For the past month, the story of the bombing of MOVE has once again been thrust into our consciousness.
Those of us who remember that day, and those who witnessed and survived the bombing that set 60 houses in the West Philadelphia neighborhood on fire, were stunned to learn that remains of the Africa family had been sitting in a box in Philadelphia’s Medical Examiner’s Office. The city’s discovery triggered the ousting of Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, who ordered that the remains in the Medical Examiner’s Office “be disposed of.” This news came just weeks after learning that the remains of 14-year-old Tree Africa and 12-year-old Delisha Africa were being shuttled between the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University for anthropological study.
It’s unclear why the remains of Africa family members had not found their way back to the family decades ago, when the investigation about the bombing concluded. How this could happen has caused confusion and embarrassment for the City of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton University and horror, outrage, and emotional pain and suffering for the Africa family, and the West Philadelphia community.
This distressing news only heightens an existing and widespread distrust of institutions, including Philadelphia’s city government, whose relationship with Black communities was already strained. For many, this only serves to exacerbate residuals from the original trauma.
Trauma is a complex psychological and emotional response to events or situations that threaten to cause death or annihilation or threaten to overwhelm our ability to cope. Residuals of the original trauma become “buried,” but our defense mechanisms, which protect us from further harm of a similar nature, remain active like a guard. When our defenses are engaged by events that remind us of the original pain, terror, or horror and overwhelm the ability to cope, extreme reactions of fight or flight may occur.
When the MOVE compound was bombed 36 years ago, the lasting trauma it would cause to the surviving family and the West Philadelphia community was not the focus of the aftermath, which included a city-appointed commission. But now it is recognized that psychological trauma under these circumstances was inevitable. The impact of this trauma and the current retraumatizing effects of learning how the remains of their family members who died in the fire have been treated has compounded the wounding of this family and those around them.
When an event that causes trauma impacts a community — and a community is defined as all individuals who identify as belonging to that group of people — the trauma is widespread.
Trauma can also be passed from one generation to the next. The original trauma — that is the event or series of events that happened without warning — created terror or horror, overwhelmed the ability to cope, and set off alarms in the brain that changed the way the affected individuals see the world and others. The end result is that the mind is set on survival because the world is no longer seen as safe.
Mayor Jim Kenney has apologized to the family, and family members have met with community members who share their grief and outrage. These efforts help the family and community to heal.
Beyond the apologies and the promised investigation, the City of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton University should also hold town meetings to talk about how important this latest event involving MOVE is in terms of the community’s trauma. These institutions are complicit in the continuation of traumatic injury either because of ignorance or arrogance. These are hard conversations, but other nations like South Africa and Canada have used them successfully in “Truth and Reconciliation” hearings, and truth-telling is essential to healing.
» READ MORE: Our coverage of the MOVE bombing
Additionally, the anniversary of a mass trauma must be memorialized each and every year, until we understand that the impact of trauma continues long after the event, and as a society, all of us must behave with empathy and compassion for those who have survived.
A community must grieve its losses.
Clara Whaley Perkins is a practicing psychologist in Philadelphia with over 30 years of experience. In 2014 she founded the Life After Trauma Organization, whose mission is to help people recover from trauma stemming from childhood traumatic stress, gun violence, and commercial sexual exploitation of children.