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Thursday, May 13, 2010


Usually, anniversaries are happy occasions.

This one, well, isn't.

It's the 25th anniversary of MOVE today, and, if you don't know what that means, well, you're in for a real treat. I don't think the Philadelphia Tourism Board will be sending me any thank-you letters for this one.

(Though, really, Philly is more fun when you sleep over-- and we have a spare bedroom and an air-mattress!)

All major cities, I feel, have some sort of negative past association. New York City, of course, will forever be dismally associated with 9/11. Dallas will always be known as the city where we lost our coolest, (pre-Obama) president. And lots of people can't spell Cheyenne right, which is annoying.

And Philadelphia? Well, we're just the only city in the United States of America ever to drop a bomb on its own people.

On May 13th, 1985, after a stand-off between the Philadelphia Police Department and members of MOVE, often described as a "radical, back-to-nature cult," after a fire-fight that lasted hours and during which MOVE members and Philadelphia police officers exchanged thousands of rounds of ammunition, the decision was made to fly a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter over the scene, and drop a 4-pound bomb on top of the West Philadelphia rowhouse in which MOVE members had barricaded themselves.

6221 Osage Avenue. Gone. Burned to the ground. Obliterated. Oh, along with 61 other homes.

6 adults were killed, including MOVE founder, John Africa. 5 children perished. One adult and one child made it out alive.

And the City of Philadelphia received a black eye that calls out to the world still today, as a reminder of its stupidity, its brutality, it's recklessness, and its thorough dishonor.

Of course, to understand how things came to this, it's necessary to step back into even further history. Before MOVE inhabited its doomed dwelling at 6221 Osage Avenue, they lived in another West Philadelphia home in the Powelton Village section of the city. Because they eschewed everything that had to do with government, science, and medicine, their lifestyle was not exactly conducive to city living.

Their children ran around naked and defecated wherever they could. Dozens of stray dogs lived in the MOVE compound and did likewise with their bowel movements, and the dogs feasted on raw meat supplied by MOVE members. Trash was not collected and was piled high. Because MOVE did not believe in harming any of nature's creatures, rats and cockroaches flourished and began to infest the neighbors homes. Neighbors got pissed, and this drew the attention of the Philadelphia Police Department, who staged what was essentially a one-year standoff, with a constant police presence around the compound.

MOVE, not to be outdone, set up public address systems and unleashed profanity-laced tirades directed at city government, the neighbors, and, of course, the police. Death-threats were commonplace. MOVE members, well armed, barricaded the front of the house with wooden plank structures. Finally, warrants were issued for violations against city ordinances and a court order to vacate the residence was issued. This was all announced by the police, and MOVE ignored the order, refusing to leave. A bulldozer was brought in to clear the wooden structure in front of the house and police moved into position to take the house when MOVE opened fire.

"Oh my God, they shot a cop!" a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter covering the scene screamed into the phone to her editor. When the shooting stopped, Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp, 52, a survivor of World War II and the Korean War, lay dead. Seven other police officers, four firefighters, and three bystanders were shot down in the street. Three MOVE members were also shot, and nine MOVE members were arrested. All were charged with 3rd degree murder in Ramp's death. One member died in prison, and now, the parole hearings for the MOVE 8 occur yearly.

In 1981, MOVE moved to 6221 Osage Avenue. After months and months of complaints by their new neighbors about the 24-hour loudspeaker preaches that included "FUCK THE MAYOR!" and "FUCK THE POLICE," and more feces and more stray animals, and more disease-spreading bacteria and filth, the police came again.

As move survivor Ramona Africa defiantly said in a recent interview, "They came to our house with guns strapped on ready to do murder."

Whether the Philadelphia Police Department came do do "murder" is a matter for debate-- but one thing is for sure: this time, they came ready for what MOVE promised: war.

"We will kill any cop who sets foot on our property!" they shouted through the loudspeakers, also stating that the police on the scene should tell their wives goodbye and make sure their insurance policies were paid up, "cuz you ain't goin' home."

With memories of 1978 and James Ramp coughing up blood in their arms, they had every reason to believe MOVE.

