Philadelphia: The MOVE Bombing 30 Years Later
PHILADELPHIA — This year we remember the 30th anniversary of the worst crime in the history of the City of Philadelphia. On May 13, 1985, Philly cops bombed the house of the MOVE organization and destroyed a neighborhood, killing 11 people.
The MOVE organization — a group that lives on principles based on natural living, anti-oppression and opposition to racism — was founded by John Africa in 1972. This group would later be targeted by Philadelphia’s out-of-control cops, who had a policy of brutality and repression against Black radical organizations, like the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Black Panthers, and the community at large.
The 1978 Powelton Village confrontation
Police harassment of MOVE led to a standoff that lasted for almost a year as cops blockaded MOVE’s house in the Powelton Village section of the city, including a 50-day siege where no one was allowed in or out of the house in an attempt to starve residents out. Neighbors had complained about MOVE to city officials and the police.
On August 8 at 4 am, 600 cops surrounded the house on N 33rd St. “The police made the first move. O’Neill ordered a bulldozer, which had a Lexan plastic shield to protect the operator from gunfire, to mow down the barricade. A long-armed ram tore the windows out of the upper floors. With the windows gone, fire hoses threw streams of water into the house.” (Frank Rizzo, The last big man in big city America by S.A Paolantonio)
At approximately 8:10 am, shooting started and Police Officer James Ramp was struck and killed. Police rained bullets into the house, as well as tear gas — and more water streamed from fire trucks. MOVE members surrendered, and cops savagely beat Delbert Africa in full view of news cameras.
Police commanders ordered the house destroyed with heavy equipment later the same day, destroying any remaining forensic evidence. Police claim they found 11 or 12 weapons in the house.
Nine MOVE members were tried and convicted in the death of Officer Ramp, in spite of evidence that he was killed by the gunfire of other cops. Seven members of the MOVE 9 remain imprisoned. Two, Phil and Merle Africa, have died in prison. John Africa was found not guilty on Federal conspiracy and weapons charges. Three cops who participated in the beating of Delbert Africa were later acquitted. Speaking at a support rally for the 3 cops, the head of the cop union said, “They should have killed them all.”
“At his press conference following the cop assault, Frank Rizzo, then the mayor, looked directly at Mumia (Abu-Jamal) and declared that a “new breed of journalism” was to blame for Ramp’s death and that someday those like Mumia were “going to have to be held responsible and accountable.”” (“The Fight to Free Mumia Jamal” by Rachel Wolkenstein)
Mumia Abu-Jamal, having left the Black Panther Party and become a respected radio journalist, covered the Powelton Village siege and assault. He was elected president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Black Journalists.
Mumia’s sharp criticisms of the PPD, and his refusal to back down in his advocacy for justice for the MOVE 9, cost him his job as a journalist and he took a job driving a taxi to pay his bills. On December 9, 1981, just months after John Africa’s acquittal, Mumia was shot, severely beaten and charged with the shooting death of Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
In spite of the fact that evidence and eyewitness accounts pointed to the presence of another person, who fled after he shot Faulkner, the PPD and Philadelphia’s power structure railroaded Mumia and put him on Pennsylvania’s death row.
In 1982, MOVE members took up residence at 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia and began to fortify the house against police raids. Given the history of police harassment and violence against MOVE, these defensive steps were sensible. Neighbors in this Black working class neighborhood expressed concern about the construction activity and also about MOVE’s use of loudspeakers to advocate of justice for their framed-up members.
The Philly police, using neighbor complaints as a pretext for action, began to develop a military-style plan of attack that would end in tragedy. In August of 1984, Philly cops surrounded the house in what appeared to be a replay of the Powelton Avenue showdown. After 24 hours the cops withdrew. Surveillance and harassment of MOVE continued.
On May 11, 1985, police obtained search and arrest warrants, claiming that MOVE had explosives and firearms in the house. Checkpoints were set up to control who could go in and out of the neighborhood.
Just before 6 am on May 13th, Police Commissioner Sambor shouted into a bullhorn, “Attention MOVE! This is America! You have to abide by the laws of the United States!” Shortly after, two assault teams entered the houses on either side of 6221 Osage carrying explosives and automatic weapons. In an attack lasting hours, police used plastic explosives to try to breach holes in the walls between the row homes in order to pump tear gas into the house. Police bombs blew the front of the house off.
Police fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition in 90 minutes. Fire trucks deluged the house with 450,000 gallons of water. Later that day, a police helicopter dropped a bomb, made of the explosives C-4 and Tovex, on the roof of the house in order to get rid of what cops and the media term as a “bunker.” The “bunker” remained intact, but a fire broke out. Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor and Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond decided to let the fire burn in order to take out the alleged bunker. The fire burned out of control, destroying the neighborhood. Hundreds who had gathered on surrounding streets shouted, “Murderers!” at police.
Six adult members of MOVE, including founder John Africa, and five children were killed. Sixty-one homes were destroyed, and more than 250 people were left homeless. Not one of the cops or city officials who perpetrated this crime served a day in jail. One of the two survivors, Ramona Africa, is the only person to serve any jail time in this whole catastrophe.
After the tragedy on Osage Avenue, District Attorney Ed Rendell declined to prosecute a single City official — not Mayor Wilson Goode, the Police Commissioner or any police officer. Hearings held by the Mayor’s investigative commission were termed a “farce, a circus, a ploy” by Laverne Sims, a former MOVE member.
The struggle for justice for justice for murdered MOVE members continues. On May 13, 2015, community members in Philadelphia will commemorate the worst crime committed by a municipality against its own residents. We demand justice for those murdered by police on Osage Avenue and the release of the remaining members of the MOVE 9. We demand the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. We demand justice for Brandon Tate-Brown, who was gunned down by Philly cops just a few months ago.
The ruling class wants us to forget what happened on May 13th. The recent growth of the Black Lives Matter Movement signals the potential for a New Civil Rights Movement — a movement that will not accept the crimes of the past and will demand justice for all.
Mass uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have shown that the oppressed will no longer tolerate the violence of police aimed at communities of color. This new period requires us to build a united movement in solidarity with the oppressed and against police brutality and mass incarceration. Revolutionary leadership, based on a multi-racial revolutionary socialist party, must be trained and tested for the battles ahead.