By Alyssa N. Batchelor, Contributing Author
The mid-twentieth century was a time of great political and social strife and significant progress. While many protested the Vietnam War, other groups fought for Civil Rights and the advancement of Black people in society. We often remember the Black Panther Party and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; many smaller groups fought for liberation, including the MOVE group.
Founded in 1972, MOVE is a black-liberation group based on revolutionary ideology, radical green politics, and animal rights. The group practices communal living, and members change their last names to ‘Africa’ to show reverence and solidarity with nature.
Throughout the years, the MOVE group developed a tense relationship with the City of Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and the Philadelphia Police Department, as the group often protested police brutality and patrolled their property with firearms.
In August of 1978, the Philadelphia Police Department surrounded the first MOVE home with hundreds of police officers attempting to evict the group. Violence broke out, and one police officer died in the altercation. Nine of the MOVE members were sentenced to 30 years in prison, though they all maintained their innocence and insisted that Rizzo was shot by friendly fire.
In the early 1980s, the MOVE group relocated their home to a middle-class black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. A tense relationship with PPD only grew more contentious as neighbors frequently complained that the MOVE group had trash in their yard, and the city sought to evict them once again from their communal living quarters.
At first, both the city and PPD collaborated to shut off electricity and water to the home. When that didn’t work, they labeled MOVE a terrorist organization and issued warrants for the arrest and eviction of MOVE members.
On May 13th, 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department fired 10,000 rounds of ammunition, sprayed tear gas, water cannons, and dropped two bombs on a home of 13 American citizens, and allowed a small fire to spread to 60 middle-class homes, leaving 250 people homeless, killing 11 men, women, and children.
The warrants were issued on the guidance that the MOVE group was violent and had automatic weapons that they threatened to use against police officers. Post-tragedy, an independent commission only found one rifle and a few shotguns in the rubble.
The sole adult survivor, Romona Africa, recounted that when she and others tried to surrender, PPD fired bullets and forced them back into the basement where the members were taking shelter. PPD denied that they shot at anyone coming out from the home. Still, the Special Commission could not find another credible reason why members would choose to run back into the fire.
Though individual lawmakers have apologized for their role in the MOVE bombing, no one involved with the incident has ever been criminally liable. The city has never formally apologized, and the State of Pennsylvania has never investigated a bombing on its citizenry.
The MOVE bombing remains one of the most egregious and often-forgotten national tragedies.
After the multiple tragedies that have traumatized the MOVE groups and the larger Black community, some shocking news was released a few weeks ago.
In April 2021, UPenn revealed that the bones of two of the children who died in the bombing were kept by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for 35 years. During those 35 years, the bones were used in a now-deleted instructional forensics video for one of the university’s courses but now have seemingly been ‘misplaced.’
Though the university has apologized, the bones have yet to be located and returned to the MOVE family for proper burial.
Where do we go from here?
No amount of apologizing, reprimanding, or reparations on behalf of the Police Department, the city, or the State could ever repair the damage that has been done, could ever excuse the actions that they took, and could never bring back the lives that were lost. But it would be a start.
In recent years, as racial justice is at the forefront of our civic discourse and police trudge deeper and deeper into their echo chamber and seal ranks, we are seeing tensions flair between a group of people that have been abused, overpoliced, and overincarcerated and the ones that are seemingly hellbent on keeping it that way.
This senseless tragedy is only one modern example of the ongoing racism and mistreatment of Black Americans in Philadelphia and beyond and just one example of how deep institutional racism goes and how little regard for Black human life we demonstrate as a city.
While we all hope that the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the State of Pennsylvania have learned their lesson and would never do this again – are we willing to leave that up to chance?
With the militarization of the police and the FBI report on the white supremacist to police officer pipeline, what are we doing to root out this corruption?
Not only do we need city and state leaders to step in and take action on white supremacists seeking affiliation with law enforcement, but we need leaders to make the politically tough policy choice of reinvesting funds into other sources of community safety.
People know what their communities need, why not incorporate that into policymaking? We need to try listening to what community activists are advocating for. Coalitions of policymakers, activists, and others have already come together to get this policy issue on the agenda, so who will be the one to make the first move? Who will be the person to make the bold and revolutionary policy choice of protecting and valuing Black life?