28 Years Ago The Philadelphia Police Department Bombed and Burned a City Block

Lucy Steigerwald, May 13, 2013

Photo credit: Cherri Gregg/via CBS Philly

The 1993 Waco siege is often categorized as one of the more violent, militaristic, domestic actions by U.S. law enforcement in recent memory. And it should be. At the Branch Davidian’s “compound” a fatal combination of government arrogance, fear, impatience, and aggression lead to 76 bodies, including 20 children.

A less bloody confrontation took place in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985 — but the relatively low body count in the MOVE standoff (11 people, including 5 children) was no thanks to law enforcement. MOVE were a group of black activists who were anti-technology and government, pro-environmentalist, and who had a history of confrontations with law enforcement. Their neighbors had complained the group was loud and messy and aggressive. On May 13, attempts to evict MOVE and serve arrest warrants for four of the members led to an armed standoff. And when law enforcement grew too impatient to wait out the group, they simply dropped a C4/Tovex bomb on the house — ostensibly to dislodge a wooden structure on the roof — which turned into a fire that spread unchecked  and took out 60-some homes, the entire block.

Like Waco, this standoff with so-called radicals involved disputed who-fired-first exchanges of gunfire; it also involved members being jailed, while government and law enforcement officials got — at best — a stern talking-to. By 1999, when law enforcement finally admitted they had used incendiary devices at Waco, many people felt that the standoff had been a disaster. But nobody in the ATF, FBI, or Department of Justice was ever charged. And nine surviving Branch Davidians went to jail, one for 15 years.

There are more parallels with Waco: accusations that the MOVE members set a fire themselves, counter-accusations that police held firefighters back (this was definitely true at Waco and MOVE both).

Today CBS Philly has an interview with one of two survivors of the standoff, Ramona Africa:

“The whole house shook, but we didn’t know what it was,” says Africa, recalling the moment the city dropped explosives on the MOVE home on Osage Avenue. “We didn’t even know initially that there was a fire.”

Africa says she was in the basement when the bomb hit.

She and her family were holed up, in a standoff with police and other city officials.

Africa says the authorities employed water tactics and tear gas…then the explosives.

“We tried to get our children, our animals, ourselves out of that blazing inferno,” she says. “And as the cops saw us coming out, they opened fire.”

Accounts of the day vary. Philadelphia police have disputed Africa’s account. She escaped, with injuries, along with one child survivor, Birdie Africa, who was 13 at the time.

“We never saw Birdie again after that until my criminal trial,” she says. “He testified. His mother was killed in the bombing.”

Africa spent seven years in prison for her part in the standoff, but no one from the city was ever charged. She filed a civil lawsuit against the city and won after years of litigation.

The rest over here.

The point? Only that law enforcement began militarizing before there was a Department of Homeland Security to offer plush grants for cool new tech. And while Waco may have been a high-water mark in domestic brutality, MOVE also deserves to be remembered. Both incidents serve to underline the point that long before terrorism was the excuse for a “war at home,” that war was already happening for unsympathetic groups in the United States. And as in any war, if the casualties are not members of a favorite elite, their deaths are nothing more than unfortunate collateral damage.




27 Responses to “28 Years Ago The Philadelphia Police Department Bombed and Burned a City Block”

  1. Thanks, Lucy.

  2. My (depressing) pleasure, Angela.

  3. thanks for this….militarizing of police…always the goal….with collateral damage of CITIZENS and property incidental…..now with the technology and the militarist mindset running amock at all levels of government and society the militarization is front and center….and demanded!!!!

    and it is bipartisan…..

  4. thanks for this….militarizing of police…always the goal….with collateral damage of CITIZENS and property incidental…..now with the technology and the militarist mindset running amock at all levels of government and society the militarization is front and center….and demanded!!!!

  5. The militarization is front and center….and demanded!!!!

  6. SWAT, the beginning of paramilitary LE?

    State the obvious why MOVE is less known: 1) attack was on militant blacks. More people know black Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a single white Philadelphia cop, than MOVE. There's also a common tendency to draw a connection between WACO and Ruby Ridge but not MOVE.

    Impatience is an interesting concept, btw.

    I just thought they were trained in para-militarism and that's how they responded regardless of the threat level and the situation. Kid with baloney sandwich? PnJ strictly enforced, smash his face. Shock grenades, smoke bombs, pepper spray, high frequency noise, bullets…what about the rogue LAPD burned out/smoked out too? Notice how the May Day Protest were stomped down. Or rather, look how the consumers went on their marry little way "oh, student protestors were throttled by riot police, but I still made it to Nordstrom rack in time…."

  7. Not that I should get pleasure from this but it kind of serves their neighbors right. This is what can happen when you decide to use the police to force people to live the way you want them to. You end up with your own house burnt down too.

