Imagine that you are hunkered down in your own home, stretched out on the floor, as bullets zip by overhead and shattered glass rains from above. At this moment you are frightened, however, thankful that the walls of your home seem to provide a slight sanctuary from the ungodly war that awaits you on the other side. That is until a thunderous roar followed by the eerie sound of crackles and the smell of smoke overwhelms your senses.
You are met with the realization that the expiration for your lease on life is near, and you now face the cruel choice to either be turned into a pile of ashes by the flames that surround you or have your body riddled by the bullets of hell outside of your front door.
It’d be easy to mistake this scene for a dramatic film about a person within a war-torn country caught in the middle of an endless battle filled with guns and explosions, but this was a moment in West Philadelphia on May 13th, 1985. The day that the Philadelphia Police Department and the City of Philadelphia bombed MOVE.
Created in 1972 by John Africa, born Vincent Leaphart, MOVE was publicly perceived to be a radical Black liberation group – as with any group of two or more Black people that question inhumane societal practices. Although they carried a deep love and high regard for themselves, they ultimately served as a group devoted to the overall liberation of all life.
The organization believed that all life comes from one source, God, and each individual life was as equally important as all other lives. Essentially, all humans were to be treated as creations of God, as were animals, plants, and nature as a whole because all life was dependent on every other life. With this belief, they naturally opposed any aspect of the system that led to the destruction of life and the liberties of life granted by God. For example, MOVE stood against police brutality, zoos, and chemicals/pollution that harmed the body and nature.
Natural Law, government of Self, was also preached by the group, as they believed that all life in its natural state adheres to basic laws. In their view, man-made laws don’t equally apply to every individual due to the existence of loopholes within the laws that can clear any corrupt action. This point of view provided MOVE with the confidence to stand up against what they felt was wrong, and undeniably contributed to the tension between them and the Philadelphia Police Department.
This tension and a confrontation from years before finally reached the tipping point of sanity on May 13th, 1985 when the City of Philadelphia used the frustrations and complaints of neighbors against MOVE as a means to take them down.
Armed to the teeth for war, the Philadelphia Police Department, under the direction of Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, advanced toward West Philadelphia row homes at 62nd and Osage Avenue, the location of MOVE’s headquarters, with warrants in hand.
The mutual disdain that these two sides held for one another since an altercation in 1978 had already pushed the city’s and police’s sentiments to the verge of irrational action. Neighbors had already been evacuated from their homes as a police blockade engulfed the headquarters. High tensions, a soured relationship, and geared for war, it was clear to see that a struggle would soon ensue.
First the water and gas lines were cut off for the block. Then the police of Philadelphia tossed tear gas and shot water cannons towards the compound. When those actions didn’t yield an acceptable result for the police, a shoot-out between both groups took place – some claim that the members of MOVE were unarmed; however, it’s important to note that they did believe in self-defense. After about 10,000 rounds of ammunition were released onto the headquarters by the police and failed attempts to enter the homes to apprehend the members, Mayor Wilson Goode approved the unthinkable.
The City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Police dropped a makeshift bomb from a helicopter on the row house. Fire immediately began to smother the headquarters and homes that surrounded ground zero; however, the fire department that was on the scene were ordered to stand down by Commissioner Sambor. It is believed that some of the members that were within the house as it was set ablaze tried to surrender in an attempt to avoid the fire and smoke, but were shot down as they tried to escape the flames.
When the dust settled a total of 11 people, five children included, were dead, 60 plus homes had been destroyed which left nearly 250 people homeless, and two members, Ramona Africa and 13-year old Birdie Africa, survived the atrocious act.
Ramona would go on to serve time in prison – was later awarded $500K by a jury that declared the City of Philadelphia violated her constitutional rights when they dropped a bomb on her – and a commission’s report, issued on March 6, 1986, found that the Philadelphia Police department used “grossly negligent” tactics and committed an “unconscionable” act by “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house”. A Grand Jury investigation was called for; however, no one involved with the heinous act was ever held accountable or faced repercussions.
Mayor Goode, Commissioner Sambor, the City of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Police department had successfully gotten away with domestic terrorism by a government on its own citizens. In fact, it wasn’t until 2020 that the Philadelphia City Council – a council that didn’t hold positions in 1985 – formally apologized for the actions that took place on May 13th, 1985.
Although neighbors may have been irritated and the public had a complicated perception of MOVE and their tactics, they undeniably disapproved the bombing of MOVE’s headquarters.
There is much more to MOVE as a group, and their relationship to the City of Philadelphia in the early days. They may have been controversial, but they have definitely been committed to the liberation of all life. No matter where we stand on the spectrum of agreement with their tactics, let us be mindful to remember that no citizen should ever be bombed by their own government.