Philadelphia City Council voted Thursday to apologize for the MOVE bombing 35 years ago that left 11 people dead, including five children, and burned 61 homes in West Philadelphia.
The resolution, approved almost unanimously (Councilmember Brian O’Neill said he opposed it), represents the first formal apology offered by the city for the May 13, 1985, bombing. It also establishes the anniversary of the bombing as “an annual day of observation, reflection and recommitment.”
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose West Philadelphia district includes the neighborhood destroyed by the bombing, sponsored the resolution. She introduced it days after the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. less than a mile away from the site of the bombing. She linked the two events in a speech to City Council last month.
“We can draw a straight line from the unresolved pain and trauma of that day to Walter Wallace Jr.'s killing earlier this week in the very same neighborhood,” Gauthier said. “Because what’s lying under the surface here is a lack of recognition of the humanity of Black people from law enforcement.”
In 1985, police dropped an explosive device on the roof of 6221 Osage Ave. after a daylong confrontation with the Black radical and naturalist group MOVE, as officers attempted to evict them from their compound. The majority of the victims were Black.
W. Wilson Goode Sr., who was mayor at the time, called on the city to issue a formal apology in an op-ed published by The Guardian before the 35th anniversary. “The event will remain on my conscience for the rest of my life,” he wrote.
But neither Mayor Jim Kenney nor Council President Darrell L. Clarke shared plans for an apology in May, as they focused on the coronavirus pandemic. And Clarke had limited City Council action to only legislation related to the pandemic.
Kenney said Thursday that Council’s resolution is “a positive step in the healing process our city desperately needs.” He said it builds on efforts to rebuild the destroyed blocks of Osage Avenue and Pine Street, which are now occupied by new homeowners.
“This year we saw the pain and trauma caused by the MOVE bombing are still alive in West Philadelphia, so I commend Council for taking this step toward healing,” Kenney said.
Unlike bills, which require a mayor’s signature before becoming law, resolutions indicate Council’s position on a matter but do not change city law.
There was no debate or comment on the resolution before Council approved it Thursday. Gauthier said last month that she had intended to give a speech on the date of its approval, but said she felt compelled to speak earlier to address Wallace’s death.
She said the city must examine what reconciliation would look like between the West Philadelphia community and law enforcement. Gauthier, who took office in January, pushed for reducing police funding and implementing reforms following demonstrations in May and June after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In the wake of Wallace’s death, Gauthier said, the city must also examine how people are selected to become police officers, change their skill sets, and improve how they interact with residents. Protesters also connected the two events in the days after Wallace’s death, as they spoke out against decades of trauma among Black residents and called for police reform.
“If we had gone through the hard work of reconciliation after the MOVE bombing, maybe those officers would have seen in Walter Wallace someone in need of a helping hand rather than a threat,” Gauthier said. “They would have seen him and realized he was someone’s son, father, husband, neighbor.”