  8. Another point: the Weavers at Ruby Ridge were — at least — white separatists. (Not that that justifies anything in the government's response.) Yet that is filed — in militia rabble-rousing fashion — with Waco. The Branch Davidians were a third to a half black (there were also Asian and Hispanic members), a fact that nobody seems to remember. I even had to correct a Newweek writer a few years back for describing the Davidians as "white separatists." Obviously the MOVE folks were more classically "black militants" and were more left. But still interesting that in the using of Waco as fodder for outrage, the diversity of those killed tends to be forgotten.

  9. There was a documentary made on this some time ago. It is entitled Black and Blue. I saw it as part of the resume reel of an editor I hired 20 some years ago, Hugh King. Don't know if it is available anymore.

  10. Here's a link to the trailer: http://youtu.be/FWz5r3ldzgc

    And a review from 1987 http://articles.philly.com/1987-04-10/news/261961

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  13. They should take this as a lesson. The act of enforcing can make this incident happen again.

  14. [...] 28 Years Ago The Philadelphia Police Department Bombed and Burned a City Block (antiwar.com) [...]

  15. There's also a common tendency to draw a connection between WACO and Ruby Ridge but not MOVE.

  16. The person who came up with the idea of "Lets just drop a bomb on this rowhome", should be locked away until he/she rots.

    Absolutely no consideration for human life, even if something did need to be done about the situation.

  17. "were a group of black activists who were anti-technology and government, pro-environmentalist"

    I live in Philadelphia and have for more than 40 years.

    The police were disgusting that day; less well-remembered is that MOVE and the police had a shoot-out a few years earlier already.

    What also needs to be recognized is that MOVE isn't really/wasn't an "activist" group. They're a loud kooky cult-ish group that had trouble feeding or caring for its own children or animals (not that this is ever a prirority), both of which were allowed to roam West Philly while their middle class black neighbors toggled between pity/charity and annoyance (MOVE would blare profanity-laced screeds at all hours from a PA system on top of the house). Another bit of 'fun' for MOVE would be to trespass on Penn's campus and disrupt gay student group meetings, because "homsexuality is unnatural."

    MOVE isn't even an acronym! It LITERALLY doesn't stand for anything!

    PPD & MOVE pretty well deserved each other. Two nasty groups of people who terrorized West Philly.

  18. C4? Damn what pathetic little cowards! Seems like all you have to do is give someone a government clown costume and they become Barney Fife times a 1000.

  19. See my reports concerning the destructive effects on society of fbi/police operations and credo.

    The fbi (federal burro of investigation, the Jackass of the nation) impliedly affirms in its operations 24/7 its centurylong applied credo as follows:

    *We are primarily in the business of taking lives (or destroying them by imprisonment), not of saving lives, nor furthering the aesthetic and humane interests of mankind.

    * http://www.sosbeevfbi.com/governmentmustcr.html

    http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/story/age-madness-c

    http://neworleans.indymedia.org/news/2013/05/1812

    http://neworleans.indymedia.org/news/2013/05/1812

    http://lissakr11humane.com/2012/09/08/collapse-of

  20. [...] Wh&#1077n th&#1077 headquarters &#959f MOVE, a Philadelphia black nationalist group, w&#1072&#1109 bombed, &#1072nd th&#1077 entire neighborhood decimated, n&#959t a peep &#959f protest w&#1072&#1109 heard [...]

  21. Well, if I lived clear on the other side of the block, and didn't know what in the hell was going on, and didn't have a bone with any of these folks, and didn't call the cops either, I think I'd be pissed to have my house burnt down because uppity cops couldn't "think" of a better way of doing things.

  22. We constantly hear the braying of police jackasses about "officer safety" and the crocodile tears for their fallen "brethren" but who in the hell keeps the stats on all the civilians, "mundanes" as Will Grigg so aptly coined, who're killed by these lunatics? Where is the memorial for them?

  23. I'm doing research on the militarization of our police forces, which is how I got to this not recently published article. Although I don't approve of over aggressive and militarized use of force by local and federal officials, I have a real problem with this article equating the incidents at Waco with radical activists being randomly attacked. Waco involved criminal activity, not annoyed neighbors or political suppression. David Koresh was raping the children in his church. There was a warrant out for his arrest in California and he hid out in the Waco branch to escape prosecution, which set the whole unfortunate event into motion.

  24. Something tells me that this "incident" will be repeated sooner or later. But in a different way.

  25. Although I don't approve of over aggressive and militarized use of force by local and federal officials, I have a real problem with this article equating the incidents at Waco with radical activists being randomly attacked. http://www.pmtrainingclass.com/ This is what can happen when you decide to use the police to force people to live the way you want them to. Definitely need new ways to handle the issues, and stresses we case.

  26. I'm from Philly too. What no one remembers is, John Africa, MOVE's founder was white. Wilson Goode, the Mayor was black.

  27. If you knew MOVE, you wouldn't be surprised that this happened.