The MOVE Bombing: When Police Dropped Explosives On A Black Liberation Group

Published February 26, 2018

See the horror of the 1985 MOVE bombing that saw Philadelphia police drop two explosives on the home of a black liberation group.

Move Bombing

Bettmann/Getty ImagesAerial view of smoke rising from the smoldering rubble of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985.

On May 13, 1985, a police helicopter flew over a residential street in West Philadelphia. The chopper circled for a few minutes before settling above a row house at 6221 Osage Avenue. After a moment, two bombs dropped from the helicopter, causing the row house below to burst into flames.

This deadly event that killed 11 people is now known as the MOVE bombing, one of the most violent yet often overlooked actions taken against civilians by an American police force.

To understand the MOVE bombing, one must understand the MOVE organization that was targeted. Founded in 1972 by a man named John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart), MOVE is often described as a black liberation group devoted to several diverse causes.

The group “disdains modern technology and materialism and the establishment,” The New York Times wrote just after the bombing, and “advocated a ‘back-to-nature’ lifestyle and preached against technology,” said CNN later.

Furthermore, the members of the MOVE organization took Africa’s surname. They believed that taking the name showed their reverence to their mother continent. In addition, they all wore their hair in dreadlocks and lived communally in a house in Philadelphia’s Powelton Village, and later the house on Osage Avenue.

Move Bombing Aerial Photo
MOVE Bombing Smoke
Move Organization Supporter Carried Away
Move Bombing Helicopter
The MOVE Bombing: When Police Dropped Explosives On A Black Liberation Group
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In their communal houses, the members practiced a green lifestyle, lived largely as hunter-gatherers, opposed science and medicine, and advocated for animal rights. So strong were their views that they would regularly stage demonstrations at institutions that they opposed (such as zoos) as well as political rallies.

As they stashed and brandished weapons in public while also threatening city officials and broadcasting their messages over loudspeakers, the group began to draw concern from members of the community including both frightened or annoyed neighbors who contacted the police.

In 1977, the police finally obtained a warrant to evict the MOVE organization from their Powelton Village home. However, the MOVE members refused to vacate their home, holding out for an entire year, even after promising they'd leave and turn over their weapons if the city released several MOVE members from jail (which the city did).

On Aug. 8, 1978, with the MOVE organization set to be evicted, a policeman attempted to get inside the house. A shootout ensued ended with a cop dead and MOVE organization members blamed for it.

However, medical evidence showed that the cop had been shot from behind and above, while MOVE members were all in front of him and in the basement, according to the police's own admission. This suggests, as MOVE members claim, that they couldn't have been responsible for his death.

Nevertheless, a jury found them guilty. Nine of the MOVE members, later known as the "MOVE 9," were sentenced to prison over the police officer's death, and seven of them remain there today. From that point on, the MOVE organization was viewed as an enemy by the Philadelphia police.

In 1985 with the MOVE organization now on Osage Avenue, police obtained another warrant, this time for the arrests of several MOVE members. The members in question were being investigated for parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terroristic threats.

When the police approached the house with arrest warrants, the MOVE members wouldn't budge. In a repeat of the 1978 standoff, the members had barricaded themselves inside the home, were refusing to follow police orders, and began firing on the police according to the Philadelphia Inquirer and the police, as reported in The New York Times.

The police, however, had prepared for this. They lobbed tear gas canisters into the building (they were also armed with the likes of machine guns and flak jackets). In retaliation, the MOVE members fired at them, defending their territory.

Several hours after the standoff had begun, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor made a decision that would haunt him and have deadly consequences. He ordered that the row house be bombed via helicopter. According to the police and the mayor, the plan was to destroy the bunker that was sitting atop the house.

A few minutes later, the helicopter appeared overhead. The police gave the MOVE members one more chance to exit, then dropped two bombs.

The bombs made contact with a gas-powered rooftop generator sitting in the rooftop bunker. As it exploded, the generator sparked, causing a fire. Within minutes, the entire block was ablaze with almost 60 rowhouses engulfed in flames.

As MOVE organization members ran out of the burning building, they shouted at police that it wasn't just adult members inside – there were children in the building too. Despite the threat of young lives being lost, the firefighters were ordered to stand down and let the buildings burn.

Perhaps, as the mayor stated, this was out of fear that MOVE members would target any firefighters who approached. At the same time, other witnesses alleged that MOVE members weren't still shooting and that the police themselves shot at MOVE members who were fleeing the burning house.

By the end of the night, 250 people in West Philadelphia were left homeless and eleven people were dead. MOVE founder John Africa was among the dead as were five children under the age of 13.

Due to the deadly consequences of the MOVE bombing, an investigation was soon launched. The police commissioner stepped down and a commission was formed to investigate the MOVE bombing. In the end, the commission found that dropping bombs on a row house known to be occupied, especially by children, was "unconscionable." In the wake of the findings, Mayor W. Wilson Goode made a public apology.

However, as far as criminal penalties for the MOVE bombing went, the only one who faced repercussions was Ramona Africa, the lone surviving adult MOVE member, who was incarcerated for seven years following the MOVE bombing, after being found guilty of rioting and conspiracy.

Ultimately in 1996, a jury found that authorities had used excessive force and violated the MOVE organization's constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The city was forced to pay $500,000 to Ramona Africa and $1 million to relatives of John Africa, according to CNN, who summarized the other city payouts thusly:

"Relatives of the adult victims in the fire had collected $90,000 each and the city paid a total of $25 million to settle lawsuits filed by the parents of the five children who died. Another $1.7 million was paid to Michael Moses Ward, known as "Birdie Africa" when he fled the MOVE house in 1985 at age 13."

"Money don't have nothing to do with this," Ramona Africa said at the time of the 1996 verdict, according to CNN. "... This is about taking a stand for all people so that this government knows that the people ain't gonna have them bombing people and burning people alive."

Many people who walk the streets of West Philadelphia never realize that not too long ago, not too far from where they're standing, eleven people, five of them children, lost their lives to one of the most vicious acts of excessive force the United States has ever seen.

After reading about the MOVE bombing, read about the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination conspiracy theory surrounding Loyd Jowers. Then, see the most powerful photos from the civil rights movement.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That Is Interesting.
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