Director Jason Osder, in his 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn, resurrected an oft forgotten clash between Philadelphia government officials and the MOVE organization (the radical, revolutionary group who sought to push away from government, technology, big business and industry). Five children and six adults died.
On May 13, 1985, after many years of battle between MOVE and the Philadelphia police, the MOVE compound at 6221 Osage Avenue was bombed from the air and allowed to burn for over four hours. In all, 11 lives were lost and 61 homes burned to the ground, their residents returning to little more than smoke, ashes and promises from government officials to help them rebuild their lives and community.
MOVE was (and remains) a Philadelphia-based organization that focuses on a natural life and hopes to remove itself from the trappings of what it deems the “reform world system.” The group—whose members live communally and consider themselves one large, extended family—was founded by John Africa in 1972, and was initially named the Christian Movement for Life. Africa’s The Guidelines is a text that offers teaching and protocol for members of the Africa family (all members of MOVE take Africa as their last name), and what members continue to use as a life guide even today.
As with most of the “radical” groups of the late 1960s and early ’70s (and I place radical in parentheses because we seem to have demonized the origin of the word, which essentially describes something or someone that breaks away from tradition or the status quo), the MOVE family was met with hostility from neighbors and members of their own community.
Their yard was filled with compost piles, which included both garbage and human waste. They covered their windows and doors with plywood and often demonstrated against structures they resented by screaming obscenities through bullhorns towards neighbors. In other words, although annoying and not desirable neighbors, the MOVE family was breaking no laws.
Since its inception in ’72, MOVE members were pressured to leave their compound in Powelton Village (a community in West Philly). On August 8, 1978, after a yearlong standoff with local police, police officers attempted to gain entry to the compound to formally evict and push out MOVE members. Police officer James J. Ramp was murdered. (Many argue that the officer was killed by friendly police fire since he was shot in the back of the head as he supposedly faced the MOVE home.)
Those 1978 events led to the arrest and imprisonment of nine MOVE members for Officer Ramp’s murder, and escalated tensions between MOVE and local police. MOVE members eventually moved to 6221 Osage Avenue and continued to be harassed by police and government officials.
Imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, an avid supporter of MOVE who initially requested that John Africa represent him during his murder trial, had this to say about the harassment that culminated in the bombing of the MOVE compound:
But on that day, more than MOVE members died. The city died, too. Its politicians died, its media died, its courts died, and its churches and houses of worship died, for they ceased to function, and they served power and money. In a very real sense, the city massacred itself, for one’s faith in such institutions died. They became empty, hollow and dead, but for the shell.
Ramona Africa, one of only two survivors of the blaze, recounted MOVE members desire to evacuate the house once they realized it was set on fire:
The adults were hollering out that ‘we’re coming out, we’re bringing the children out.’ The children were hollering that they were coming out, that we were bringing them out. And we know that the police heard us. But the instant, the very instant, that we were visible to them, you know, trying to come out, they immediately opened fire. We were met with a barrage of police gunfire. And you could see it hitting all around us, all around the house. And it forced us back into that blazing inferno, several times. And finally, you know, you’re in a position where either you choke to death and burn alive or you possibly are shot to death.
Let the Fire Burn (its title adopted from city officials’ orders to police and firefighters to “let the fire burn”) borrows a great deal of footage from a special investigative commission established to examine the actions of city officials. In 1986, the commission found that the bombing of the row house was “unconscionable.” In ’96, a civil suit was sought and won by the families of two MOVE members killed in the deliberate fire. A federal jury decided that the city of Philadelphia used excessive force in capturing MOVE members and violated the organization’s right to unreasonable searches and seizures.
The original nine members arrested for Officer Ramp’s murder are still imprisoned. Ramona Africa continues to champion their release and is now considered the face of MOVE. Birdie Africa, whose name later became Michael Ward and is the only other survivor of the bombing, died last year after drowning on a cruise ship.