Philadelphia, PA — Thirty-one years ago today, one of the most blatant acts of terrorism was carried out on American soil against American citizens by an American police department. Obviously, this is the one terror attack the government won’t remind you about — and, in fact, would prefer you forget completely.
On May 13, 1985, a massive operation by the Philadelphia Police culminated in an all-out attack and bombing on the peaceful, radical movement dedicated to black liberation, MOVE. At the end of the day, 11 people — including five children — had been killed, 65 homes destroyed, and the relationship between law enforcement and civilians arguably changed forever.
Lest we forget.
MOVE advocated, according to Robin Wagner-Pacifici who has written books on the group, a “quasi-Rastafarian, anti-technology, and pro-animal-rights” lifestyle which Philadelphia police and some of the group’s neighbors found antithetical to the typical American way of life. In 1985, the group resided at 6221 Osage Avenue, in what was considered a nice, family-oriented part of the city.
But city officials and police viewed MOVE’s radical inclinations as a threat — and in the months preceding the attack, tensions had heightened considerably. To area residents, the standoff on May 13 didn’t come as a surprise. But what happened next shocked the entire country.
As the standoff reached critical mass, law enforcement evacuated the block surrounding what had become MOVE’s fortified compound at 6221 Osage — police told residents to pack overnight essentials and they would be permitted to return the next day.
“There were nearly 500 police officers gathered at the scene, ludicrously, ferociously well-armed — flak jackets, tear gas, SWAT gear, .50- and .60-caliber machine guns, and an anti-tank machine gun for good measure,” one witness to the events described to NPR. “Deluge guns were pointed from firetrucks. The state police had sent a helicopter. The city had shut off the water and electricity for the entire block. And, we’d come to learn, there were explosives on hand.”
Around 5:30 in the morning, police commissioner Gregore Sambor shouted a bone-chillingly authoritarian warning through a megaphone to the so-called dissidents inside the Osage compound:
“Attention MOVE … This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States.”
At 6 am, police gave MOVE a 15-minute warning to surrender, but someone from 6221 fired shots at police, instead — sparking one of the most heinous acts of terrorism carried out by a government agency against civilians on U.S. soil.
Police returned fire. In fact, post-incident investigations estimated over 10,000 rounds were fired by police over a 90-minute period.
Ramona Africa is the sole survivor from the military-style assault on the MOVE home. She recalled the harrowing, inexcusable incident in an interview with Democracy Now! in 2010:
“In terms of the bombing, after being attacked the way we were, first with four deluge hoses by the fire department and then tons of tear gas, and then being shot at — the police admit to shooting over 10,000 rounds of bullets at us in the first 90 minutes — there was a lull. You know, it was quiet for a little bit. And then, without any warning at all, two members of the Philadelphia Police Department’s bomb squad got in a Pennsylvania state police helicopter and flew over our home and dropped a satchel of C4, a powerful military explosive that no municipal police department has. They had to get it from the federal government, from the FBI. And without any announcement of warning or anything, they dropped that bomb on the roof of our home.”
That bomb ignited an inferno that incinerated 6221 Osage — and everyone inside — though Africa managed to escape with her life. As the conflagration raged, officials ordered fire crews back, allowing the flames to swallow 65 homes — 64 of which had nothing to do with the MOVE incident.
An investigation called the MOVE Commission ultimately concluded monumental incompetence by city officials and law enforcement, and the five children’s deaths were wholly unjustified — but though the commission recommended charges be brought, a grand jury refused to do so.
The MOVE bombing stands as a monumental marker for the power of human forgetting — though it happened just 31 years ago, today, most people in the United States wouldn’t know what you were talking about if you mention it. And that should be a grave concern for us all, explained journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal from prison in an essay last year.
“May 13th at [then] 30, why should we care about what happened on May 13, 1985?,” Abu-Jamal wrote. “Why indeed? I’ll tell you why. Because what happened then is a harbinger of what’s happening now all across America. I don’t mean bombing people — not yet, that is. I mean the visceral hatreds and violent contempt once held for MOVE is now visited upon average people, not just radicals and revolutionaries like MOVE […]
“If it had been justly and widely condemned then, there would be no now, no Ferguson, no South Carolina, no Los Angeles, no Baltimore. The barbaric police bombing of May 13, 1985, and the whitewash of the murders of 11 MOVE men, women, and children opened a door that still has not been closed. We are today living with those circumstances.”
History doesn’t repeat itself, but if we fail to keep its failings fresh in mind, we will repeat history.