Another attempt to rebuild on Osage Ave 31 years after the MOVE Bombing
The City of Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) wants to rebuild 36 houses on the 6200 block of Osage Ave in West Philadelphia. This block is the site of the worst crime in Philadelphia history. On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the roof of the home of the MOVE organization, a group that promotes the principles of nature, anti-oppression and opposition to racism, was founded by John Africa in 1972. The resulting fire was allowed to burn for hours while fire trucks stood idle.
The 1985 confrontation on Osage Ave
Since its inception, MOVE has been the target of harassment and violence by racist Philadelphia cops. In August of 1978, 600 cops surrounded and assaulted the MOVE house on N 33rd Street in the Powellton Village section of the city, following a 50 day siege. Officer James Ramp died in the resulting gunfire, probably by “friendly” fire. Nine members of MOVE were sentenced to prison for his death in a frame-up trial. Seven of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated. Two of them, Merle and Phil Africa died in prison.
Award winning journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal, covered police harassment and violence against MOVE. “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) The subsequent framing of Mumia by Philly cops and the DA’s office for the murder of a Philadelphia cop was driven by a desire to silence him and his role as a “voice of the voiceless.” Mumia remains in prison and is being slowly murdered by the state through denial of necessary medical treatment.
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, developed a plan for what can only be described as a military assault on Osage Avenue. 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.
Early in the morning on May 13th, 1985, 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 using rifles, pistols and machine guns fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition in 90 minutes. Fire Department “squirt” trucks deluged the house with 450,000 gallons of water. Later that day, a PA State 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.
The rebuilding process was rife with corruption and shoddy workmanship. Homes were built haphazardly with little oversight from the city. Developer Ernest Edwards Jr and a business associate were convicted of stealing more than $140,000 skimmed from city reconstruction efforts. Ten years later, the homes were declared out of compliance with building codes.
“The gleaming brick replacement houses for the 60 innocent homeowners on Osage Avenue and Pine Street turned out to have been built with construction flaws by a corrupt developer. The houses have cost the city a small fortune — more than $570,000 for each row house, including an endless wave of faulty repairs. Support walls cracked for lack of basic expansion joints. Cheap plumbing and wiring failed. Roofs leaked.”
Attempts to remedy the problems failed and the city offered residents $150,000 each for their homes. Since 2000, 36 homes have stood vacant.
Redevelopment or gentrification?
The latest scheme of the city government involves finding a private developer to “redevelop” the 36 homes on Osage Avenue. It’s only fair to ask in whose interests these homes will be rebuilt. Why are we only rebuilding some homes in a city where thousands face inadequate and dangerous housing, high rents and children are exposed to lead paint?
Jamila Davis, a spokesperson for the PRA says that the city wants to “restore these blocks to productive use and bring restoration to this community…” A harsh reality of the housing situation in Philadelphia is that home ownership is declining while rents skyrocket. Black and Latinx working class families find themselves priced out the housing market as relatively better off white families move into neighborhoods that are being “turned around” through redevelopment. This dynamic is aggravated by the fact that the city regularly provides 10 year tax abatements for new construction, putting long-term homeowners at a disadvantage. Philadelphia is one of the most racially segregated big cities in the US and has the highest rate of “deep” poverty of any large city.
Who does the work?
The fact that the administration of Mayor Kenney is pushing redevelopment begs the question of who will do the work. Will the construction workforce reflect the demographic makeup of the city — or will job sites, once again, be populated by mostly suburban and white build trades people? Kenney’s mayoral campaign received major support from the construction unions. The Carpenters Union lack of support for Kenney was reportedly a factor in the Carpenters Coup in February where the International Union took over the local union operations and placed the Regional Council under the supervision of the New Jersey Carpenters, which had contributed large sums to the Kenney campaign.
The struggle against Jim Crow practices in the building trades go way back into Philadelphia history. In the 1960s, NAACP head, Cecil B. Moore led a long struggle to integrate the trades. This effort was met by police repression at the hands of Frank Rizzo’s cops. While the racial composition of the trades has improved, the more recent struggles for fair hiring on projects in the city show that during hard economic times the old rule of “last hired, first fired” is in full effect.
Socialist reconstruction of our cities
In his second inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was by no stretch of the imagination a socialist, identified “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Not much has changed. The truth is that the housing crisis cannot be solved under capitalism. The profit motive will continue to deny the poor and working class adequate housing. The socialist reconstruction of society will mean that housing, health care and education, which the capitalist system treats as privileges to be rationed by the market will become human rights. The rebuilding of cities as livable spaces for all will be the first priority of a socialist society.
Free the MOVE 9, Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners!