On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE group's home and killed 11 people — then allowed the fire to burn 61 surrounding homes to the ground.
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 rowhouse at 6221 Osage Avenue. After a moment, two C-4 explosives dropped from the helicopter, and the rowhouse below burst into flames.
Inside the rowhouse, 11 members of the Black liberation group MOVE died horribly in the flames. MOVE co-founder John Africa was among them, and his corpse was so mangled that he couldn't be identified for months.
Firefighters were ordered to let the fire burn. As a result, 61 homes burned, leaving 250 people homeless.
This deadly event, now known as the MOVE bombing, remains one of the most violent yet often overlooked actions taken against civilians by American police. This is the story of a standoff turned deadly, following years of escalating tensions between the Philadelphia Police and a Black activist group.
Inside John Africa's MOVE Organization
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 Philadelphia-based Black liberation group devoted to several diverse causes.
Following John Africa's teachings, MOVE members ate raw food diets, wore natural hairstyles, and protested against the Vietnam War and police brutality. MOVE was against science and technology and instead encouraged a back-to-nature philosophy.
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 lived communally in a house in Philadelphia's Powelton Village, and later the house on Osage Avenue.
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 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 obtained a warrant to evict the MOVE organization from their Powelton Village home in West Philadelphia. 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 Philadelphia policeman attempted to get inside the house. A shootout ensued that 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 evidence backs the MOVE organization's claim that they couldn't have been responsible for his death.
Nevertheless, a jury found them guilty. Nine 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.
The Deadly 1985 MOVE Bombing
By 1985 the MOVE organization had moved to a new home on Osage Avenue in a predominantly Black middle-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia. After neighbors repeatedly complained about MOVE members issuing obscene political announcements over bullhorns and unsanitary conditions in the MOVE house, 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. Residents in the nearby homes had been evacuated in advance of the arrests and told that they should be safely back in their homes by the next day.
A little past 5:30 a.m. police appeared on the scene. "Attention, MOVE ... This is America," the police said into a megaphone. "You have to abide by the laws of the United States."
Nearly 500 police officers descended on the neighborhood. They approached the house with arrest warrants, but 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.
The police, however, had prepared for this. They lobbed tear gas canisters into the building, and they were also armed with the likes of machine guns and flak jackets. In retaliation, the MOVE members fired at them, defending their territory.
According to the city of Philadelphia's official report on the incident, police fired 10,000 rounds on the MOVE rowhouse in a 90 minute period and had to ask the police academy to send more bullets. Still, MOVE members remained inside their compound.
Amid the gunfight, SWAT teams tried unsuccessfully to blast holes in the sides of the MOVE house from neighboring rowhouses. The standoff lasted throughout the day. In a press conference, Mayor Wilson Goode stated his intention to "seize control of the house ... by any means possible."
Several hours after the standoff had begun, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor made a decision that would have deadly consequences. He ordered that the rowhouse be bombed via helicopter. According to the police and the mayor, the plan was to destroy the bunker that MOVE members had built on their roof.
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 generator sitting in the rooftop bunker. As it exploded, the generator sparked, causing a fire.
Despite the threat of 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 had stopped shooting and that the police themselves shot at MOVE members who were fleeing the burning house.
Ramona Africa, the only adult to emerge from the burning MOVE rowhouse, confirmed that police were still firing even as the building burned. "We tried several times to get out, but each time we were shot back into the house. This was a clear indication that they didn't intend for any of us to survive that attack."
Only one other person escaped death in the MOVE bombing — 13-year-old Birdie Africa, who ran naked out of the burning building with his body covered in second- and third-degree burns.
The fire spread quickly in the narrow streets of Philadelphia, leaping from treetops to rooftops and engulfing 61 homes on three blocks. The flames could be seen at Philadelphia International Airport, six miles away, and smoke hung over the whole city.
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.
Philadelphia Reckons With The Aftermath Of The Bombing
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 rowhouse known to be occupied, especially by children, was "unconscionable."
The commission also reported, with one lone dissenter, that they believed the bombing would not have taken place "had the MOVE house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood." 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, none of the police officers or city officials involved in the bombing were ever charged or tried. The only person who faced repercussions was Ramona Africa, who was incarcerated for seven years following the Philadelphia 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.
Additionally, $90,000 was rewarded to each of the families of adult victims of the fire, and the city of Philadelphia ultimately paid out $25 million in settlements to the parents of the five children who died. Additionally, Michael Moses Ward aka Birdie Africa was paid $1.7 million.
"Money don't have nothing to do with this," Ramona Africa said at the time of the 1996 verdict. "... 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."
Ramona Africa is the last living survivor of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. Ward died in 2013 in a drowning on board a cruise ship. In 2018, Ramona Africa announced that she's battling lymphoma, which she and remaining MOVE members believe was caused by chemicals in the bombing and PTSD.
However, unlike the bloody standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge where police acted against white citizens, the violence against the Black liberation group on Osage Avenue has been largely forgotten.
Now more than thirty years after the bombing, many people in West Philadelphia have no idea that not too long ago, not too far from where they're standing, eleven people — five of them children — lost their lives in one of the most vicious cases of excessive force the United States has ever seen.
After reading about the Philadelphia MOVE bombing, read about the true stories of the "roof Koreans" who took up arms during the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. Then, learn about the Tulsa Race Riots, when a white mob burned down Black Wall Street.