MOVE 30: Inside the May 1985 Assault on Osage Avenue
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.
This was followed shortly thereafter by a loud explosion and then a large, bright orange ball of fire that reached 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. That day, Powell, the mayor, the police commissioner, Fire Commissioner William Richmond, city Managing Director Leo Brooks, and numerous police officers committed, in the words of Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (better known as the MOVE Commission) member Charles Bowser, a “criminally evil” act that led to the death of 11 human beings, including five completely innocent and defenseless children, the destruction of 61 homes, and the incineration of thousands of family photos, high school and college sweetheart love letters, heirloom jewelry, inscribed Bibles and Korans, and many other totally irreplaceable mementos.
Mr. Bowser, my mentor and the author of the powerful tell-all expose entitled Let the Bunker Burn, told me that five of the city’s most influential black political leaders met at the mayor’s home before dawn on May 13, 1985, in response to the mayor’s invitation and warning that “I’m going to make a move on the MOVE house … (this) morning.” This was in connection to what Goode described as complaints by Osage Avenue neighbors and outstanding arrest warrants. By the way, it should be noted that those same neighbors attempted to stop the police department’s siege of their community as soon as they realized what was developing. In fact, as the five influential black leaders watched the television broadcast of the military-like assault unfolding with shots and tear gas, two of them repeatedly urged the Mayor to call it off. In particular, City Council President Joseph Coleman, sitting at the Mayor’s kitchen table, told him the 500-strong police action was “excessive” and State Senator Hardy Williams, standing near the kitchen entrance, said “Why don’t they just back up and relax? Nobody’s going anywhere.”
MOVE: An Assault That Never Would Have Happened in the Northeast
More than 500 cops fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition in less than 90 minutes — in a middle-class, black neighborhood. WTF? No, let me say it: What the Fuck?! This was blatantly outrageous brutal racism. It never would have happened in the Northeast or in South Philly, even if the Hell’s Angels had kidnapped then-President Ronald Reagan. And everybody knows it.
The cops would have simply sent in a hostage negotiator. And if that didn’t work, they would have cut off access to electricity, water and food, and then waited the criminals out. And if that didn’t work, they would have sent in a professionally trained SWAT unit to storm that specific house with surgical precision. Goddamnit, even Osama’s house and neighborhood in Abbottabad weren’t firebombed. The mayor, police commissioner, fire commissioner, managing Director, and the cops — and especially the public — would not have approved, allowed or tolerated the burning down of a white neighborhood and the destruction of 61 white homes.
And don’t tell me some shit about the incineration of Osage not being racist simply because the mayor and the managing director were black. It’s the victims that make it racist! They were black. And they lived in a black neighborhood. Furthermore, Powell, the bomb-dropping cop, was white. Moreover, William Klein, the cop who made the bomb, was also white. As eloquently stated by Bowser, “Goode and Brooks did not shoot 10,000 bullets into that house. They did not put military explosives into the bomb. They did not decide to let the bunker burn. And they did not shoot at children trying to escape the fire. I know none of that would have happened in a white neighborhood and so do you.” That’s exactly why the MOVE Commission pointed out, in one of its final official comments, that none of this would have ever happened “had the MOVE house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood.”
MOVE: The Making of the Bomb
Tovex TR2 was a commercial explosive invented in the 1960s as an option to dynamite, and its purpose was to dig trenches through rock in order to lay pipes. The “TR” is the abbreviation for trench, and the “2” refers to the second DuPont Company item in its trenching products. The company’s explosive products division was located a little more than a half hour from Philadelphia in Delaware. But not one fire or police department official ever cared enough to contact DuPont and ask what could happen if TR2 were used in a residential neighborhood. And that’s because they didn’t give a shit about black people. If they had asked, DuPont would have told them that it had been designed exclusively for, and had been used exclusively for, underground purposes. And the last time I checked, every black man, woman and child in the Osage community lived above-ground.
It gets worse. As horrifically explosive as TR2 was, Klein fired things up even more. Exercising his independent judgment, he decided that TR2 wouldn’t be strong enough to breach the bunker. So what did he do? He unilaterally placed a one-and-one-quarter-pound block of C-4 on top of the two sticks of Tovex — despite the fact that the U.S. Army in 1979 had ended distribution of C-4 to all local police departments throughout the country. But, as documented in an October 22, 1985, letter from a special agent who headed the FBI’s Philadelphia office, approximately 30 blocks of C-4 had been delivered to the city by an FBI agent without the city requesting it and as a proposed solution during discussions regarding an anticipated confrontation with MOVE. Wow! And the rest, as they say, is history — or better said, it’s Philly’s 9/11, but as our own city, state and federal governments’ inside job.
