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Walter Wallace Jr.’s killing by Philly police raises specter of the MOVE bombing 35 years later

The death of a 27-year-old in a police shooting earlier this week is a brutal reminder of a Black community's bombing in 1985. Both drew national attention.

YahNé Ndgo speaks to the crowd at 56th and Pine Streets as they protest Saturday the police shooting death of Walter Wallace Jr.
YahNé Ndgo speaks to the crowd at 56th and Pine Streets as they protest Saturday the police shooting death of Walter Wallace Jr.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

In West Philadelphia’s Black communities, traumas converse across decades.

The police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. is a recent wound in Cobbs Creek, but not the first for that neighborhood. The block where the Philadelphia Police Department participated in the bombing of a Black neighborhood in May 1985, killing 11, is less than a mile from where Wallace died Monday.

At a rally Saturday afternoon that drew 250 to Malcolm X Park to protest police violence and systemic racism, what speakers from the Black Philly Radical Collective said paralleled what MOVE activists wanted more than 40 years ago.

“If you’re in Malcolm X Park you better bring some Malcolm X energy,” said Krystal Strong to those who marched to the park on 52nd Street. “If you don’t know the MOVE 9 and you are living in the city of Philadelphia, you better Google it right now.”

She referred to the group of back-to-nature and Black-liberation activists jailed in connection with the 1978 shooting death of a police officer. Seven years later, a standoff between the MOVE organization and police ended with the bombing, a disastrous decision by police and the city that not only took lives but caused 60 homes to be destroyed or damaged. The fire left 250 homeless.

Wallace’s death and the MOVE bombing sprouted from the same root, speakers said Saturday, a systemic devaluing of Black lives.

“We have to recognize that we have only one enemy,” said Mike Africa Jr., son of two of those MOVE members jailed in connection with Officer James Ramp’s 1978 death, “and that’s the enemy that sent those police officers to kill Walter Wallace Jr.”

» READ MORE: Walter Wallace Jr. received mental health treatment just days before his death. A West Philly crisis center questions why it wasn’t included in Monday’s response.

Among the Black Philly Radical Collective’s 13 demands directed at the city Saturday were the abolishment of police, release of political prisoners, and the removal of symbols of state violence, including a street named after the city’s mayor at the time of the MOVE bombing, W. Wilson Goode.

Police were called to Wallace’s home near 61st and Locust Streets on Monday afternoon on a report of a “27-year-old male assaulting an elderly female and male.” Wallace’s family said they called 911 hoping to get an ambulance for him as he experienced a mental health crisis. His family has described him as being manic bipolar.

The dispatch recording doesn’t include any information about Wallace’s mental health history, or that officers had twice before that day responded to calls of disturbances at the home.

Wallace had a knife when police arrived, according to witnesses, and they drew their weapons. A confrontation in the street followed, with Wallace walking toward officers and police retreating while ordering him to drop the knife. Then they fired 14 times, officials said, killing him.

Wallace’s mother tried to intervene during the incident and witnessed her son’s death.

A lawyer for the family has described the officers as ill-trained and ill-prepared.

“You will not see a man with a knife lunging at anyone that would qualify as a reason to assassinate him in front of his family,” Shaka Johnson said Thursday after reviewing body-camera footage of Wallace’s death. “What you will hear from one of the officers is ‘shoot him.’”

Instead of attempting de-escalation tactics, the lawyer said, “it was panic.”

Wallace’s traumatized family has asked why the officers, who have not yet been publicly identified, were not armed with Tasers. The Police Department had a four-year plan to equip all officers with Tasers, former department officials said, but it had fallen short and thousands of officers on the street do not have one.

Wallace also had sought mental health treatment at a nearby crisis response center just days before his death. A 911 call that includes a report of a person with mental health issues should trigger notification to the nearest mobile crisis unit, said John White, the director of the West Philly Consortium. The center has a mobile unit but wasn’t notified Monday, he said, despite the police receiving three calls from Wallace’s family. He called the lack of notification “egregious.”

Wallace’s shooting is under investigation, police have said.

West Philadelphia erupted with outrage within hours of the killing. Monday night saw protests, vandalism, and clashes with police, including an encounter where officers smashed the windows of an SUV and beat the driver while her child was in the backseat. Since Monday, there have been a total of 225 arrests, 60 injured police officers, 617 incidents of looting, 18 damaged vehicles, and 24 ATM explosions, according to the city. One officer remains hospitalized.

» READ MORE: Philly police pulled a woman from SUV during unrest, beat her, separated her from her child, and handcuffed her at the hospital, attorney says

At 56th and Pine Streets on Saturday afternoon, protesters marched near a police precinct. Some chanted “Who killed Walter Wallace?” as speakers demanded the firing of “killer cops” and the abolishment of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Strong, a University of Pennsylvania professor, West Philadelphia resident, and organizer with the Black Philly Radical Collective, an assembly of activist groups that includes Black Lives Matter, described a double standard for the Black community during protests. She said white men in South Philly were allowed to openly carry weapons with impunity, while Black protesters “are met with batons and bullets.”

“We want that $750 million in our schools, our communities, our health care,” she said to loud applause, referring to the police budget.

MOVE was created in 1972 by West Philadelphia native Vincent Leaphart. He changed his name to John Africa and his philosophy was adopted by members as a religion. They held antitechnology and antigovernment beliefs, and their communal living drew the ire of neighbors, first in Powelton, then in Cobbs Creek, at a home on Osage Avenue. The group also became notorious on Osage for profane rants over a loudspeaker system, and some violent confrontations with neighbors.

The Powelton home was the site of a standoff with police in 1978 that led to Ramp’s death. Seven years later, a daylong confrontation with police over the arrest of nine of MOVE’s members in connection with Ramp’s death ended with Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor’s approving a helicopter to drop a bomb on the compound in Cobbs Creek. He then directed that the resulting fire not be put out. Of the 11 people who died, five were children.

» READ MORE: MOVE through the years

A commission assembled to review the disaster accused Goode and top members of his administration of incompetence and “reckless disregard for life and property” for dropping the bomb.

“Until we fight together as one," Mike Africa Jr. said Saturday, "we are going to continue to have these incidents where our people are shot down in the street and we get no justice.”

As the protesters dissipated from Malcolm X Park by 3 p.m., the scene gave way to a Halloween dance party. Families danced to Bill Withers' “Lovely Day” as three young boys all dressed as Spider-Man squealed as they slid down the park slide. A pint-sized Sonic the Hedgehog chased a miniature Black Panther around the playground. Two men on horses rode through the grass. From a stage near the park pavilion, speakers called out the names of Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Tamir Rice — Black children shot by police in the U.S.

”We’re out here after all this," said Sheyla Street, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School and member of the Philly Black Students Alliance. “Part of [protest] is being joyful. That is an act of resistance in itself.”

Staff writers Oona Goodin-Smith and Patricia Madej contributed to this article.