Rowhouses burn after local officials dropped a bomb on the MOVE house, home of a black liberation group, in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985. AP
Privilege is when you can fire weapons at the police and live to tell about it. For members of the MOVE organization in 1985, no such privilege existed. Following a shootout with the group, in which police went through over ten thousand rounds of ammunition, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor ordered that the group’s compound be bombed. Police Department Lt. Frank Powell dropped two one-pound bombs on the group’s row home, located in a neighborhood in West Philadelphia. This week marked 35 years since that tragic day, the lessons of which we are still wrestling with.
In 1993 ATF agents raided a compound belonging to the religious sect Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh. An armed conflict ensued and soon after, the FBI led a siege, which lasted nearly two months. The siege dragged on for weeks, with no thought of simply bombing the compound and killing all those inside. In 2016, an armed group of far-right extremists seized and occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. That led to a violent standoff that lasted over a month, at no point of which did law enforcement consider bombing the Refuge and killing the armed combatants inside. The scene played out very differently, however, when Philadelphia police went to serve warrants on four members of MOVE, at their row house located in a Black neighborhood in West Philly. One simply must wonder whether color made all of the difference.
Many sources have reported that the neighbors around the MOVE house simply didn’t want them in the neighborhood. There were reports of trash around the home, loud and profane messages being played on a bullhorn and many other nuisances. Still, those neighbors were largely Black and that simply cannot be ignored. When the decision was made to drop two bombs on the MOVE home, it ultimately led to the destruction of 65 homes in the neighborhood: perhaps that simply didn’t matter because of who occupied those homes. In the aftermath, 11 MOVE members (including 5 children) were killed and the city of Philadelphia was left with an ugly scar. Yes, there was an active shoutout (although the details of which are still contested) and perhaps the neighbors really did consider the group a nuisance but to drop bombs on American citizens is simply unconscionable: unless they happen to be Black.
When Tulsa’s Black Wall Street was destroyed in 1921, eyewitnesses reported that planes dropped turpentine bombs onto buildings. The blatant disregard for human life is a familiar theme in history, seen also in 1863 when an angry mob burned down the Colored Orphans Asylum in New York, which housed hundreds of Black children. The Greenwood Massacre in 1921 and the burning of the Orphanage in 1863 seem distant but the MOVE bombing isn’t. It is, even now, a sore wound to Philadelphia and indeed, the nation. Philadelphia’s Mayor in 1985 was a Black man, Wilson Goode. Goode has since apologized and this week, 11 members of Philadelphia’s city council did the same. Even so, the larger question remains and that is one of citizenship. America has shown, repeatedly, that it doesn’t simply execute its citizens without just cause and it certainly doesn’t burn them alive– that treatment is only reserved for Black folks.