Bad Behavior

Philadelphia: The Only U.S. City To Bomb Itself

A policeman stands guard near the remains of 61 row houses

A policeman stands guard near the remains of 61 row houses days after they were destroyed by the fire, source.

In May of 1985, police lieutenant Frank Powell leaned out of a helicopter and tossed a gym bag of explosives onto a residential row home in West Philadelphia. Six adults and five children were killed and 61 homes were totally destroyed. Many of the destroyed homes were hastily rebuilt and are still in poor condition today. Most of them are now boarded up.

So how did Philly drop a bomb on itself? Even here today, the event is not well remembered. Is it blocked out of everyone’s minds because it was so terrible, was it too embarrassing to remember? First we should explore how it even happened.

A man walks with a baby, unarmed, as police are heavily armed with guns.

A man leaves the neighborhood as police begin their raid on MOVE, source.

It all began in 1977 with an organization called MOVE. The group was founded in 1972 by Korean War vet John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart), who advocated for radical green (nature loving, vegan, etc.) politics and “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle choices. Which means he opposed modern medicine, science and technology.

MOVE members guard their compound with sawed off shotguns

MOVE members guard their compound with sawed-off shotguns, source.

As a child John Africa suffered from a learning disability and as an adult he had only about a third grade education. But he was charismatic and curious, if not intense, and he found others were interested in his ideas on freedom and nature. The group’s ideas evolved into a fringe militant group/black liberation/nature-loving movement, but their unbending beliefs and tactics put them at odds with many other black radical groups.

Smoke billows from the fire as it spreads

Smoke billows from the fire as it spreads, source.

Neighbors watch as the fire begins to destroy their neighborhood

Neighbors watch as the fire begins to destroy their neighborhood, source.

As MOVE became more radical in May of 1977, Philadelphia police placed their headquarters on 24-hour surveillance. The surveillance was deemed necessary after armed MOVE members threatened the lives of police officers, reporters and city officials when four of their members were arrested.

Fifteen months passed and not much happened despite the surveillance. MOVE used bullhorns to rant at all hours of the day on the street and littered their property with garbage and human waste but there was no further confrontation. But then neighbors, angry about the amount of vermin and pests the house was attracting, reported the neglect. The police took the complaint in hand and raided the property, even bulldozing a portion of the house, and serving MOVE members an eviction notice.

MOVE members at their first headquarters

MOVE members at their first headquarters, source.

Man held at gunpoint

Delbert, a MOVE member, surrenders unarmed to police in 1978 only to be beaten by them. All of it is captured in photographs, none of the officers are punished, source.

The raid forced the simmering pot to finally blow and a shootout between police and MOVE members resulted in an officer’s death. Eighteen people were severely wounded in all and nine MOVE members were ultimately convicted of murder.

Angry, the remaining members moved to a new rowhouse where they acted much as before, turning it into a fortified compound. Police responded this time with tear gas and then sprayed water to force out the residents. When that failed, they exchanged gunfire once again with MOVE members.

MOVE's rooftop bunker as it is sprayed by water by police

MOVE’s rooftop bunker as it is sprayed with water by police, source.

Flames from the bomb burn through the rowhouses

Flames from the bomb burn through the rowhouses, source.

Some MOVE members moved to their rooftop bunker to keep tabs on the police. It was also where they were storing their weapons and barrels of oil. Despite other adults and children inside the home, police commissioner Gregore Sambor ordered explosives to be dropped onto the roof. The police guessed that six adults and as many as 12 children were inside. It was, apparently, a risk they were willing to take.

Other residents of the street were evacuated from their homes with orders to take clothing and toothbrushes. Police assured them this was only temporary, they’d be back in their homes by the next day. It was a sign that they would not know the enormity of what was about to happen.

Reconstruction in December of 1985

Reconstruction in December of 1985, source.

When the explosives were dropped on the roof, in the ultimate display of excessive force, the barrels of oil and weapons stored there caused an enormous explosion and then an inferno. The devastation was significantly larger than the police had, at least officially, predicted. The city had also turned off electricity and water on the entire block in preparation for the showdown. In the aftermath 11 people were dead (including children) and 61 neighboring homes were destroyed as the fire ripped down the row, leaving hundreds homeless. Only two MOVE members escaped the house alive.

Burned out buildings

The devastation from the bomb and fire, source.

People search through rubble

The search for bodies the next day, source.

On the day the bomb was dropped, John Africa was fatally shot by police during an armed standoff on the city street. The mayor, who approved the bombing, and the city officials who carried it out never faced any repercussions.

Boarded up homes.

The street and some of the homes in 2015, source.

This post cannot answer why many people don’t remember this event today. There’s an interesting article that wrestles with that here, if you’re interested. In recent years that question and the event itself have been grappled with online, and covered on PBS and NPR a little more extensively, but the MOVE bombing is still not well-known. Which is why I wrote this post. Not to be inflammatory or upsetting or even to rubberneck at it. But as a man who darkly echoes many intolerances of the past comes into power, we can see why it is dangerous to forget the past…for it only repeats itself when we do.

You can read about what it’s like to live on this block today, here.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4