The screenplay begins: A humid spring afternoon masks the chaotic scene playing out front of a row house in West Philadelphia. Police, in riot gear surround a particular house and fire trucks are seen nearby. A Philadelphia police lieutenant gives the order to drop a bomb on the top of the house after being informed the rooftop was fortified. The residents inside had traded gunfire with the police earlier and the lieutenant was now making the decision to drop the bomb.
Within minutes of the bomb being dropped, and inferno ensued, eventually setting fire to 60 other homes, leaving approximately 250 homeless. The bomb resulted in the fiery deaths of 11 in the targeted home, including 5 children. One child and one adult make it out of the bombed building, each suffering severe burns.
The Producers balk at this depiction. Even the seasoned action moviemaker does not see any realism in this scenario. He rhetorically questions, “Who will believe this? We can have The Rock kill 85 people by himself in a remake of “Commando”, and that would be more believable to the public then the idea that a city police official in the United States would order and allow a bomb to be dropped on other Americans knowing there were kids in the building… No one will believe that could ever happen…”
I tell the producer the story is not fictional… This has already happened in America.
On May 13 1985 the city of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on US citizens that were born and raised in the United States. I have not written in bold caps for emphasis, but understand that this was the first time in our nation’s history that a governmental agency of any type had ordered the bombing of any US citizen on our own soil. The only other time it has ever happened was on July 7, 2016 when the police in Dallas used a robotic device to place a bomb near Micah Xavier Johnson, the sniper that had killed 5 Dallas police officers that day.
So how is it that this historic, if not horrific act is not better known in American History. It’s anniversary just passed again, and I am sure outside of Philadelphia, the date has not struck a chord in America’s consciousness. Granted, we live in interesting, if not even historically significant times presently, where an embattled Trump Administration fights scandal and conspiracy theories on a nearly daily basis, to all but dominate our news cycle. Yet prior to Trump, had you heard of the MOVE Bombing?
MOVE was a Black Liberation organization that was started in 1972 by Vincent Leapheart who later changed his name to John Africa. The organization was based in a commune in a row house in the Powelton Village area of West Philadelphia and like many Black nationalist groups during this time, was quickly labeled a “terrorist organization”. To the extent the members of Move may have been engaging in any type of terroristic activity is debatable, what isn’t is that their West Philadelphia neighbors initiated many complaints to the police, in part based on the alleged members of Move’s tactic to consistently and loudly use a bullhorn or megaphone to promote and spread the group’s ideology that included activism against racism, police brutality and animal rights.
In 1978, the police initiated a raid on the Move home in Powelton Village. A 1977 court order obtained by the city forced the members to vacate the house. Some had, but others refused and the standoff eventually resulted in police action.
Move members barricaded themselves and reportedly traded gunfire with police. Who shot first is of course disputed, but in the gunfire a Philadelphia police officer, James Ramp was shot and killed by a bullet to the back of the neck. Seven other officers along with five firefighters, three bystanders and three MOVE members were injured. MOVE argued that the shot that killed the officer was fired by the police themselves. I am unsure what evidence was used to support the killing of the officer, but subsequently 9 MOVE members were convicted of the killing of Officer Ramp and all were sentenced to up to 100 years.
John Africa was not among those arrested and convicted for the death of Officer Ramp. MOVE was able to continue and eventually moved to a new house on Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia in 1981. Complaints from neighbors endured reading the commune and eventually in 1985, with warrants for four of the house’s occupants ranging from parole violations to illegal firearms possessions, to contempt of court charges to making terrorist threats, the police converge on the row house, with MOVE members unwilling to allow them access.
There are reports that once tear gas canisters were thrown into the building a gunfight ensued between the police and MOVE members, resulting in a standoff. At some point Philadelphia Police Lieutenant Frank Powell is alleged to have ordered the use of a police helicopter to drop a FBI supplied bomb that used a water gel substitute in place of dynamite to try and penetrate the fortified rooftop bunker. However the Bomb’s impact ignited a fire from a gasoline powered generator in the bunker and the results were instantaneous and disastrous.
It is alleged, including in reports commissioned by Mayor Wilson Goode, that part of the reason the blaze got out of control and spread so widely and rapidly was that the fire department was initially ordered to let the building burn. The police argument was that they did not want to endanger firefighters lives, but this contradicted earlier reports in which the fire department was on hand and used to deluge MOVE members with water in attempts to evict them. Eventually the fires were put out but not until 60 homes were destroyed and upward of 250 people displaced and homeless. 11 MOVE members died, including founder John Africa, as a result of the bombing and fire, and the deaths included 5 children.
No one was ever prosecuted for the bombing and resulting deaths. The city eventually rebuilt, and $1.5 million was awarded to the two surviving members as well as relatives of two of the deceased for the excessive force used in violation of the victims Constitutional rights. Of course the incident made the news, but somehow the images of the dread haired Black Liberationists has not been compelling enough to retell and imbed this important piece of modern American history in which a government sanctioned bombing of US citizens on US soil resulted in the death of 5 innocent children.
On a end note, for those that somehow look upon the members of MOVE as being at fault for their aggressive standoffs with the police, keep in mind some historical context that Black Nationalist groups have had with the police across the country in the 1960s and 70s to at least understand their non-compliance and unwillingness to simply allow Philly PD to run up in their crib unabated. The 1969 raid on the Black Panthers in Chicago that resulted in the death and execution of Fred Hampton was only one example that lead many liberation groups to be distrustful of the police and their ability to not use excessive force in the implication of search and arrest warrants. A bomb dropped on a residence known to have women and children would definitely qualify under the excessive category.
I am not moralizing on MOVE’s criminality or innocence. I am simply stating that as citizens we must never forget the lessons that come with overreaching governments and we must never let our government’s forget as well.
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