The MOVE Raid and a City Changed Forever

Essayist Clark DeLeon remembers the events of 20 years ago in Philadelphia, when city police dropped a bomb on the headquarters of MOVE — a radical, armed revolutionary group. Eleven people died in the house, and the resulting fire destroyed 61 neighborhood homes. DeLeon shares his thoughts on how the MOVE confrontation changed his city forever.

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On May 13th, 1985, the Philadelphia Police attempted to evict a group of obnoxious residents from a middle-class row house block in west Philadelphia, members of a radical group called MOVE.


Twenty years ago, Clark Deleon was a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He recalls the event known today simply as `the MOVE confrontation' and how it changed his city forever.

DELEON: MOVE had provoked police over a period of months. MOVE members harangued their neighbors with rants on loudspeakers at all hours, and taunted cops by turning their three-story brick house into an imposing fortress with gun-slit windows and a sniper bunker on the roof.

The MOVE confrontation began at dawn. A police bullhorn barked, `Attention, MOVE. This is America ordering MOVE members to surrender.' A gunfight broke out. Ten thousand bullets were fired by police into the MOVE house during a one-sided shootout. After a lull of 10 hours, the mayor OK'd a police plan to drop a bomb on the roof of the MOVE house to destroy the sniper bunker. The bomb, containing C4 military explosive, was dropped from a helicopter at 5:27 PM.

The explosion failed to damage the bunker, but started a fire which was allowed to burn. Philadelphia firefighters were ordered by police not to fight the blaze for a full hour. By midnight, nothing but ashes remained of an entire city block. Sixty-one homes and the lifelong possessions of 250 Philadelphia residents were consumed in a biblical tower of flame. Eleven MOVE members died, including five children under the age of 13.

A stunned city awoke the next morning, shocked and bewildered by the enormity of the mistakes made by the mayor and the police. Five children had burned alive, a city block destroyed. And yet no one in authority got in trouble for it. After a special MOVE commission investigation and a grand jury, no one was charged with wrongdoing, no one lost a job or was docked a day's pay. The mayor was re-elected. When it came to outrage, Philadelphia shrugged.

Complicating matters was the politics of race. The MOVE members were black. Their middle-class neighbors were black. The city managing director was black. And the man at the top, Wilson Goode, was Philadelphia's first black mayor. The police and fire commissioners, however, were white. In the realpolitik of urban America 20 years ago, everyone in Philadelphia understood without being asked what would have happened if five black children had been bombed by police and burned alive on the watch of a white mayor. Had Mother Teresa been there, she would have been toast. And so an unspoken deal was cut within us all, black and white. We accepted the inexcusable. Black Philadelphia and white Philadelphia were at last united by indifference. We wore our shame like the mark of Cain.

Twenty years later, the physical scars from that May 13th are still vivid. The once cheerful park-side blocks on Osage Avenue and Pine Streets on the city's suburban border are dominated by ugly boarded-up windows and triple-padlocked doors on 37 houses the city condemned. After two decades of seeking satisfaction from the city, the 24 surviving homeowners went to federal court and, last month, won judgments of $530,000 for each house. The city of Philadelphia has filed an appeal which could take another three years.

Meanwhile, surviving MOVE members bought a spacious Victorian twin near the University of Pennsylvania with money awarded for the wrongful deaths of the children. They are reported to be ideal neighbors.

CHADWICK: Clark Deleon is a columnist and author living in west Philadelphia, not far from the current MOVE house.

And DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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