before eventually raiding and destroying the home. The 1978 violence resulted in the death of a police officer and the incarceration of the MOVE 9, whom the group galvanized around as political prisoners — two of whom died in state custody and the other seven of whom served 40-year sentences scattered across Pennsylvania’s prisons. Eventually other MOVE members relocated to the Cobbs Creek rowhouse.
Such attempts to eradicate MOVE exposed the growing police power and militarization in response to the city’s Black power politics, most famously under the leadership of Police Commissioner and then Mayor Frank L. Rizzo. But it wasn’t just the police involved in such attacks.
Various city departments, officials and politicians had also driven conflict with the group. Critically, after the explosive detonated on May 13, 1985, the PPD and the city’s Fire Department conspired in inaction for an hour before attempting to put out the flames. Police further weaponized the fire by shooting at MOVE members as they attempted to escape the heat and smoke. Although Ramona and one child, Birdie Africa, survived the catastrophic fire, in total 11 MOVE members including five children, as well as their dogs, perished. More than 250 others in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood were displaced when the fire destroyed 50 neighboring rowhomes.
The connection between police aggression and the fire department’s neglect was not an aberration either. As the short-lived community newspaper, the North Philly Free Press, documented, poor Black residents regularly succumbed to fire in the 1980s. In 1983, the Free Pressalone among the city’s papers covered the death of Janice Shipman Baker, a Black woman who died after her home burned. On March 20, 1984, the paper covered a fire that began on Peach Street in West Philadelphia. Before it was contained, the blaze spread to the two adjoining houses, killing six Black youths.
Like MOVE members who were tacitly held responsible for their own deaths — no officials were indicted or otherwise held responsible — Black fire victims were often implicated for their own deaths. Fire officials used insinuation to hide in plain sight conditions produced by the disintegration of the city’s housing stock through deindustrialization and neglect on the part of absentee landlords. Such economic abandonment was made even more deadly by the radical indifference of first-responders and city officials.
For example, in 1984, Jacqueline Wheeler and the child in her care, 8-year-old George Gaskins, sat watching television in the front room of their apartment. After a few minutes, Wheeler noticed the front of the apartment filling with dense smoke. Although she attempted to rescue Gaskins, the boy died. The documentation of the incident in the fire detective’s reports show officials’ contempt and disregard for vulnerable Black people. Rather than condemning the apartment owner for “faulty electrical wire[s],” detectives suggested that Gaskins “may have been playing” with the exposed wiring, causing his own untimely demise. Detectives cast aspersion on the boy’s actions and those of his caretaker while ignoring the responsibility of the landlord in the fatality.
In short, the violence against MOVE was part of a pattern of government contempt for working-class Black residents and willful neglect to provide them basic city services. As Black gay anthologist and writer Joseph Beam acknowledged in an essay, the “agents of normalcy and decency” who had acted to kill the group had potentially deadly implications for all Black Philadelphians. As he noted, the bombing caused him “psychic scars” and made him “deeply afraid,” “as a Black gay man who is a writer,” for his “life and [his] home.”
Indeed, the city’s everyday contempt for Black life was part of the animating force for MOVE’s activism. And they weren’t alone. The city’s Black communities more broadly organized against the climate of municipal indifference and violent responses to their suffering.
On May 26, 1982, for example, residents gathered at Daniel Baptist Church in North Philadelphia to discuss the effects of the city’s infrastructural disintegration and the deterioration of municipal services. They were galvanized by the death of 13-year-old Darren Wilson, who many residents believed died from first-responders’ indifference and the city’s emphasis on law and order as much as injuries he sustained when struck by a car. As one witness testified during the community meeting, emergency dispatchers placed those seeking help for the teenager on hold. Rather than paramedics, “two cars and one van” load of cops arrived first and “they all stood around for maybe 10 minutes” before “two cops pulled his arms and legs and threw him on a stretcher, without care like he wasn’t human.”
The fiery deaths of MOVE women, men, children and pets were sadly not exceptional. Critically, the city’s attempt to destroy MOVE by fire unfolded in a wider political ecology of debilitation and death amplified by municipal antagonism. MOVE members embraced radical abolition, including the liberation of its imprisoned members, an end to violent policing and a reorientation of urban infrastructures — work that the group’s members continue today.
By J.T. Roane. J.T. Roane is an assistant professor of African and African American studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Twitter.