The Shocking MOVE Bombing was Part of a Broader Pattern of Anti-Black RacismRoundup
tags: racism, African American history, Police, urban history, Philadelphia, MOVE, Urban Crisis
J.T. Roane is assistant professor of African and African American studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.
On May 12, 1985, Ramona Africa used a bullhorn to warn officers of the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD), which had been targeting her and other members of the radical liberation organization MOVE, against further attempts to violate the group: “We’re prepared for anything that y’all come with.” Africa’s message was in response to an attempt by the PPD to enter the organization’s rowhouse at 6221 Osage Ave. through an adjoining address the day before to enforce arrest warrants.
Unfortunately, though MOVE had experienced more than a decade of antagonism from the PPD, they were not prepared for what came next. On May 13, following the failure of Mayor Wilson Goode, the first Black mayor of Philadelphia, and police commissioner Gregore J. Sambor to create a reasonable tactical plan for extricating members, officers from the department’s bomb unit dropped a military-grade explosive procured illegally from a Philadelphia FBI field agent on the group. Officials knew the rowhouse was occupied not only by the adults they sought to apprehend, but also six children. Recklessly they bombed it anyway.
Philadelphia’s 1985 bombing of MOVE culminated more than a decade of the city’s hostility toward the group, which included police harassment as well as antagonism by social workers, school officials and politicians. The city argued that what it considered the group’s unsanitary lifestyle threatened its children and those living near it, while police and neighbors accused the group of intimidation. But the bombing should also be remembered in the context of the city’s broader indifference to Black lives and its contempt for its Black working-class residents.
Various city departments, officials and politicians had also driven conflict with the group. Critically, after the explosive detonated on May 13, 1985, the PPD and the city’s Fire Department conspired in inaction for an hour before attempting to put out the flames. Police further weaponized the fire by shooting at MOVE members as they attempted to escape the heat and smoke. Although Ramona and one child, Birdie Africa, survived the catastrophic fire, in total 11 MOVE members including five children, as well as their dogs, perished. More than 250 others in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood were displaced when the fire destroyed 50 neighboring rowhomes.
The connection between police aggression and the fire department’s neglect was not an aberration either. As the short-lived community newspaper, the North Philly Free Press, documented, poor Black residents regularly succumbed to fire in the 1980s. In 1983, the Free Press alone among the city’s papers covered the death of Janice Shipman Baker, a Black woman who died after her home burned. On March 20, 1984, the paper covered a fire that began on Peach Street in West Philadelphia. Before it was contained, the blaze spread to the two adjoining houses, killing six Black youths.
Like MOVE members who were tacitly held responsible for their own deaths — no officials were indicted or otherwise held responsible — Black fire victims were often implicated for their own deaths. Fire officials used insinuation to hide in plain sight conditions produced by the disintegration of the city’s housing stock through deindustrialization and neglect on the part of absentee landlords. Such economic abandonment was made even more deadly by the radical indifference of first-responders and city officials.
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