The Day the Cops Bombed Philadelphia

It was a surreal scene that played itself out live on TV. On May 13, 1985, a Philadelphia police officer leaned out of a helicopter and dropped a canvass bag filled with explosives out the door. The bomb started a fire that quickly spread and raged for the next several hours, killing 11 people including 5 children, and destroying a total of 61 houses, leveling virtually the entire city block.

Why had the City of Brotherly Love bombed itself? Because of a radical “back to nature” group that called itself “MOVE”.

In Philadelphia in 1972, an African-American activist named Vincent Leaphart began preaching a message of radical environmentalism, advocating that humans give up their technological lifestyles and return to a hunter-gatherer way of life. Although Leaphart had only a third-grade education and was functionally illiterate, he was a charismatic leader and an excellent speaker, and he soon attracted a small group of followers. When Leaphard changed his name to “John Africa”, his followers all adopted the last name “Africa” too, to honor the place where the human species had appeared and had lived for millennia in harmony with Nature. The group became known as “MOVE”.

By 1977, MOVE had grown to about two dozen members, and were living communally in a row home located in the Powelton Village section of Philadelphia. In accordance with their “back to nature” beliefs, the group planted gardens on the property to grow their own food, using piles of human excrement as fertilizer. When this attracted rats, roaches, flies and other pests, MOVE (which had a strong “animal rights” viewpoint) refused to kill or remove them, despite a blizzard of complaints from the neighborhood. Dozens of dogs also roamed freely.

As the dispute grew, MOVE took to using bullhorns and large loudspeakers to broadcast speeches defending their practices to their neighbors, which apparently took place at any hour of the day or night. Neighbors complained to the police, and a court order was issued which condemned the property on health grounds and directed MOVE members to leave the house. MOVE defied the eviction notice for over a year; in mid 1978 they finally agreed to vacate the house, only to renege again at the last minute. On August 8, the Philadelphia Police moved in to evict them. Gunfire erupted, and a police officer was killed and 18 other people wounded in the resulting shootout. Nine MOVE members were subsequently convicted for third-degree murder in connection with the police officer’s death and were given sentences from 30 to 100 years.

By 1981, John Africa and the rest of MOVE had relocated to a rowhouse on Osage Avenue, in the middle-class mostly African-American “Cobbs Creek” section of Philadelphia. Once again, their back-to-nature practices led to conflict with the neighbors, and once again MOVE members took to nightly speeches through loudspeakers about their environmentalist philosophy and about the imprisonment of their members. As the sole adult MOVE survivor Ramona Africa later explained, “We were saying about our family, what our issue is, our family imprisoned unjustly. And that, you know, we’re fighting a righteous fight here. And that, you know, you should be helping us. You should be fighting along with us so that it doesn’t happen to you.” MOVE prepared their building for another siege with the cops, boarding up the windows and making a wood and sheet-steel bunker on the roof.

Once again, neighbors went to the police; once again, the court issued an eviction order; once again, MOVE defied it. On May 12, 1985, Mother’s Day, the police moved in to enforce the eviction. They also had warrants to search for suspected illegal weapons.

Given what had happened in 1978, the police expected trouble. That evening, as John Africa and 12 other MOVE members barricaded themselves inside the house, police evacuated all of the residents from the surrounding neighborhood, allowing them to take only a change of clothing with them. At dawn on the morning of May 13, water cannons were directed at the MOVE house in an attempt to drive the members out, followed by tear gas. Gunfire quickly broke out (each side accused the other of shooting first). During the day-long siege, it was later determined, the Philadelphia police fired over 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the house (they actually ran out of ammunition and had to rush more to the scene).

As the standoff continued, Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first elected African-American Mayor, met with Police Chief Gregore Sambor and Fire Chief William Richmond and hatched a plan to try to end the siege. From the local office of the FBI, the city obtained four pounds of gelatin dynamite and plastic explosives; from the Pennsylvania State Police, they obtained a helicopter. The plan was to use the explosive charge to destroy the bunker atop the MOVE house, allowing the police to approach and make a forced entry into the building. At 5:27 pm, the bomb was dropped onto the roof.

The explosion ignited several barrels of gasoline that had been stored inside the bunker, spreading a sheet of flame that ignited the entire roof within minutes. After a short while, wind-blown flames had jumped onto the roof of the neighboring rowhouses and set them afire too. Fearing that their firefighters would be exposed to gunfire from the MOVE compound, city officials made the fatal decision to pull back and let the fire burn. MOVE survivors reported that people who had tried to leave the burning building had been driven back inside by police gunfire. By the time it was determined that no further gunfire was coming from the MOVE house and the fire department moved in, the fire had already spread out of control. It burned all night. By morning, the entire block was a pile of smoking charred ruins. Some 60 houses had been destroyed, 250 people were now homeless, and 11 MOVE members, including John Africa, were dead. Only one adult, Ramona Africa, and one child, Birdie Africa, had escaped from the flames.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Mayor Goode appointed a commission to study the city’s actions on the day of the siege. Their report was released in 1986, concluding that the city and the police had been “reckless” and used “excessive force”. “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house,” the report concluded, “was unconscionable”.

Ramona Africa and relatives of other MOVE members sued the city and won judgments totaling $5.5 million. The city rebuilt the homes that had been burned-out, but when residents moved back in, they found that the houses had been shoddily constructed, and had plumbing, electrical and structural problems. They sued. Rather than paying for further repairs, the city settled with most, buying them out and paying them twice the market value of the house and relocation costs. Some residents rejected the settlement offer, and wanted the repairs instead.

Today, just a few original residents still live in the neighborhood. Ironically, a Police Civic Center stood for a time where the MOVE house was once located.

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