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35 Years After MOVE Bombing That Killed 11, Philadelphia Apologizes
A police helicopter dropped an explosive charge onto the roof of a rowhouse during an armed standoff in 1985. The resultant fire destroyed 61 homes in a West Philadelphia neighborhood.
Workers searching through the rubble in West Philadelphia on May 15, 1985, two days after a police helicopter dropped an improvised bomb onto a rowhouse, leaving 11 people dead.Credit...George Widman/Associated Press
By John Ismay
Published Nov. 13, 2020Updated May 15, 2021
The Philadelphia City Council this week formally apologized for the decision in 1985 to drop an improvised bomb on a rowhouse occupied by the MOVE separatist group, a desperate action that resulted in a fire that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes.
The resolution, approved on Thursday, marked the first time that the city had formally apologized for the action. The measure, which also calls for an annual day of remembrance on May 13, the anniversary of the bombing, was sponsored by Jamie Gauthier, a city councilwoman who grew up near the West Philadelphia neighborhood where the bombing happened.
Ms. Gauthier recalled watching the aftermath of the bombing on television as a child, and said that the neighborhood was only now starting to fully recover from the devastation.
“There have been divisions in our city between police and community for decades, and I think if we had done the true work of acknowledging what happened with MOVE and with other acts of police violence, and we had really worked on not only the acknowledgment but building better relationships and working towards reconciliation, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the place we are now,” she said in an interview on Friday.
“It was always striking to me that we did this, that our city did this and that no one ever was held accountable,” she added. “I thought that was unconscionable.”
Ms. Gautier began circulating a draft resolution before the May 13 anniversary of the MOVE attack, but the effort stalled and then was delayed because of coronavirus restrictions. The May 25 killing of George Floyd gave renewed energy to the resolution, she said, and the need to recognize the effects that police killings of Black people have had on the community grew even more with the Oct. 26 killing of Walter Wallace Jr., who was fatally shot by the police during an encounter in the same neighborhood where the MOVE home once stood.
In a statement, Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia acknowledged the resolution’s importance. “In an effort to learn from our past and do better by our residents in the future, this annual day of observation is a positive step in the healing process our city desperately needs,” he said. “This year we saw the pain and trauma caused by the MOVE bombing are still alive in West Philadelphia, so I commend Council for taking this step toward healing.”
The mayor acknowledged missteps in the city’s attempts to rebuild the neighborhood in the years immediately following the attack, but said a recent public-private partnership had succeeded in reconstructing homes in the affected area.
MOVE, a group described by members as “a back-to-nature movement” that would return the United States to Native Americans and do away with all government, was deemed an “authoritarian, violence-threatening cult” by city officials, who said that the group used threats, abuse and intimidation to terrify their neighbors and to bring about confrontation. At the time of the attack, the police were acting to clear the group out of a rowhouse at 6221 Osage Avenue in response to neighbors’ complaints of filthy conditions in the house and nightlong amplified lectures from MOVE members.
At 6 a.m. on May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police came under gunfire from people inside the home, which led to a daylong standoff. Throughout the day, the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission later found, the police fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition in less than 90 minutes at the rowhouse, which was occupied by men, women and children. Calling the police officers’ actions “clearly excessive and unreasonable,” the commission’s report acknowledged that the police were unable to fully suppress the gunfire coming from the home and that efforts to negotiate with the people inside had been haphazard and fruitless.
A woman was comforted as she returned to her destroyed neighborhood days after the fire.Credit...Jack Kanthal/Associated Press
Police bomb squad members fashioned an improvised bomb out of plastic explosives, and an officer dropped the charge from a helicopter onto the roof of the MOVE rowhouse in an effort to destroy a fortified bunker the group had built there. At 5:27 p.m. the bomb detonated, which started a fire that the police ordered firefighters to let burn. The blaze spread, ultimately destroying 60 other nearby homes.
“The plan to bomb the MOVE house was reckless, ill-conceived and hastily approved,” the commission’s report said in 1986. “Dropping a bomb on an occupied rowhouse was unconscionable and should have been rejected out-of-hand.”
“The hasty, reckless and irresponsible decision by the police commissioner and the fire commissioner to use the fire as a tactical weapon was unconscionable,” the report added.
The deaths of 11 people, six adults and five children, in the police action were classified as “unjustified homicides.”
Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, who directed the aerial bombing, resigned in November 1985. A grand jury in 1988 cleared Mayor W. Wilson Goode and other top city officials of criminal liability for death and destruction resulting from the operation.
In an op-ed published by The Guardian on May 10, Mr. Goode, the former mayor, called on the city to issue a formal apology for the attack. “I apologize and encourage others do the same,” Mr. Goode wrote. “We will be a better city for it.”
Police officers on a rooftop as fires burned after the bomb was dropped on MOVE headquarters.Credit...George Widman/Associated Press