Before a police helicopter dropped a bomb that killed 11 people and burned down his block, Gerald Renfro made an effort to get to know his new neighbors in the MOVE house at 6221 Osage Ave.
Renfro was sympathetic to MOVE’s protesting the imprisonment of nine of its members for the 1978 death of Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp in a standoff at their former base in Powelton Village. But he disagreed with MOVE’s methods, especially the airing of those grievances in often-profane tirades over bullhorns from their new home in a family-friendly section of Cobbs Creek. The group combined back-to-nature and revolutionary black liberation philosophies.
“I used to debate with them back and forth every day: their telling me their point of view — they wanted to get attention from the city — [and] our speaking, from the neighbors’ viewpoint, that it was a disruption to our peace and tranquillity, and that they were violating our rights,” Renfro, 74, said. “I found out that they were nice people and they had respect, as far as personal respect for other people, and I was just at a loss when the city decided to murder them.”
Thirty-five years after the bombing, Renfro is seeing signs that the wound caused by the MOVE tragedy may be beginning to heal — and other signs that it never will.
The city is finally rebuilding homes destroyed in the blaze in a way that the neighborhood can support. In the aftermath of the bombing, the city did a scandalously poor reconstruction effort, and its subsequent improvement plans didn’t sit well with many of the neighbors, said Renfro, a block captain and president of the Osage Pine Community Association.
But the decades-overdue rebuilding of the neighborhood, he said, isn’t enough. True justice for the events of May 13, 1985, would have to include prosecuting the city officials involved in the bombing, Renfro said. That’s why the community association protested the 2018 renaming of a street after former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., who authorized the bombing.
Now, Renfro said, the association is considering filing a lawsuit aimed at forcing the city to reverse the City Council vote naming the street for the city’s first black mayor.
“It’s a sting to our community to have a predominately African American ... City Council give honor to someone who destroyed — I would say murdered — six adults and five children and the destruction of 61 homeowners’ homes and belongings,” said Renfro, who said he is semi-retired and owns a roofing business with his wife, Connie.
It’s unclear if a lawsuit could reverse the Council vote, but the association’s ire at the thought of honoring Goode is emblematic of the lasting pain caused by the MOVE bombing.
Goode has publicly apologized for the bombing in the past, but for some, his attempts at atonement have fallen short. On Sunday, he called on the city to issue an official apology for the bombing in an opinion piece published in the 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.”
The proposal fell on deaf ears with Mayor Jim Kenney and Council President Darrell L. Clarke, but it has gained steam on Council, where freshman member Jamie Gauthier, who represents West Philadelphia, has won 10 backers for an apology resolution she plans to introduce this year.
The resolution, which is being delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, was drafted by an ad hoc reconciliation group that included Goode and Mike Africa Jr., 41, a MOVE member who was born in a prison cell six years before the bombing. His mother, Debbie, was one of the nine MOVE members convicted on murder charges for Ramp’s death.
Mike Africa Jr. said that it was disappointing that Kenney and Clarke did not appear to support issuing an official apology, because doing so would only amount to a first step toward healing, he said.
Clarke on Wednesday issued a statement on the tragedy, saying it was unfortunate top city officials at the time were not held accountable for their actions but avoiding the question of whether the current Council should approve an apology.
“You apologize for bumping into someone by accident. You apologize for hurting someone’s feelings. This is so far beyond an apology,” Africa said.
Kenney said this week that his administration will not issue an official apology and that he would not take a position on whether Council should approve the resolution. He instead highlighted a project begun during his administration to rehabilitate properties that were rebuilt after the fire but have been vacant since an early-2000s effort to buy out owners of the poorly constructed homes.
Under Kenney, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority sold the houses for $1 each to a developer, AJR Endeavors, to refurbish and resell them at market value. The homes so far have gone for about $250,000 or more, and several are yet to be sold.
“The most important thing about this issue is our administration’s response to rebuilding that neighborhood. From 1986 on, it was a series of debacles when it came to redoing those houses," the mayor said at a virtual news conference Monday. "That’s the real way to address the problems of the past, is by making that neighborhood whole again.”
Renfro, who with his wife was one of about two dozen owners who rejected the buyout offer and instead took money for repairs, said some families with children have already moved into the newly redone houses, a sign of hope that the long-blighted neighborhood he’s lived in for six decades will see a new generation grow up outside the shadow of the bombing.
“Now our block will be restored, so we’ll be living in a nice, decent housing development, and we’ll have a chance to return to how it was before this MOVE tragedy,” Renfro said. “It’ll be the first time that we’ll have a chance for it to be normal.”