Police State/Civil Liberties

28 Years Ago The Philadelphia Police Department Bombed and Burned a City Block

By Lucy Steigerwald

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Photo credit: Cherri Gregg/via CBS Philly

The 1993 Waco siege is often categorized as one of the more violent, militaristic, domestic actions by U.S. law enforcement in recent memory. And it should be. At the Branch Davidian’s “compound” a fatal combination of government arrogance, fear, impatience, and aggression lead to 76 bodies, including 20 children.

A less bloody confrontation took place in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985 — but the relatively low body count in the MOVE standoff (11 people, including 5 children) was no thanks to law enforcement. MOVE were a group of black activists who were anti-technology and government, pro-environmentalist, and who had a history of confrontations with law enforcement. Their neighbors had complained the group was loud and messy and aggressive. On May 13, attempts to evict MOVE and serve arrest warrants for four of the members led to an armed standoff. And when law enforcement grew too impatient to wait out the group, they simply dropped a C4/Tovex bomb on the house — ostensibly to dislodge a wooden structure on the roof — which turned into a fire that spread unchecked  and took out 60-some homes, the entire block.

Like Waco, this standoff with so-called radicals involved disputed who-fired-first exchanges of gunfire; it also involved members being jailed, while government and law enforcement officials got — at best — a stern talking-to. By 1999, when law enforcement finally admitted they had used incendiary devices at Waco, many people felt that the standoff had been a disaster. But nobody in the ATF, FBI, or Department of Justice was ever charged. And nine surviving Branch Davidians went to jail, one for 15 years.

There are more parallels with Waco: accusations that the MOVE members set a fire themselves, counter-accusations that police held firefighters back (this was definitely true at Waco and MOVE both).

Today CBS Philly has an interview with one of two survivors of the standoff, Ramona Africa:

“The whole house shook, but we didn’t know what it was,” says Africa, recalling the moment the city dropped explosives on the MOVE home on Osage Avenue. “We didn’t even know initially that there was a fire.”

Africa says she was in the basement when the bomb hit.

She and her family were holed up, in a standoff with police and other city officials.

Africa says the authorities employed water tactics and tear gas…then the explosives.

“We tried to get our children, our animals, ourselves out of that blazing inferno,” she says. “And as the cops saw us coming out, they opened fire.”

Accounts of the day vary. Philadelphia police have disputed Africa’s account. She escaped, with injuries, along with one child survivor, Birdie Africa, who was 13 at the time.

“We never saw Birdie again after that until my criminal trial,” she says. “He testified. His mother was killed in the bombing.”

Africa spent seven years in prison for her part in the standoff, but no one from the city was ever charged. She filed a civil lawsuit against the city and won after years of litigation.

The rest over here.

The point? Only that law enforcement began militarizing before there was a Department of Homeland Security to offer plush grants for cool new tech. And while Waco may have been a high-water mark in domestic brutality, MOVE also deserves to be remembered. Both incidents serve to underline the point that long before terrorism was the excuse for a “war at home,” that war was already happening for unsympathetic groups in the United States. And as in any war, if the casualties are not members of a favorite elite, their deaths are nothing more than unfortunate collateral damage.

2 replies »

  1. My father was a Philadelphia Police Lieutenant who was at the event. I was 15 at the time. He gave me paperwork showing what each SWAT team unit was armed with, including a .50 machine gun that was positioned in a house across the street and raked the front of the MOVE house until it ran out of ammo. My Dad was friends with the Bomb Squad Lieutenant who actually dropped the bomb. He gave my Dad a bottle of whiskey for Christmas on year. After the MOVE event I stole it and brought it to a party. lol

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