It would be easy to write this week about how the Kenney administration’s handling of the MOVE members’ remains is just the latest skirmish in Mayor Kenney’s ongoing war on governmental competence. First, Health Commissioner Farley is canned—without the mayor even speaking to him—because he’d ordered the cremation and destruction of said remains. Then we learn that the remains weren’t destroyed after all, that a Medical Examiner employee had disobeyed Farley’s years-old order.
Even so, an employee of the Medical Examiner’s office has nonetheless been suspended, but for precisely what we don’t know; for disobeying an order the Commissioner was fired for giving? Then we hear from the city’s managing director, who vaguely remembers a conversation with Farley about the remains, but can’t quite put his finger on whatever happened to them.
Then, on Tuesday of this week, the Mayor discloses that the box of remains that miraculously turned up contains 11 different specimens and includes both bone fragments and pieces of organs, and that an investigation by a prominent law firm will go “as wide and deep as we can” in reviewing the city’s handling of all of the remains from the infamous 1985 bombing.
It would be easy right about now to ask of the Kenney administration: You’ve had six years to do this job. Isn’t it about time to get your facts lined up before publicly speaking and acting?
That piece is sitting there, just asking to be written. But the harder one is to ask why this latest indignity in a saga of indignities matters so much, and to dissect the incomplete and inaccurate MOVE narrative we’re given now, 36 years after the tragedy.
First, kudos to Mayor Kenney for getting the emotional impact of this story. He has recognized the pain the MOVE story has long caused for both the city and for members of MOVE, and he’s shed a tear in doing so. That’s important, because, at a time when there’s (finally!) popular agreement that Black Lives Matter, the mishandling of MOVE members’ remains is a reminder that, often, to those in power, Black lives don’t even matter after they’re done living.
Whitewashing the facts
But a strange thing has happened in the 21st century retelling of the MOVE saga. The facts of MOVE’s siege on the city prior to the horrific bombing have been whitewashed. In the last week, one Inquirer story referred to MOVE as a “West Philadelphia activist organization”;  another one referred to MOVE as a “Black liberation group.” An Associated Press story simply called MOVE “a Black organization” and one TV account I saw referred to the group as a “West Philadelphia social justice organization.”
This week, even the The New Yorker got in on the act. In a piece by historian Heather Ann Thompson, who authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacyand is working on a book about MOVE, the serious and serial provocations of MOVE prior to the bombing are strangely glossed-over.
The modern-day retelling of MOVE has placed MOVE as the saga’s sole victim, and has ignored a group that has been victimized time and again by both MOVE and the city: The predominantly Black working class West Philly neighborhood that MOVE terrorized and that the City bombed and then ripped off for decades amid efforts to rebuild it.
So let’s put in context what MOVE was, and what it did. The best recounting of the whole sordid story that I’ve seen is a 1989 Yale Law Journal piece by the terrific MOVE historian and journalist Linn Washington, entitled, MOVE: A Double Standard of Justice?
“MOVE’s complaints against discriminatory practices by Philadelphia’s police and judicial authorities coincide with charges of racism leveled by local Black leaders against city officials since colonial times,” writes Washington. “One historian noted that Black Philadelphians have experienced ‘constant discrimination’ in the application of the laws. Whites who attacked Blacks usually ‘went unpunished; but if a Negro offended, the authorities smote him heavily.’ However, MOVE’s anarchistic, anti-social behavior mitigates its claim of being a blameless victim. MOVE’s propensity for physical assaults and disregard for the rights of its neighbors are as abhorrent as the police brutality it loudly denounces.”
The 1986 MOVE Commission Report, after weeks of public hearings carried live on WHYY-TV, found that, for nearly two years, MOVE had effectively held Osage Avenue hostage. Terrorizing their neighbors, MOVE had reasoned, would pressure the City into releasing the MOVE members who had been imprisoned since the killing of a police officer in the group’s last standoff with police, seven years prior.
“MOVE’s deliberate use of terror included the intentional violation of the basic rights of those living in the Osage Avenue neighborhood,” read the report. “This was achieved by: both verbal and physical assaults upon targeted individuals living in the neighborhood; the periodic broadcast over outdoor loudspeakers of profane harangues against the government and threats of violence against public officials; the public acclaiming by MOVE of the 1978 death of Officer Ramp, and the repeated threat that, if the police come to 6221 Osage Avenue, ‘we’ll put a bullet in your motherfucking heads’; the prominent fortification of an ordinary row house; the aggressive display of a weapon by a hooded man at mid-day in a normally peaceful neighborhood; the compelling domination of the neighborhood by MOVE’s rooftop bunker, which, by itself, became a commanding public notice of imminent confrontation.”
Does that sound like just another “activist organization” to you? Mind you, the Commission didn’t spare city government, either. The report rightly calls the decision to drop the bomb “unconscionable” and “reckless.” Mayor Wilson Goode, the city’s first African-American chief executive, who, until the MOVE confrontation, had enjoyed a national reputation for technocratic competence, is portrayed as a vacillating stooge, whose policy of “appeasement, nonconfrontation and avoidance” had long allowed MOVE to terrorize its neighborhood and stay above the law.
The report cites Goode’s “grossly negligent failure to call a halt of the operation on May 12th, when he knew that children were in the house,” and calls out the abdication of “his responsibilities as a leader when, after mid-day, he permitted a clearly failed operation to continue which posed great risk to life and property.” The Commission called the deaths of the five children who were in the house “unjustifiable homicide” and found that Goode had been “grossly negligent.”
