13 May, 1985, proved to be one of the most disastrous days in the history of the City of Philadelphia.
MOVE, which was not an acronym, was a group whose philosophy was a peculiar mixture of Black Nationalism, Anarchism, with a ‘back to nature’ viewpoint. The group, which had frequent altercations with police over a host of issues, located itself in a row house at 6221 Osage Avenue of west Philadelphia in 1981. For years, neighbors had been complaining that MOVE members were broadcasting political messages through a loudspeaker operating at all hours of the day and night. In addition, the accumulation of uncollected garbage was creating a pest and health hazard. Three weeks prior to 13 May, 1985, the loudspeaker had become inoperable.
The police obtained arrest warrants charging four occupants with crimes including parole violations, contempt of court, and illegal possession of firearms. On Monday, May 13, 1985, the police, along with city manager Leo Brooks, arrived in force and attempted to clear the building and execute the arrest warrants. Prior to the attempt to enter the premises, Police Commissioner Sambor announced through a bullhorn,
“Attention MOVE, this is America”.
An armed standoff with police ensued. The Police lobbed tear gas canisters at the building. The police said that MOVE members fired at them; a gunfight with semi-automatic and automatic firearms commenced in which as many as 10,000 rounds were expended. Breaching the premises proved exceedingly difficult as the MOVE members had constructed what law enforcement officials described as a ‘Bunker’ on the roof, which they could not subdue even with the use of high-pressure water hoses provided by the Philadelphia Fire Department. What happened next changed Philadelphia history. The FBI provide two one-pound bombs, made of a water gel explosive, a dynamite substitute. These were dropped from a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter, on to the roof of the building, targeting the ‘Bunker’.
A fire spread, and eventually destroyed approximately 65 nearby houses. The firefighters were ordered not to engage, as it was feared they might come under attack by the MOVE members who possessed an array of small arms. Eleven people, six adults, and five children aged 7 to 13 died in the resulting fire, and more than 250 people in the neighborhood were left homeless. Ramona Africa, one of the two survivors, said that police fired at those trying to escape.
In 1996, a federal jury ordered the city to pay a US $1.5 million civil suit judgement to survivor Ramona Africa and relatives of two people killed in the bombing. The jury had found that the city used excessive force and violated the members’ constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
In 2013, a documentary regarding the events was released, the trailer for which appears below….