More than 3 decades ago, Philadelphia earned the dreaded title, “The City That Bombed Itself”. More than 3 decades ago, the city brought a catastrophic end to its longstanding ‘battle’ with an organisation called MOVE.
Gerald Renfrow stands amongst the houses shoddily rebuilt. The residences now lie neglected on the 6200 blocks of Osage Avenue and Pine Street. Renfrow holds a framed picture of him and his wife taken at her high school prom. He says, “Not only did the picture survive, it demonstrates that we have survived.”
On May 13, 1985, around 5:30 pm, police lieutenant Frank Powell dropped a gym bag packed with C-4 and Tovex explosives on a row of houses. The explosion, followed by the colossal fire, destroyed the lives of 250 people, ended that of 11 others and razed 61 homes.
Before I explain what exactly happened, a short peek into the background of MOVE.
What Is MOVE?
The MOVE organisation is a black-liberation group based in Philadelphia. John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) founded the group in 1972. The CNN described MOVE as “a loose-knit, black group whose members all adopted the surname Africa, advocated a ‘back-to-nature’ lifestyle and preached against technology”.
John Africa was a charming leader, though illiterate. He dictated a document called ‘The Guideline’, describing his views to Donald Glassey, the community college professor.
The members of MOVE lived in a house owned by Glassey in Powelton Village, West Philadelphia. Even today, the members consider themselves to be the disciples of John Africa. They are vegans and staunch promoters of animal rights. The MOVE members sported deadlocked hair. The group mostly organised public demonstrations against institutions such as zoos. They strongly advocated radical green politics.
However, they used bullhorns for their demonstrations. The compost piles of garbage and human waste in their yards attracted rats and cockroaches. They had a belief that killing these pests is morally wrong. Thus, they had become a nuisance to their neighbours.
As a result of all the things mentioned above, MOVE had established a hostile relationship with the Philadelphia Police Department. A 24-hour watch on the Powelton Village headquarters was organised by the police in May 1977. Why? Because 18 MOVE members had been threatening the lives of police officers, city officials, and reporters unless 4 imprisoned members were released. For 15 months they demonstrated and blared from loudspeakers.
“They blared these stadium-sized bullhorns at all hours of the day and night,” Renfrow claims.
A court-ordered eviction was filed in August 1978. The police raided the property on August 8, after bulldozing a portion of the house. However, the MOVE members had failed to relocate. So, a shootout ensued between the parties, killing Officer James J Ramp. He took a shot at the back of his head. 7 other police officers, 5 firefighters, 3 MOVE members and 3 bystanders were severely injured.
As a result, 9 MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder and given sentences between 30-100 years.
The remaining members of MOVE shifted to 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek Area of West Philadelphia. The members fortified their new home with rooftop bunkers and wooden slats over the windows. However, their new neighbours had the same old complaints. Also, many MOVE members were indicted for a parole violation, illegal possession of firearms and terrorist threats.
At first, the police tried to clear the adjoining buildings and arrest the fugitive MOVE members. They began by spraying water and teargas into the house, hoping to force out its residents to a peaceful surrender. But, MOVE fired at the police, and the police replied with semiautomatic weapons.
George Sambor, the then police commissioner, took the historic decision to drop a satchel of explosives onto the rooftop bunkers. These bunkers housed barrels of oil and weapons. A Pennsylvania State Police helicopter dropped two one-pound bombs. The bombs were a dynamite substitute.
Consequently, a massive inferno engulfed 61 homes nearby. 11 people, including John Africa, 5 other adults, and 5 children, lost their lives. Among the MOVE members, there were only two survivors – Ramona Africa, an adult, and Birdie (Michael Moses Ward), a 13-year-old.
“We could see nothing but bricks and rubble, all laid, all strewn about, just burned to a crisp,” says Renfrow. Adding further, with tears in his eyes, “We were in shock. We just couldn’t believe that our houses had burned down to the ground.”
Ramona Africa, along with Ward, served 7 years in prison for several charges, including conspiracy and aggravated assault.
In 1996, the US federal court ordered the city of Philadelphia to pay $1.5 million to a survivor and relatives of two people killed in the bombing.
Ramona acts as a spokesperson for MOVE and is an advocate working for the release of MOVE members from prison.
Birdie Africa or Michael Ward died in September 2013, at the age of 41, due to accidental drowning. His death occurred in a hot tub on board the ship, Carnival Dream.
In addition, in the same year, Let The Fire Burn, a documentary composed of archival footage related to the bombing, was released.