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Why Philadelphia’s first black mayor ordered the city to bomb its own people in 1985

October 08, 2019 at 12:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

October 08, 2019 at 12:00 pm | History

Till date, the incident remains one of the worst tragedies in the history of Philadelphia. Pic credit: All That's Interesting

13-year-old Michael Ward was hiding under a blanket in his Philadelphia home when a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof of the home.

The 1985 bombing killed about 11 people, including five children and destroyed over 60 homes, leaving more than 200 homeless.

Till date, the incident, which was sparked by confrontations between a religious organization and the police, remains one of the worst tragedies in the history of Philadelphia.

Ward, who was only one of two people who had survived the attack, was a member of MOVE, a mostly black “political and religious organization whose principles were anti-government, anti-technology, and anti-corporation.”

It was founded in 1972 by John Africa, born Vincent Leaphart – a West Philadelphia native and Korean War veteran.

John Africa, founder of MOVE, leaves a federal courthouse in Philadelphia, after being acquitted on weapons and conspiracy charges on July 23, 1981.
John Africa, founder of MOVE, leaves a federal courthouse in Philadelphia, after being acquitted on weapons and conspiracy charges in 1981. Pic credit: AP

Described as a “dreadlocked messiah figure”, Africa’s followers also had locks and changed their last names to Africa out of respect and reverence for their founder and the continent as a whole.

The members, who ate a diet of raw foods, believed in homeschooling and a back to nature philosophy, were against war and police brutality.

However, they usually had confrontations with Philadelphia police, including a 1978 standoff with authorities which ended in the death of a police officer. Nine members of the organization were also convicted and given life sentences following the incident.

Four years, a similar clash the group had with the police did not end so well.

MOVE, at the time, lived in a quiet and middle-class African American neighbourhood on Osage Avenue. Their neighbours would, however, start complaining to authorities that members of the group made “profane tirades” while their children “rifled alongside rats through the house’s compost and garbage,” an article on the Guardian said.

MOVE members hold sawed-off shotguns and automatic weapons as they stand in front of their barricaded headquarters on May 21, 1977.
MOVE members hold sawed-off shotguns and automatic weapons as they stand in front of their barricaded headquarters in 1977. Pic credit: AP

Following the complaints, then-Mayor Wilson Goode, the first African American mayor of Philadelphia, gave the order to evict them.

On May 13, 1985, police raided the organisation’s home after several members were indicted for various crimes. What was also supposed to be a normal evacuation turned violent and the end was not what many had probably hoped for.

“We was in the cellar for a while … and tear gas started coming in and we got the blankets. And they was wet. And then we put them over our heads and started laying down,” Ward, originally named Birdie Africa and one of the survivors, would later describe how the fateful tragedy unfolded.

After the state police helicopter dropped two bombs on the house of MOVE, John Africa and 11 others died; Ward, who was then 13, and Ramona Africa, then 29, were the only survivors.

The fire would eventually destroy about 60 homes that were not even affiliated with MOVE.

Ramona, in a 2015 interview, recounted the incident: “Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor came out and said ‘Attention MOVE, this is America. You have to abide by the laws and rules of [the United States]’, words to that effect. I’m still trying to figure out what he meant by that…After they made that announcement, they didn’t just try to wait us out or anything. What was the hurry?”

Accounts state that firefighters delayed fighting the blaze out of fear that the armed group which had exchanged fire with police before the bomb was dropped, would target them.

The Vox reports that even though two grand jury investigations cited the bombing as “reckless, ill-conceived, and hastily-approved,” no one was ever criminally charged for the attack.

A construction work, however, began in 1986 and by the early 2000s, two-thirds of the neighbourhood was bought out by the city. At the moment, the houses are basically vacant. 

Jason Osder, the director of Let the Fire Burn, a documentary about the bombing, described the 1986 incident as a tragedy.

“In my opinion, everyone who was an adult in the city failed that day … collectively, the whole city failed.”

Ramona gives more details about the bombing incident in the following video:

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