Philadelphia City Council Apologizes For Deadly 1985 Police Bombing Of Black Liberation Group HQ


The Philadelphia City Council has voted to formally apologize for a police bombing that devastated a black neighborhood more than 35 years ago, leaving 11 people dead, destroying 61 homes, and displacing hundreds of residents.

According to The New York Times, the city’s police force used a helicopter to drop “an improvised bomb” onto a rowhouse occupied by a revolutionary, black liberation group on May 13, 1985, resulting in the deaths of six adults and five children.Thursday’s resolution says that the decisions made by municipal leaders at the time “failed to use the best judgment and strategies” and contributed to a culture of distrust between black people and law enforcement that is still prevalent. Its passage establishes “an annual day of observation, reflection and recommitment” on the anniversary of the incident “in the spirit of moving forward, reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all people in the City of Philadelphia.”

The New York Times reports:

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.

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 police commissioner who directed the operation resigned later that year, and a grand jury cleared other top city officials of criminal liability in 1988. The deaths were classified as “unjustified homicides.”

MOVE is not an acronym formed from other words. The group was founded in 1972 by Vincent Leaphart, who would go on to take the name John Africa. According to The Washington Post, “MOVE’s confrontations with law enforcement were becoming increasingly violent” in the years leading up to the bombing.

The N.Y. Times quoted Democratic City Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier, the measure’s sponsor, who grew up near the neighborhood in West Philadelphia where the bombing occurred.

Gauthier said: “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.”

After the death of George Floyd sparked a nationwide movement to “defund the police” earlier this year, Gauthier advocated for reducing the department’s budget and implementing other reforms. Her resolution said the uprisings in Philadelphia and across America reflect “a reckoning with our country’s past and the institutional racism and societal inequity that exists today.”

“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,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney in a statement. “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.”

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