Sorry — but I’m just not feeling all these belated sorries these days.
This week, Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologized for keeping, and then losing, the remains of a victim from the 1985 MOVE bombing.
As is customary in these sorry social media days, the apologies were posted online because as we all know, nothing says “my bad!” like a mea culpa thread on Twitter. (Note: The institutions haven’t apologized directly to the family.)
This is actually the second high-profile apology that the Black naturalist and liberation group has gotten in less than six months for the horror of having their homes and loved ones killed in a city-sponsored attack that left six adults and five children dead. (This followed a 1978 eviction attempt by police in which an officer was killed. Nine MOVE members were convicted for his death, two died behind bars, and the rest were released on parole after each serving about 40 years.)
In November 2020, Philly City Council formally apologized for the deadly bombing that took out a whole block in West Philly and reduced some 60 homes to rubble.
The apology made national news, but what it actually amounted to for the victims is anyone’s guess because from where I sit, apologies like these aren’t much more than racially insensitive institutions wanting credit for finally seeing the light. Or acting as though they’ve seen it, because while everyone is suddenly apologizing for using the remains — a pelvic bone and a part of a femur — for research and testing for 35 years, the bones are still nowhere to be found. (The Inquirer reported that they had been returned to Alan Mann, a retired anthropologist now at Princeton who was hired by the city to examine them after the bombing. But Mann said he doesn’t have the remains and hasn’t seen them in more than a decade.)
In the meantime, the living members of MOVE are forced to relive the agonizing trauma that defined their lives. To them, these aren’t “remains” or case studies to be used in anthropology classes most recently macabrely titled “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology.” They’re family. Mike Africa Jr., 42, a current MOVE member who spent his childhood with the group, said the remains might belong to Tree, who was 14, or Delisha, then 12, two children he remembered as fearless.
No one could climb higher than Tree could, he told reporters. And Delisha, he added, was always right behind her.
At a press conference on Monday, MOVE members were understandably distraught over the stunning discovery and ongoing disrespect. Any claim that any institution had ever contacted them to identify the remains were lies, they said.
“They only do what they are pressured to do,” Janine Africa said of the institutions, adding that nothing would make up for the loss of lives.
And isn’t that how these too-little-too-late reckonings go?
It’s why I’m suspicious of the current transformations, whether in academia, policing or journalism — especially when they’re led by the very people who created or cultivated the cultures in dire need of reform.
Even before the guilty verdicts against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, there was a lot of talk about how the willingness of officers to testify against him was a promising sign of change.
But mostly it struck me as performative woke-ness, the calculated sacrifice of “one bad apple” in an attempt to salvage the rotting bushel.
This is going to sound weird, I know, but during these reckonings I’ve been reminded a lot of those vocabulary tests we used to take in school when we were kids — you know the ones, where we learned the definition of words just well enough to use them in a sentence, even if we often didn’t totally understand or appreciate the spirit behind them.
I keep getting that sense when I hear people who have long been part of these problematic systems and institutions suddenly using just the right terms and tone as proof of growth.
Beware the oppressors who learn the language of the oppressed, for they shall use it against them. (And then try to fool us all into thinking they now know better and will do better.)
No, that’s not a new biblical beatitude. It’s from the Book of Helen, a righteously cynical observation that came to me when I watched the horrifying video earlier this year of Rochester police pepper-spraying a distraught 9-year-old Black girl.
The whole episode was disturbing, but what stayed with me is how a responding officer first approached the little girl, even compassionately calling her “dear” — as if he’d aced that de-escalation training — before he and several other officers leaned into their brutality when things got challenging.
It’s not the words. It’s never the words, however perfectly applied, that show true change. It’s always the actions behind them.
And right now, as good as institutions undergoing reckonings have gotten at apologies, at using that new vocabulary, it’s more important than ever to watch for what they do, not what they say.
For starters, and at the very least, Penn needs to find the remains and deliver them, and an apology, directly to the MOVE family. The remains may suddenly be hard to find, but the family is not.