On the afternoon of May 13, 1985, my Nana was probably having a cigarette. She was at home in the 5700 block of Osage Avenue when she saw the smoke. Just five blocks west of her home, Philadelphia police had dropped a military-grade bomb on members of the MOVE organization, ending a long campaign by former Philadelphia Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo to end the commune that lived by the ideologies of Black liberation and returning to nature.
The attack killed 11 people, including five children, razed two city blocks, and destroyed a piece of a Black neighborhood that remains an artery of the city. Some 500 police showed up. Fire trucks at the scene allowed the blaze to engulf more than 60 homes.
My mom, too, was at home when the bombs fell, just eight blocks north at 62nd and Ludlow. “They were in a standoff long before the bombs dropped,” she told me. Some neighbors close to the house complained about noise, garbage, and the like from MOVE members, she said. But “while they wanted MOVE gone, they never anticipated or wanted what happened.”
The remains of two young children burned in the fire were recently revealed to have been kept for decades at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, stored in a cardboard box and shuttled back and forth between Penn Museum and Princeton University. Last month, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley resigned after revealing that he ordered the cremation and disposal of what was left of the bodies of others killed in the bombing — only for the city to announce a day later it had discovered those remains in the Medical Examiner’s Office basement.
With these new updates in this horrific chapter of the city’s history, plenty of people are still hearing about the MOVE bombing, or learning many of the details, for the first time. I believe that’s partially by design, and those gaps largely explain how Philadelphians are processing the legacy today.
An unraveling story
The fact that my mom and my Nana lived within a short radius of the MOVE house when police bombed it meant I grew up knowing it happened. But I was young when I first realized that some of my friends had never heard about MOVE. Some of my classmates in grade school learned about it after we graduated, or on their own outside of school. Others never did, even after attending college or graduate school in the city. As I got older, I realized that even some of my extended family didn’t know about it either.
News outlets at the time fed the story police wanted to tell: MOVE was an uncivil, violent nuisance who would not cooperate and therefore had given up their right to life.
“MOVE Preaches Pacifism While Practicing Violence,” read one Associated Press headline the day after the bombing, blaming the group for what happened. “POLICE DROP BOMB ON RADICALS’ HOME IN PHILADELPHIA,” the New York Times wrote, choosing “radicals” instead of “civilians,” similar to the Los Angeles Times’ choice of “RADICAL CULT BOMBED BY PHILADELPHIA POLICE.” The day after the incident, The Inquirer used passive language to describe what police did: “A massive fire, apparently triggered by a bomb dropped from a police helicopter on a besieged MOVE house on Osage Avenue, raged through a West Philadelphia rowhouse community last night while MOVE members and police engaged in a running gunfight.”
It’s no wonder that a story the city didn’t want to tell is still unraveling close to 40 years later. But it’s still baffling that people growing up in Philadelphia today may never know one of the ugliest pieces of its past. The deadly attack was allowed to largely dissolve into history without recognition on behalf of the city — or even national media — of what that day meant. While a special commission investigated what happened that day and issued a report that criticized the city, with hearings aired publicly at the time, the findings were shared in limited circles and remain locked up in archives.
‘There was more than one atrocity’
Survivors of the bombing sued the city and won a $1.5 million settlement in 1996. Not a single person ever faced criminal charges for the attack. The houses the city built for the hundreds of people it displaced after the bombing turned out to have construction flaws and put residents at risk of carbon monoxide leaks. Home values plummeted, and the area was never the same. It took 35 years for the Philadelphia City Council to issue an official apology for the bombing. Even after that, more gruesome details are still coming out.
“You know, [city officials] called them a terrorist group,” my mom said. “Why they named them terrorists, I’m not sure. But they did. And so I think the handwriting was on the wall.”
More gruesome details are still coming out.
My mom and I have different opinions on why MOVE’s story slipped away over time. I think city officials largely succeeded in painting MOVE members as subhuman, giving people the space to justify how they were handled. I hear echoes in the way officials and mainstream media sometimes portray calls for criminal justice reforms, and Black Lives Matter as a whole -- Philadelphia’s police union president, John McNesby, called protesters “rabid animals,” after all.
Mom says that social media wasn’t around back then, and that only people who have an interest in learning about MOVE now would go out of their way to do so. “History is written by those in control and power,” she said. Current efforts to add this kind of history to public education have to overcome equally forceful efforts to stop that from happening.
The latest uncovering of the bombing’s history sealed for many Black Philadelphians the disdain with which the city’s public officials have treated some of its residents. On top of the events of last year, when the PPD gassed protesters marching against police brutality on 52nd Street and trapped on I-676, then shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr. blocks from where police bombed MOVE, and the news about the Penn Museum and Farley remains too much for many people to take in. But it’s a story we have to tell by recognizing it never ended — and taking responsibility for what it says about the city.
“There was more than one atrocity,” my mom said. “To acknowledge that it happened means what we’re doing now: trying to acknowledge the reality of police presence and what that means,” she added. “What does that say about the society that we live in? If we’re gonna acknowledge that, it just sheds light on who we truly are. Which is pretty messed up.”
Akela Lacy is a politics reporter at the Intercept. She grew up in East Lansdowne.