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Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell Clarke silent on whether city should apologize for MOVE bombing

Calls for an apology are growing, but "nothing is planned," says a spokesman for the mayor.

The MOVE bombing in 1985 killed 11 people, including five children, and destroyed a city block in Cobbs Creek.
The MOVE bombing in 1985 killed 11 people, including five children, and destroyed a city block in Cobbs Creek.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As calls grow for the city to issue a formal apology for the MOVE bombing timed for Wednesday’s 35th anniversary of the tragedy — which left 11 people dead, including five children, and burned down 61 homes — the city’s top leaders have so far declined to weigh in.

“Nothing is planned,” said Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney. Dunn did not respond to a question about whether Kenney would be supportive of efforts to acknowledge the city’s role in what is remembered as one of the darkest chapters in Philadelphia history.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke declined to comment through a spokesperson on whether he would support legislation related to MOVE, described at the time of the 1985 bombing as a radical back-to-nature group.

Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., who authorized the bombing on Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek and has publicly apologized for his role, called for an official atonement by the city in an op/ed published Sunday by a British newspaper, the Guardian.

“After 35 years, it would be helpful for the healing of all involved, especially the victims of this terrible event, if there was a formal apology made by the City of Philadelphia,” Goode wrote. “That way, we can begin to build a bridge that spans from the tragic events of the past into our future.”

Goode’s comments are part of a nearly two-year effort by an ad hoc group of former city officials, MOVE members, and reconciliation experts, the Guardian reported. The group, which was formed after critics of Goode’s handling of the tragedy protested a 2018 ceremony naming a street after him, has also produced a draft apology resolution that City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents West Philadelphia, plans to introduce.

Kenney and Clarke were invited to participate in the process, but have not done so, said Pauline Thompson Guerin, a Penn State University psychologist working with the group.

“To not engage with an apology says a lot,” Thompson Guerin said in an interview. “It’s the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, but you won’t apologize for an obvious harm, an event that nobody questions the devastation, nobody questions how horrible that was.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who as district attorney prosecuted MOVE members, worked with the group for a time, but stopped participating, Thompson Guerin said. Rendell said Friday that he is skeptical that Council will approve a formal apology.

It is unclear when Gauthier’s resolution could be introduced. Council, which has been holding virtual meetings to practice social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, is acting only on legislation related to the public-health emergency or the city budget.

Gauthier, however, said that, even without an official resolution, Council members could still recognize the anniversary at their meeting Thursday.

“It’s long overdue. This was a tragic and atrocious human-rights tragedy committed by our government against its own people,” Gauthier said in an interview Sunday.

But offering an official apology to MOVE remains a politically contentious proposal. Police Officer James Ramp was killed in a 1978 standoff that set the stage for the infamous bombing, although MOVE members say he was killed accidentally by another officer. The group was despised by some of its neighbors, who, among other complaints to the city, alleged that the children in the home were being neglected.

Thompson Guerin noted that the resolution offers an apology not just to MOVE members, but to everyone touched by the tragedy, such as police officers who have told the group they still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder due to their involvement, and for a neighborhood that was turned upside down.

“This isn’t just about MOVE. A lot of people were harmed through a lot of incidents related to MOVE: the police officers, firefighters, responders,” she said. “We’ve talked to so many people who were impacted in a variety of ways.”

Ulysses Slaughter, a reconciliation strategist working with the group, said it was unfortunate that top city leaders couldn’t agree that an official apology was warranted.

“If the people who we say are our leaders … cannot see the value in that, it becomes more clear for me as to why people withdraw from political engagement because it doesn’t seem to have any real value,” Slaughter said.

Nonetheless, Slaughter said, he is optimistic the city will one day make amends.

“If the apology doesn’t come now,” he said, “it’s the beginning of a long road ahead.”