MOVE: The Scene of the Crime
If that’s worse, and it certainly is, here’s worst: The children, and some of the adults, were shot at or shot and killed by police as they were fleeing the flames and surrendering. Wow, again! The police covering the alley leading from the rear of the MOVE house had automatic weapons and shotguns. No one ever claimed that MOVE had automatic weapons or shotguns at the scene, and no automatic weapons or shotguns were found among the ashes. Police officer William Stewart, a 28-year veteran of the department and a firearms instructor at the academy, was asked by investigators, “Did you hear gunfire at this time,” meaning when people were fleeing the MOVE house from the alley in the rear. With his lawyer present, he responded “Oh yes, automatic fire.” And when asked about who was firing the weapons, he replied, “Police officers. All the stakeout officers were running into the alley. They all had Uzi machine guns.” Strangely, though, 16 days later, he told the MOVE Commission that he never heard any police gunfire in the alley.
Fire Department Lt. John Vaccarelli and fireman Joseph Murray, who were veterans of the Vietnam War and who were in the vicinity of that very same alley, said they did, in fact, hear automatic fire when the MOVE members were running away from the flames. In fact, Vaccarelli pointed out that he saw at least three MOVE members in the yard next to the alley. This was corroborated by police officer James D’Ulisse. So since these people were outside the property lines of the interior of the house itself, how is it that their bodies were later found inside those property lines among the charred rubble? Only the police (and no reporters or other civilians) had access to the sealed-off crime scene during and after the inferno. Hmmm …
And why does the official report of the city’s own medical examiner provide proof from the autopsies of six of the 11 dead — namely, 7-year-old Tomasa, 9-year-old Delicia, 10-year-old Phil, 11-year-old Netta, 13-year-old Tree, and 25-year-old Rhonda — that they did not die inside from flame-fire but died outside from gun-fire? If, as the police later testified under oath, these victims died from the flames that exceeded 2,000 hellish degrees inside the house, why were Tomasa’s long locks still long? Why was Phil’s body not burned? Why was Netta still wearing her white blouse with red trim? Why were Tree’s pubic hair and blue jeans still intact? And why did Delicia’s body and Rhonda’s body have in them metal fragments consistent with shotgun pellets as noted by an FBI ballistician? You think maybe they were fatally hit when they all were being shot at while trying to run from the flames and surrender?
Even MOVE Commission Chairman William Brown, stated, “I firmly believe that more people got out than Birdie and Ramona and that’s something that still nags at me. I believe that someone, someday will deliver a deathbed confession …” And the Commission itself noted in Finding Number 28 of its official report that “police gunfire in the rear alley prevented the escape from the fire of some occupants of the MOVE house.”
Also, consider this: Detective William Stevenson, who was assigned to take contemporaneous notes during the entire confrontation, wrote that Sgt. Donald Griffiths, a commander on the scene, “from stake-out is in the rear of Osage Avenue, 6221, and is pointing to an area that he states, ‘I dropped an adult male from the MOVE property who fired at me when the female and child escaped.’” And Battalion Chief John Skarbeck said he had overheard a police sergeant say, “something to the effect that ‘I got one back there’ or ‘I shot one back there.’” But Sgt. Griffiths testified that he had been misquoted, that what he really had said was people had “dropped out of sight” at that particular time and place. Yeah. He actually said that. With a straight face, too.
The overkill police presence, the military-style assault, the malicious bombing, the callous burning, and the evil shooting at fleeing victims were not just “grossly negligent” and “unconscionable” as the MOVE Commission properly and officially noted in Findings Number 15 and 18. They were also murderous. And justice demands the prosecution of each perpetrator because there’s no statute of limitations for murder. If it were your family, your neighborhood, your home, your property, and your memories — even if it weren’t — wouldn’t you agree?
If you do agree, join Dr. Cornel West, Angela Davis, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Fred Hampton Jr., me, and hundreds of others by attending the daylong “Memorial and Empowerment” event beginning at 11 a.m. on May 13th at 62d and Osage — 30 years to the day after the bombing. For more info, call 215-307-3960.
Michael Coard’s radio show, “The Radio Courtroom,” airs at noon on Sundays and Wednesdays. It can be heard locally on WURD 900 AM and on the Internet at 900amwurd.com. Follow @MichaelCoard on Twitter.
Previously: MOVE: An Oral History
Previously: Birdie Africa: The Lost Boy
Previously: One of Us: Ramona Africa, MOVE Member
Previously: Speaking With the Director of MOVE Documentary Let the Fire Burn