The Philadelphia Fire Department used two high-powered water cannons to try to dislodge a wooden and steel structure on the roof of 6221 Osage, which police feared might be a bunker containing MOVE members with guns who could pick off police from above. They poured a deluge of water on thes structure for over an hour, but could not successfully dislodge it. On the ground, while tear-gas was being lobbed into the house, members of the Philadelphia Police Department Stakeout squad entered the rowhome directly next to MOVE's house and attempted to blow a hole in the wall using explosives so that they could insert a pepper fogger (a device to immobilize MOVE members and make for a safe tactical entry into the house) but they could not successfully blast through the wall. And then the shooting started.

To avoid being shot to death, three Philadelphia police officers hid in a small, cramped closet together next door to the MOVE home, barely with room to breathe. Meanwhile, in the MOVE home, members were soaking blankets and hiding under them, to keep from being affected by the tear gas.

And that's when the decision was made to drop the bomb.

The Police Commissioner said that the Fire Commissioner told him his men would be able to control the ensuing blaze. The Fire Commissioner said that he claimed there was no way of knowing. The City Manager said. The Mayor said. They all said. And, those who are still living, say on.

Say on.

Whatever you say, it doesn't change the fact that eleven lives were lost in one of the most horrific, barbaric events ever to occur in this or any supposedly civilized society. The Philadelphia Police Department's relations with the black community were irrevocably damaged, in spite of the fact that Philadelphia Police Officer James Berghaier risked his own death to go out, completely in the open and in the midst of heavy gunfire, to rescue little Birdie Africa, the only child survivor of the MOVE blaze.

MOVE destroyed Berghaier's police career, and his marriage, and he spent time in a psychiatric institution. One of the largely unknown casualties of MOVE.

Everybody in Philadelphia has a different opinion about MOVE, and being Philadelphians, they're not shy about sharing their opinions with you, if you want to hear them or not. And I suppose I'm no different.

"The cops were animals-- butchers."

"Those MOVE people had it coming."

"It was the shame of the city."


"MOVE got what they asked for."

Me? I don't know what I think. I think MOVE was begging for a confrontation, but did they get what they asked for? No. Nobody asks to be bombed. I think the police had a very lousy plan. In theory, to pepper-fogger and tear gas the basement and the second floor, to force MOVE to come out the front on the main floor sounds like a good idea on paper, but, in reality, well, it was a disaster of virtually unbelievable proportions.

Watching the hearings, watching Mayor Goode and Police Commissioner Sambor defend the decision to drop the bomb-- well, how can you stomach watching someone defend the decision to drop a bomb on a residence containing children? And how can you just let it burn, destroying almost a whole neighborhood?

But then you remember 1978-- four firefighters shot down. How do you let them near the fire? How do you make that call? How do you just send a team of cops through the front door like they're delivering the milk when there are people with stockpiles of guns inside?

How do you do MOVE differently?

And the answer is, of course, you can't. All you can do is sit and shake your head and live with the knowledge that, twenty-five years ago today, we bombed on our own people. All we can do is ask you to pray for us-- for our sins, for our frailties, for our failures.

And, when you meet us, try not to stare at our black eye. It still hurts.


  1. Personally, the MOVE people sound like travellers. Tinkers. Whatever you want to call them. Around here we'd call them scumbags. They had a blatant disregard for their neighbours and any kind of authority. They must have been absolute hell to live next to, and probably devalued the homes of the neighbours to such an extent that even if they'd wanted to move away, they would have suffered financially.

    I don't think the bomb was the right thing to do. Clearly not; bombing shows a lack of regard for human casualties and 'collateral damage'. But at least the police faced up to them. The police over here won't go near travellers for fear of their lives, and it means innocent people have to suffer just because they happen to live in a neighbourhood that travellers were moved into by the government.

    Having one dodgy neighbour myself, I can only imagine how horrific it would be to live next to a bunch of these people.

    I think you're right, and there was never going to be a win-win solution for this problem.

  2. I agree that there just wasn't a "right" answer. No matter what was done, people would be mad. I think it's horrible that people lost their houses, but do I think what the police did was wrong? Absolutely not. They did what they had to. It was either MOVE or them. And personally? I choose the police. Why should they have to lose their lives just because they need to find a nicer way to go about getting those people out of the house? It sucks, and it's sad. But I agree with what they did.

  3. I just learned about MOVE for the first time when NPR told me about it yesterday.

    I was shocked to find out that it all went down less than five miles from where I lived when I spent my summer in Philadelphia.
    I know the neighborhoods get rough in Philadelphia, but God. It sounds like a nightmare.

    Bombs = never the answer.

  4. that is some fucked up shit. i'd never heard of it. that's my eloquent two cents.


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