Mayor Jim Kenney said this week he wants his administration to be the first to “get to the bottom of everything that happened” after the 1985 MOVE bombing and devastating fire. If he does his job right, he should be the last mayor to lead this long-overdue reckoning.
On May 13 — the 36th anniversary of the day Mayor Wilson Goode ordered the raid that culminated with a bomb dropped on the MOVE house in West Philadelphia, sparking a fire that killed six adults and five children, then razed a city block — City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley resigned for previously ordering remains of MOVE members to be destroyed without consulting surviving family. Then a day later, the city announced it had found those remains in the basement of the Medical Examiner’s Office.
The whiplash of grieving for destroyed remains of loved ones and then learning those remains still exist is a horrifying sequence of events — and for the Africa family, the latest chapter in a decades-long assault on their humanity.
Delivering any measure of justice starts with getting answers around the custody chain for these remains that has been broken since 1985, meaning that for more than 30 years these individuals have not been properly laid to rest.
Kenney is not responsible for the decades of disrespect toward MOVE victims since 1985. Another mayor oversaw the police who dropped the bomb, and the Medical Examiner’s Office under multiple administrations held on to remains even after the commission first appointed to investigate the bombing declared those remains identified, and the forensic analysis completed.
But Kenney is mayor of Philadelphia in this moment, when a pattern of disrespect toward the Africa family by city government officials has come to light. His appointed health commissioner ordered these remains destroyed, and his Medical Examiner’s Office kept these sensitive materials in basement boxes that staff scrambled to find.
This makes it his administration’s responsibility to answer pressing questions in its investigation and make clear to the families and public what concrete actions come next. Immediate questions include: How many MOVE members have remains held by the city, not just in the latest discovery but overall? Which individuals do they belong to? Why were they kept? And what to make of allegations that remains may show that some family members died not by fire but being shot by Philadelphia police as they fled the MOVE house?
The administration has so far promised an investigation led by the Dechert LLP law firm to identify and return the human remains of all MOVE victims in city custody. That’s a bare minimum step. And it should come with a timeline, which the mayor would not commit to as of Tuesday. An end date avoids indefinitely prolonging the trauma of MOVE members and provides a date for them, and the public, to hold the city accountable.
A public eye on this process remains key. Farley stated that he came forward with his decision on the remains in light of April reports that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton long held on to MOVE people’s remains without consulting the family. That revelation resulted from community organizing and pressure on Penn Museum for its broader treatment of the remains of Black people, including Philadelphians. Black community members, not city officials, led this charge. To remain accountable to those communities, the city should commit to public briefings at least on the investigation’s timeline, with the respectful involvement of the Africa family.
It’s also welcome news that City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is exploring a separate investigation from her office. Her team’s scathing report on the city’s decision to teargas protesters during last year’s uprising after the police murder of George Floyd makes clear it won’t hold back on critiquing the Kenney administration. In Wednesday’s budget hearing, Councilmembers Cindy Bass and Jamie Gauthier voiced support for Rhynhart’s independent investigation. Other councilmembers should join their endorsement.
The mayor already made one long-term promise for this investigation: an overhaul of the Medical Examiner’s Office to ensure respectful treatment of human remains moving forward, including a possible policy to return all remains to relatives. This reform is necessary to end the sinful legacy that has followed the MOVE bombing — an all-too-American story of Black life devalued to the point of state murder, and then continually devalued even in death. Kenney is responsible for ensuring that our next mayor does not discover in a city basement additional remains of Black Philadelphians who have been denied rest.