Almost exactly ten years after my family had left Guatemala — a country mired in a horrifically violent and bloody 36-year undeclared war waged by the government on its own people — I sat with my parents in front of the TV set in our home in a then-rural Philadelphia suburb and watched police helicopters drop a bomb on the MOVE house on Osage Avenue.
Silent and stunned, we watched as the fire the bomb ignited took out 61 houses and, ultimately, left 11 dead, five of them children.
It seemed to me that a bit of Guatemala had followed us to the United States — the country that, until that moment, I had believed was proof against unchecked institutional violation of the rights of its citizens.
I am writing about the MOVE bombing now because the recent presidential election has me thinking about the ways of political administrations, and of the ordinary people those administrations fear, or revile, or decide to target.
Though I’ve been an American citizen from birth, I hadn’t lived a day in the United States until 1975. What I had learned in those 10 years between moving here and the day of the MOVE bombing was that people in this country freely criticized presidents, administrations, and a myriad of local and national officials — on television, at school, and at cocktail parties — without fear of major repercussion. People had, and believed in, constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment rights. No one that I met in those years lived like we had in Guatemala — in fear that a casual comment heard by the wrong set of ears would precipitate a kidnapping, or a sudden visit by the secret police, or disappearance into a labyrinth of extrajudicial interrogation centers from which there was no return.
I knew, of course, that the U.S. government had been complicit in what had transpired in Guatemala — shoring up, training, and offering counterinsurgency strategies to a series of authoritarian military strongmen and repressive governments during the decades of undeclared war. And I’ve since come to understand that many Black folks in America have experienced an equivalent de facto counterinsurgency by U.S. law enforcement here at home (including the use of police black sites where folks disappeared to be tortured).
But I understood (then and now) that most American citizens were unaware of these covert dishonors, and I believe the majority of my co-citizens to be like my father (thanks to whom I come by my citizenship) — compassionate and decent people who are righteously indignant when confronted with evidence of injustice and scapegoating.
By the time of the MOVE bombing, I had unlearned the protective-bordering-on-pathological habits of those who fear repressive governments and the official (and unofficial) forces they marshall — so that firebomb okayed by the city’s mayor shook more than just the row of houses on Osage Avenue. It momentarily made the realities of Guatemala and Philadelphia overlap, and I saw in both my American father’s and my Guatemalan mother’s eyes that they too were jolted into that unsettling liminal place, actual and remembered, where governments feel justified obliterating their own people.
There were similarities between the MOVE incident in Philadelphia and the Spanish Embassy attack in Guatemala in 1980, in which SWAT members and other armed state agents had used incendiary white phosphorus to try to evict the indigenous and rural leaders and laborers who had occupied the embassy to protest the government’s repression. The firefighters in Philadelphia, like those in Guatemala, were ordered to hold off on battling the conflagration the police had started, and people burned to death as a consequence — innocents as well as those the administrations in both cities, via their police, sought to target by their actions. And there were only two survivors, one of them badly burned, in each instance.
The Guatemalan attack, in which Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú’s father was killed, is considered one of the defining events of the Guatemalan undeclared civil war; the MOVE bombing is a fire “that has smoldered for decades,” as journalist Bobbi Booker described it in a Philly Mag column last year.
I’ve occasionally thought about the MOVE bombing in the ensuing years, when I’ve had opportunity to speak about it with folks who served on the special investigation commission, with journalists who covered the event, and with young people whose parents recounted for them the particularly Philadelphia context of the incident.
There are hundreds of ways to understand what led to the bombing, but only one tragic and irredeemable ending.
FOR MANY AMERICANS, the result of the recent presidential election has been like an incendiary device dropped on a calm neighborhood where they thought they’d always live. It seems inconceivable to them that their friends, family, and neighbors elected a candidate whose campaign consisted of singling out groups of ordinary people he fears, or derides, or promises to target.
For other Americans, the result has been a welcome detonation, promising to reshape the neighborhood and deal with its troublesome residents through registry or mass deportation or incarceration.
For Americans like me, who have lived under authoritarian regimes and also lived through moments when democratic governments employ the strategies of authoritarianism, the electoral result elicits something deeply paradoxical: the memory of what will be.
Because specific groups of people have already been singled out for removal, increased surveillance, and racial profiling, there is no doubt whatsoever who will be negatively affected by the incoming administration — the only unknown is the magnitude.
Anti-immigrant, anti-Black and anti-Semitic episodes lead the pack of hate incidents recorded by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the days since the election, and, if past truly is prologue, the numbers will continue to rise until their occurrence stops being noteworthy and becomes horridly routine.
“COME TO THE MEETING we are having at St. Martin of Tours,” an undocumented immigrant friend said to me this week. It was only one of the many informational and support meetings for the undocumented held in and around Philadelphia over the past couple of weeks. While worried and getting together pro-actively, this population is calmer about the incoming administration than others — in part because it already lives 24/7 with the specter of being forcibly separated from family members, of being snatched away by ICE in middle of a work shift or at home in middle of the night.
There is, of course, still the possibility that the president-elect will at least denounce the hate crimes enacted against his campaign targets, but it will take much more than the perfunctory “stop it” he’s offered until now. And, given the professional and personal history of the cabinet members he has appointed, such comity is improbable at best.
If there is any hope that this will not devolve into full-on violent persecution of ethnic, religious, and racial groups (as it has in other countries), it resides in the courage and moral rectitude of institutions like Arch Street United Methodist Church and the University of Pennsylvania, which have extended protections that make them sanctuaries, and do honor to their spiritual and intellectual legacies.
There is hope also in the fortitude of the mayors of a number of cities — our own Jim Kenney among them — who have not been intimidated into abandoning their sense of human decency, despite threats to federal funding.
And ultimately the best hope is, as always, in ordinary Americans — compassionate and decent — who must be unwilling to offer excuses for injustice, who must decry the facile scapegoating we’ve witnessed in the past 18 months, and who must prove ourselves strong enough to withstand, from the very beginning, the slide into authoritarianism.
And if we fail? We have an inkling. Decades from now the memory of the ideals we forsook in a moment of panic and fear will still be smoldering.