My column about the generation chasm between baby boomers and millennials generated a predictable response. Boomers wrote e-mails in agreement. Millennials didn't react. They don't read newspapers.
The topic arose because of my dismay as an English teacher whose students don't get my historical references. One in particular hit close to home.
"How many of you have heard of the MOVE confrontation in Philadelphia in May 1985?"
"The city dropped a bomb on a house in West Philadelphia. Firemen allowed a fire to burn. Eleven people died. Five children burned alive. Sixty-one homes were destroyed. Anyone?"
Not even the sound of one hand clapping.
How could a classroom of community college students from Philadelphia have never heard of MOVE?
So I told them. Showed them, actually, over a series of classes in 15-minute intervals to allow the horror and madness to sink in by increments. I showed them the new documentary Let the Fire Burn, which is made up entirely of archival film and video footage from local TV stations and the MOVE Commission hearings. My students' eyes never left the screen, as if they were learning their parents' secrets.
Let the Fire Burn came out on Netflix two weeks ago, and I've already watched it a half-dozen times. The more I watch, the more I appreciate producer-director Jason Osder's choices. The documentary opens with Michael Ward/Birdie Africa - the only child survivor of the confrontation - being gently questioned by MOVE Commission chairman William Brown during a deposition in a lawyer's office.
"Michael, do you know what it means to tell the truth about something?" Brown asks.
Birdie nods and says, "Don't lie."
"Don't lie, that's right," Brown says. "And do you know what happens to people who lie?"
Birdie nods and says, "Yeah."
"And what happens to them?" Brown asks.
"They get hurt," Birdie answers.
The scene dissolves to video footage of Osage Avenue in flames on the night of May 13. The voice of Action News anchor Jim Gardner is heard over the images: "An unknown number of heavily armed MOVE members continue at large, possibly roaming the alleyways."
That in a nutshell exposes the official paranoia of that awful day. The police were so fixated on the threat posed by MOVE that they were telling reporters about heavily armed gunmen roaming the alleyways of a West Philadelphia neighborhood that no longer existed. It had been reduced to a cinder.
Authorities couldn't believe their own eyes - that they had just killed innocents and destroyed a city block by failing to fight a fire that no human being could survive. So they invented a fiction about superhuman gunmen roaming alleyways while surrounded by hundreds of police.
And the lies continued to pile up.
Video testimony from the MOVE Commission hearings in October 1985 shows a startlingly disengaged Mayor Wilson Goode testifying that he agreed with the police commissioner's recommendation to allow the fire (started by the bomb dropped by a police helicopter) to burn to eliminate the bunker on the roof of the MOVE house. Goode then watched live TV coverage of the spread of the fire from his City Hall office.
The mayor testified that at some point he thought firemen were fighting the blaze, but what he thought was water from the fire hoses was static on his TV. He said this under oath. Millions of others watching from home could hear TV news reporters growing frantic as the fire spread and firefighters stood by watching.
"That's when I gave my first and only order of the day," Goode testified. "Put the fire out." The order was undelivered or ignored by the police and fire commissioners. Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor testified that he didn't convey the mayor's order to the fire commissioner because "he was there." Fire Commissioner William Richmond testified, "I categorically deny ever receiving that order." These three men were in charge. They couldn't see the holocaust for the trees.
Two days after MOVE, I spoke with former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who after his first election in 1971 appointed his brother, Joe Rizzo, as fire commissioner. Rizzo told me, "I talked to my brother Joe. He said, 'If I was fire commissioner and you was mayor, the hoses woulda went.'" Meaning he would have fought the fire no matter what the mayor ordered.
After watching the documentary, my students were appalled, bewildered, shaken. They were angry that they had never heard about MOVE. They were angry that they had never been told about Philadelphia police firing 10,000 bullets into a house holding six children.
"It was like [May 13] was erased from history because of the embarrassment Philadelphia felt during this time," one student wrote.