Trump’s Election Was a Bomb Dropped on a Calm Neighborhood

President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office on November 10, 2016. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office on November 10, 2016. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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. Read more »

Can Philly Fix the Block It Razed, Then Shabbily Rebuilt, After MOVE Bombing?

Move-bombing-history3

Photo Credit: Peter Morgan | AP Photo

There’s no historical marker at 6221 Osage Avenue to tell the casual passersby what happened here in 1985 — that the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on a houseful of black liberationists who called themselves MOVE, that 11 people were killed, that the city ultimately decided to “let the fire burn,” and that more than 50 homes were destroyed in the ensuing blaze.

But if you walk the block today, it’s still clear that something went wrong. Half the homes on the 6200 blocks of Osage Avenue and Pine Street are vacant; front doors are covered with slabs of plywood and padlocked. The fire stopped burning 30 years ago, but the wounds have never healed.

It’s not that the city didn’t try to fix it. For the families who happened to live nearby, whose homes were collateral damage in the bombing, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority moved fast. It took the properties by eminent domain and hired a developer to build new houses. But the developer didn’t do a good job. Fifteen years later, when it was clear that the homes all had the same problems, after trying to do repairs, PRA sought to take the houses back again. Most of the residents took the money the PRA offered, cut their losses, and left. Only a handful stayed.

Since then, for the last decade and a half, nothing much has happened there. The vacant rowhomes have sat empty, eroding from exposure and time, reminding their neighbors every day of one of the most violent nights in the history of the city. The broken development isn’t a historical marker, but it tells the story in painful detail nonetheless.

“You have the underlying set of traumatic events, and then you layer on top of that the fact that the investment itself was shoddy,” says Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center. “There was not enough investment. Basically, the community was not worth it.”

Now the Redevelopment Authority is trying to get it right. Last week, it announced that it’s looking for a developer to come in and fix 36 empty homes that will then be sold to private owners.

“Because some of the PRA-owned properties abut owner-occupied units, developers should be prepared to make every effort to address safety issues and prevent work that would adversely affect occupied properties,” the Authority wrote in the Request for Proposals. “Developer should also be respectful of the area’s challenged history and the trauma that adjacent residents may have experienced.” Read more »

The MOVE Anniversary: What They’re Saying

It was a local tragedy, but the 30th anniversary of the MOVE bombing has prompted some recollections and other thoughts in national and even international media outlets. A sampling:

CNN:

Sadly, the MOVE bombing provided a preview of police state tactics that are commonplace today, and a militarization of local police forces, brought about by the wars on drugs and terror and funded by asset forfeiture and the feds. Indeed, law enforcement is using weaponry utilized by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the Defense Department’s 1033 program, along with similar Department of Justice and Homeland Security programs, the cops receive free surplus military arms, aircraft, Humvees, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, you name it.

Give wannabe soldiers with no training all the military hardware they want. What could possibly go wrong?

Read more »

Thirty Years Later, MOVE Still Hurts

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Peter Morgan | AP

On May 13, 1985 — 30 years ago today — a city decided to selectively bomb its citizens. On Mother’s Day 1985, residents on a block at the edge of the city of Philadelphia were ushered out of their homes, assured that they would soon return to the quiet lives they’d previously known. Days earlier, 6200 Osage Avenue residents had demanded City Hall take action about the radical anarchist group — MOVE — that had relocated to the block. City officials were perplexed — the earlier 1978 bloody takeover of MOVE headquarters in West Philadelphia had left one policeman dead and nine jailed — and decided to evict the group from its house. The next day, then-police commissioner Gregore J. Sambor approached the barricaded neighborhood and bellowed through a bullhorn: “Attention, MOVE. This is America.” Read more »

MOVE 30: Inside the May 1985 Assault on Osage Avenue

In this May 1985 photo, scores of row houses burn in a fire in the west Philadelphia neighborhood. Police dropped a bomb on the militant group MOVE's home on May 13, 1985 in an attempt to arrest members, leading to the burning of scores of homes in the neighborhood.

