The Meaning of MOVE

A quarter-century ago, we bombed our own city. In many ways, it’s been 1985 ever since

EARLY IN THE morning on Saturday, February 26, 1972, residents of Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, heard a loud roar. Moments later, the tiny hamlet was pounded by a flood of biblical proportions, a 30-foot wave crashing down on the valley, sweeping up and wiping away everything in its path. Turns out a sloppily constructed man-made dam at the top of the hollow, owned by the Pittston Coal Company, had burst.

And so literally within minutes, on a sleepy Saturday morning, 126 people were killed and 4,000 left homeless.

In the 38 years since, the Buffalo Creek flood has been one of the most examined cases in the psychiatric field of trauma study. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that the PTSD “cluster” of Buffalo Creek featured widespread symptoms of “avoidance” and “numbing.” It was as if the waters had washed away the very notion of progress. Even long after the tragedy, it seemed time itself had stopped.

“The only thing I like today about Buffalo Creek is the new road,” pastor Robert Peters, whose parents were killed in the flood, told the Logan Banner two years ago. “We had sidewalks — you could buy anything at the Lorado Company Store. Furniture, dry goods, hardware, even a tailor-made suit. We had a movie theater, a barber shop and a beer garden.”

That so little has been rebuilt in the ensuing years, that so little progress has been made, can no doubt be attributed to a confluence of factors. But chief among them: avoidance and numbing.

Avoidance and numbing. Sound familiar, Philadelphia?

version of Buffalo Creek rarely gets talked about, but that doesn’t mean it’s not omnipresent. Twenty-five years ago next month, Philadelphia became the only city in American history to bomb its own population. Eleven dead. Two hundred and fifty people homeless. Philadelphia found itself making a type of national news it hadn’t sought, as when, in his monologue the next night, David Letterman said, “I just want to know one thing. Does this mean MOVE won’t get its security deposit back?” Or when USA Today ran a cartoon of Mayor Wilson Goode as a fighter pilot, wearing a Snoopy-like leather helmet in a plane’s cockpit.

At the time, local outrage was palpable. Today, though, a curious thing has happened. MOVE seldom is part of our daily civic conversation; when it does make an appearance, it’s usually in a political context, as during John Street’s 2003 reelection bid, when some cynics would observe: “The last black mayor we had dropped a bomb on a city block … and was reelected.”