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On the anniversary of MOVE bombing, fresh pain and calls for accountability on Osage Avenue

The march marked the day police dropped a bomb on a West Philly house in 1985, killing 11 people, and came on the day Philadelphia’s health commissioner resigned over mishandling remains.

MOVE member Pam Africa leads a group along the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia on Thursday, the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing and the city of Philadelphia's first official day of remembrance for MOVE.
MOVE member Pam Africa leads a group along the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia on Thursday, the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing and the city of Philadelphia's first official day of remembrance for MOVE.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Thirty-six years to the day after Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the MOVE rowhouse in Cobbs Creek, killing 11 people, including five children, and razing 61 homes, the pain is fresh on Osage Avenue.

“There are a lot of thoughts running through my mind,” said Mike Africa Jr. with a heavy sigh, looking out to the crowd of 200 dressed in white at Osage Avenue and Cobbs Creek Parkway. “Before we get to those, we have to say their names.”

Rhonda Africa. Theresa Africa. Frank Africa. Conrad Africa. John Africa. Tree Africa. Delisha Africa. Netta Africa. Little Phil Africa. Tomaso Africa. Raymond Africa.

Those gathered solemnly marched to Malcolm X Park, chanting “on a move,” and the names of those killed on May 13, 1985, when police dropped a bomb on the rowhouse belonging to MOVE, a West Philadelphia-based Black liberation and activist group, as officers attempted to evict them.

As the march passed by, residents peered out windows and doors, some raising fists in solidarity.

“There’s a lot of love on this block for MOVE people,” member Pam Africa bellowed into a megaphone on Osage Avenue.

Thirty-six years later, members said, the pain of the bombing and fire has sharpened, as new information around the mishandling of the remains of one of the youngest victims — believed to be 14-year-old Tree Africa — came to light in April. Hours after the city announced the resignation of Health Commissioner Thomas Farley over the mishandling of more MOVE members’ remains, Africa Jr. addressed supporters, fists up, in Malcolm X Park, a sign reading “The power of truth is final,” at his feet.

“We have to rise up and fight the system, and push for accountability, because if this system is allowed to do what they’re doing to us, and we do not push for accountability, what makes us believe that they will not do this again?” he said.

» READ MORE: Philly health commissioner resigns over cremating MOVE victims without telling family; Kenney apologizes

Before the event began, MOVE members and event organizers gathered, tearfully hugging. Following drum beats, they recounted an oral history of the day of the bombing.

In 1985, the house and surrounding neighborhood was set aflame when police besieged the MOVE rowhouse for hours after harassment complaints from neighbors, firing rounds of bullets, water cannons, and smoke grenades, and pumping tear gas into the home, before eventually dropping a bomb on its roof.

The city then let the fire burn to destroy the bunker atop the home as the then-fire commissioner promised that his firefighters could control the blaze. But the fire engulfed the house and spread to 60 others, decimating the predominantly Black neighborhood.

“The city of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on MOVE. Oh, they should definitely be ashamed. They should be a lot of things,” Africa Jr. said. “But the fact is this. They should not be allowed to do this. They should not be allowed to get away with murder.”

The bombing was one of many police confrontations with the activist group founded in the 1970s. Police raided the group’s original headquarters in Powelton Village multiple times after health hazard and harassment complaints from neighbors, before MOVE relocated to Osage Avenue. Africa Jr.’s parents — Debbie Sims Africa and Michael Africa Sr. were among the MOVE 9 — who were arrested and charged in the death of Police Officer James J. Ramp during the 1978 standoff at the group’s house. MOVE members have contested that Ramp was accidentally killed by another officer.

In April, the treatment of one of the child victim’s remains by two museums came into question after freelancer and activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad brought to light their custody in an op-ed in The Inquirer. For years, without MOVE members’ knowledge, a pelvic bone and femur bone — believed to have been from Tree Africa — were transported between the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University. The new information led to outrage and protests, and the museum said the use of the bones for anthropology study was “a serious error in judgement.”

The remains have since been turned over to a West Philadelphia funeral home.

Thursday’s anniversary marked the first since Philadelphia City Council officially apologized for the bombing, and established May 13 as “an annual day of observation, reflection and recommitment.”

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier — who represents the area — called for “a full accounting” of the mishandling of the family’s remains, and said the Africa family deserves monetary restitution, from the city and the University of Pennsylvania.

”The original incident was horrible. It’s one of the most atrocious acts that have ever happened in the country,” Gauthier said. “And now to know that there was further disrespect of a Black life through the way that these remains were handled. It’s just utterly disgusting.”

In May 2020, W. Wilson Goode Sr., who was mayor at the time of the bombing, called on the city in 2020 to issue a formal apology.

In a statement Thursday, Mayor Jim Kenney called the bombing “a horrific, disgraceful tragedy that we must continue to commemorate — not just on anniversaries like today but year-round,” adding that he was “in active conversations” about how the city could “respectfully commemorate MOVE going forward.”

This week, MOVE members Pam Africa and Ramona Africa’s faces were among those of local Black women activists added to the “Crown” murals by artist Russell Craig on the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall.

As night fell on the park Thursday, Black Lives Matter organizer Krystal Strong called on the group to recite the names of the bombing victims once more. Candles burned at the base of the temporary stage near a “community altar” to those lost in MOVE, decorated with flower bouquets and oranges.

“Ashe,” they said in unison.