The MOVE House Bombing (May 13, 1985)

Rows of houses burn after Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE house, home of a Black liberation group, in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985. (Source: AP)

On May 13, 1985, flames and ashes rose to the sky as members of the Philadelphia Police Department flew away in helicopters, patting themselves on the back for a good day’s work. Trailing behind them were the corpses of 11 people (six adults, and five children), 61 destroyed homes, and the desolation of 250 neighbors who were left without a roof over their heads.

May 13 marks the infamous anniversary of the bombing of the MOVE house. MOVE was a well-known Black liberation group in Philadelphia headed by John Africa. The organization was known for participating in anti-war protests, questioning capitalism, and living communally in a housing complex on the outskirts of Philadelphia. With the legacy of the Black movement from the 60s and 70s, alongside the organization’s own radical messages of Black liberation, anti-war, and self-defense, MOVE grew to be seen as a threat by the city government.

MOVE members in Powelton Village, Philadelphia, 1978. Image credit: Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Vox.

At first, the city responded to their presence with endless confrontations with their members. Tensions grew over time after several attempts by the police department to evict the group from its residence. One night, after 15 months of pushback, one police officer died in such a confrontation. Up to this day, there is no clear evidence as to whether the bullet came from MOVE or the police, but the outcome was a lifelong sentence for nine of the MOVE members. Meanwhile, during this same period, the police were recorded on camera violently beating Delbert Africa, one of the members, after his peaceful surrender. None of the police officers that blatantly kicked and assaulted Delbert on camera were ever prosecuted for their actions.

The controversial death of the police officer served as an excuse for the city government to perpetrate more extreme actions to remove the organization from Philadelphia. The group relocated to another house, but its persecution never ended. Three years later, new orders from the city were passed threatening evictions once again. After hearing that the MOVE members refused to leave their home, the city of Philadelphia ordered the Police Department to drop a bomb on the house, fully aware that there were people inside, including children, and that other neighborhood homes would be threatened by the bomb. The house exploded in flames, and there was no attempt to stop the fire until several hours later. The result was death and devastation. The only person sent to jail because of this event was Ramona Africa — one of the only two people that escaped alive. She was sent to prison for seven years, while the officers linked to the bombing were never prosecuted. Instead, they got raises and promotions for their actions.

May 13, 1985 was a horrific display of the racism of this country, in blood and fire. In the wake of this horror, neither Delbert nor Ramona Africa received a fair trial. Both were forced to spend their lives in jail because of a blatantly racist judicial system. The lives of 11 revolutionary activists were taken by the Philadelphia police in cold blood, with no consequences for the perpetrators. Their deaths remind us of the racism and violence experienced by Black people every day under capitalism. We value and remember those lives today.

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