In this May 1985 photo, scores of row houses burn in a fire in the west Philadelphia neighborhood. Police dropped a bomb on the militant group MOVE’s home on May 13, 1985 in an attempt to arrest members, leading to the burning of scores of homes in the neighborhood.

A version of this article was originally published in 2012.

On May 13, 1985 at 5:20 p.m., a blue and white Pennsylvania State Police helicopter took off from the command post’s flight pad at 63rd and Walnut, flew a few times over 6221 Osage Avenue, and then hovered 60 feet above the two-story house in the black, middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood. Lt. Frank Powell, chief of Philadelphia’s bomb disposal unit, was holding a canvas bag containing a bomb consisting of two sticks of Tovex TR2 with C-4. After radioing firefighters on the ground and lighting the bomb’s 45-second fuse — and with the official approval of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor — Powell tossed the bomb, at precisely 5:28 p.m., onto a bunker on the roof. Read more »

One of Us: Ramona Africa, MOVE Member

Illustration by Andy Friedman

Illustration by Andy Friedman

My name is … Ramona Africa. My mother named me Ramona, and Africa comes from my membership in MOVE. It symbolizes the origin of life, which is, of course, Africa.

I am a … committed revolutionary, which is not synonymous with violence in any way. It’s a commitment to putting things right.

I grew up in … West Philadelphia. I’ve lived in Philadelphia all my life. Now I live in Southwest Philadelphia.

My neighbors … love us. My brothers and sisters do work for them. We’re good neighbors. We cut their grass. We shovel their walkways. Read more »

MOVE Member Dies In Prison: Natural Causes or Suspicious Circumstances?

phil-africa-move-member-died-prisonOn Saturday, MOVE member Phil Africa — born William Phillips — died in prison in Dallas, Pennsylvania, where he was serving a 30- to 100-year sentence for the 1978 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp. Africa, 63, was a member of the so-called MOVE 9, the group of nine MOVE members convicted of that crime. After their conviction, the remaining MOVE members protested the incarceration of the MOVE 9, culminating in the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia. Read more »

MOVE Would Have Never Happened in a White Neighborhood

Let The Fire Burn

A scene from Let The Fire Burn.

A version of this story originally ran in 2012.

On May 13, 1985 at 5:20 p.m., a blue and white Pennsylvania State Police helicopter took off from the command post’s flight pad at 63rd and Walnut, flew a few times over 6221 Osage Avenue, and then hovered 60 feet above the two-story house in the black, middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood. Lt. Frank Powell, chief of Philadelphia’s bomb disposal unit, was holding a canvas bag containing a bomb consisting of two sticks of Tovex TR2 with C-4. After radioing firefighters on the ground and lighting the bomb’s 45-second fuse—and with the official approval of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor—Powell tossed the bomb, at precisely 5:28 p.m., onto a bunker on the roof. Read more »

Birdie Africa: The Lost Boy

Birdie Africa survived the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia

Birdie in the now-famous Michael Mally photo during the MOVE siege, May 13, 1985.
Photo by Michael Mally/Philadelphia Inquirer

HE WENT TO THE FIRE

The city was burning, and he went to the fire and got as close as he could. Something strange had just happened, something that would haunt the city for decades. A police helicopter had appeared in the sky above a West Philly rowhouse. The house was occupied by a black revolutionary group called MOVE. Seven adults and six children lived inside. The copter dropped a satchel onto the roof. The satchel contained four pounds of explosive. The explosion shook the neighborhood; people could feel it blocks away. Michael Mally gazed through his Nikon and took photos, as the flames leapt from home to home to home and the smoke rose in dark columns.

Mally was a staff photographer for the Inquirer. He knew, of course, the basic outline of MOVE—its back-to-nature philosophy, its history of confrontations with neighbors and police. The people inside the house all went by the last name of Africa, a practice begun by their founder and leader, a man born Vincent Leaphart who now called himself John Africa. Africa believed that modern technology had sapped black people of the ability to fight a racist system. In archival footage from Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder’s astonishing 2013 documentary about the MOVE bombing, one MOVE member says, “We see John Africa the same way that people saw Jesus Christ.”
Read more »

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