How negligent? Incredibly, the Mayor asked his police commissioner for a tactical plan to evict MOVE, and no plan was ever presented in writing. Instead, Police Commissioner Gregor Sambor bypassed his own department’s command structure and, along with the head of the bomb disposal unit, a sergeant from the pistol range, and a uniform patrolman came up with the idea to drop an incendiary device on the bunker atop the Osage Avenue row home.
Ultimately, a grand jury absolved Goode and his lieutenants of criminal intent but wrote that “we do not exonerate the men responsible for this disaster. Rather than a vindication of those officials, this report should stand as a record of their morally reprehensible behavior.” The MOVE fire, the panel declared, was a fiasco “marked by political cowardice in its inception, inexperience in its planning and ineptitude in its execution.”
The modern day glossing over of what MOVE was and the Keystone Cops-like real time response of the City to the group’s provocations belies the notion advanced in an Inquirer op-ed last week by Mistinguette Smith, that the MOVE bombing was akin to Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood Massacre. In that horrid 1921 case, a city sanctioned the violent decimation by a white mob of a thriving, law-abiding Black business district and community. In the case of MOVE, an incompetent, inhumane and (I would still argue) criminally negligent city government horribly botched an effort to rescue a Black community.
No reconciliation without truth
Today, it is that Black community I can’t stop thinking about. They were victimized for two years by MOVE, and then by the bombing—61 homes lost, 250 taxpayers made homeless—and then the City failed those law-abiding citizens again by hiring a shady construction company to rebuild the homes, the head of which went to prison for embezzling $130,000 of the funds earmarked for the rebuild. The houses that were reconstructed were done shoddily and were eventually uninhabitable. (Finally, thanks to the Kenney administration, the homes have now been rebuilt—four mayoral administrations later—and are on the market.)
Fast forward to 2021. Opera Philadelphia recently produced the compelling We Shall Not Be Moved, the story of five teens whose squatting in a condemned, abandoned West Philly house on the site of the MOVE bombing is inspired by the ghosts of the MOVE radicals, and it is a movingly artistic piece. But, watching it, as with so much else in the modern-day reconsideration of MOVE, you can’t help but feel that the citizens who were the most innocent of victims in the MOVE imbroglio have been essentially erased.
Citizens like Cliff Bond, who was the Osage Avenue block captain at the time of the MOVE bombing. Bond is the character that stayed with me the most after viewing the as-yet unreleased definitive documentary of MOVE, Philly On Fire, by filmmakers Ross Hockrow and Gary Cohen. I wrote about the film upon last year’s 35th anniversary of the tragic event, when City Council issued the city’s first-ever apology for the bombing. The film gives us such intimate portraits of the players on that day, painting those on all sides with broad brushstrokes of humanity, that, in its raw storytelling power, it offers a roadmap to reconciliation.
In Philly on Fire, as in Washington’s Yale Law Journal piece, you get context and straight-shooting. The film’s evocation of Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia is dead-on, even as it becomes clear that it was Goode’s failed leadership, more than the ghost of Rizzo’s racism, that doomed the prospects for a peaceful outcome that day.
In the film, we get the coolly analytical gaze of the aforementioned longtime journalist Washington, arguably the most trusted and credible witness to the MOVE story; the comfortable-in-his-skin humanity of Andino Ward—father of Birdie Africa, the 13-year-old survivor of the blaze; the tortured searching of Jim Berghaier, the cop who saved Birdie and was promptly treated like a traitor to his race by his brethren on the force; the righteous indignation of Ramona Africa, the only adult MOVE survivor, revolutionary to the end; the not-quite-there-yet struggle of Goode to just take full responsibility, hard stop; and the no-nonsense practicality of Bond, who emits no ideological bias.
He doesn’t spare police or MOVE from his withering condemnation. He knows that denouncing the police ought not to mean forgiving or deifying MOVE. And he knows that a terrible human rights tragedy occurred in our city, and we’ve just blithely moved on ever since without really taking into account all the victims of it among us.
The last weeks’ stories about the handling of the MOVE remains have revisited upon us our city’s perpetual albatross. If our public discussion of MOVE bends toward the simplistic, if MOVE is referred to in 21st Century social justice terms, if it is equated to the Tulsa Massacre, if we don’t know the specifics of what led to the tragedy, if we don’t know precisely how the city’s response was so incompetent and inadequate, well, the prospects for ultimate reconciliation will only get more remote.
For, as we learned from South Africa, there can be no reconciliation without truth. That country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, featured raw testimony that bore personal witness to all the injustices apartheid had sanctioned. Only once those emotional complexities had been laid bare through the telling of people’s stories could the body politic move forward.
So it is in Philadelphia today. We don’t need another MOVE Commission, as one Inquirer op-ed writer called for. We need to read the report of the Commission that did its job nearly forty years ago by laying out the damning facts for all involved. Neither MOVE nor the city comes out of that looking good—“you had a bunch of assholes who didn’t bathe and called that politics, and then the city reacted like a freakin’ redneck. Score tied on the stupid meter,” once pithily quipped the former heavyweight boxer and movie actor Randall “Tex” Cobb, who for many years lived in the neighborhood.
But even in Cobb’s glib assessment, there is something missing. An entire working class neighborhood was eviscerated. And a succession of mayors have let them down. No one has been calling for an apology to them. The tragedies of MOVE abound.
Larry Platt is the former editor of The Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia magazine, and the co-author of the bestselling Every Day I Fight, the cancer memoir of ESPN’s Stuart Scott. He has written for New York, GQ, the New York Times Magazine, and Men’s Journal.
This article was republished with permission from The Philadelphia Citizen.