I'm From Philly. 30 Years Later, I'm Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing : Code Switch Philadelphia native Gene Demby was 4 years old when city police dropped a bomb on a house of black activists in his hometown. Thirty years later, he's still trying to make sense of it all.
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I'm From Philly. 30 Years Later, I'm Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing

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I'm From Philly. 30 Years Later, I'm Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing

I'm From Philly. 30 Years Later, I'm Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing

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Let's learn the story of a neighborhood stuck in time; it's a neighborhood in Philadelphia, the city where NPR's Gene Demby grew up. He was a kid when something awful happened in Philadelphia. He's thought about that event ever since, so he finally went to see it for himself.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: So we are four or five doors down from 6221 which was the MOVE compound.

INSKEEP: The MOVE compound; that was just a row house on a street of row houses in May of 1985. Thirty years after the events of that month, this block of Osage Avenue still show signs of trauma.

DEMBY: There are a few houses that are occupied, but the houses are mostly empty. There are plywood doors, wood over the windows; the doors have padlocks on them.

INSKEEP: Gene Demby went to that block because 30 years ago, a police helicopter dropped a bomb on that address. Eleven people were killed including five children, scores of row houses burned. It's an almost incomprehensible story - it was then; it is now. And so Gene Demby is in our studios to try to help explain it. Gene, why has this story eaten at you for so long?

DEMBY: It's eaten at me because it is so incomprehensible. When I was growing up in Philly, if you went to a large enough black event - black cultural event, you would see signs expressing solidarity with MOVE. So I had a sense that MOVE was part of the political life of black Philadelphians, and I had a sense that they were involved in something large, but I didn't know what that was.

INSKEEP: Well, what was MOVE, this organization that you would see the signs for when you were a kid?

DEMBY: So MOVE was actually a group that was hard to pin down ideologically. I mean, it was hard to tell if they were a cult; it was hard to tell if they were a political organization. They ate raw food; they were anti-technology; they protested outside of the zoo and outside of pet shops because they were pro-animal rights. They often ramified the other black radical groups in the city. MOVE made it a point to be sort of un-categorizable, and that was part of the reason why people had a hard time dealing with them.

As time went on, MOVE became more antagonistic to the people who live near them and more antagonistic to the police. There was a big standoff with the police in 1978 in which there was a shootout and a police officer was killed. It was really easy to categorize MOVE as a radical group, and the city categorized them as terrorists.

INSKEEP: Terrorists after a police officer was killed in 1978; trouble continued, though, into the '80s. What happened then?

DEMBY: So after that event, after that standoff in 1978, they moved to this middle-class block on 62nd and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. And immediately after they got there, they sort of ran afoul of their neighbors. They antagonized them with loudspeakers; sometimes they brandished weapons from the roof. They fortified this row house, this otherwise normal row house.

INSKEEP: Fortified?

DEMBY: The boarded up the windows. They boarded up the doors. They built a bunker on the room so they could watch the block. I spoke to a gentleman named Gerald Renfrow who's lived on this block his entire life. I mean, he grew up there. He raised his own children there. He was there when MOVE decided to relocate to his block, and he did not take kindly to their presence.

GERALD RENFROW: We felt that it was inappropriate to come on a residential block with loudspeakers blaring. We sympathize with MOVE, but we did not sympathize with their decision to have their stage on Osage Avenue.

DEMBY: So we have this rising tension between MOVE and the residents of 62nd and Osage. You have rising tensions between the police and the members of MOVE, which all culminates in this conflagration on May 13, 1985.

INSKEEP: What did the police finally do then in May of 1985?

DEMBY: So it's Mother's Day weekend. The city has decided that it's had enough. It is going to go into 62nd Osage and remove by force. And so they evacuate the block. They shut off the electricity. They shut off the water. And then there's this daylong siege after the police had evacuated this block. There was gunfire from the MOVE members to the police and vice versa. After hours in the early afternoon, the mayor decided to give the go-ahead to drop an explosive device on the bunker that was on top of the MOVE building.

INSKEEP: This is Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of Philadelphia.

DEMBY: That's right. He was the first black mayor of the city. He was widely popular, and this was a turning point in his administration.

INSKEEP: Dropped an explosive device? What was it exactly?

DEMBY: So it was C-4, and it was supposedly meant to blow a hole in the bunker that was on the roof so that police officers could get in via the roof. But the roof of the house caught fire, and the police commissioner told the fire department to stand down; he wanted to let the fire burn to scare the MOVE members out. But very quickly, the fire started spreading to the houses to the left and to the right. So within an hour, the fire was completely out of control.

INSKEEP: What was happening inside that house - the house that had been bombed?

DEMBY: I spoke to Ramona Africa who was a MOVE member who was in the basement of the MOVE house when the bomb hit, and initially, she didn't know what happened.

RAMONA AFRICA: We heard the crackling of fire and that is when we knew it was a fire. When we realized that, we attempted to come out several times. The adults were hollering out we're coming out; we're bringing the children out. And each time, we were met with a barrage of police gunfire and were forced back in to that blazing inferno.

DEMBY: So 11 people in the MOVE compound died in that fire. Ramona was the only adult survivor.

INSKEEP: So that's what happened in May of 1985. It was 30 years ago. Is this story over?

DEMBY: Not even close, I mean, the remaining residents of 6200 Osage Avenue have engaged in this long, retroactive fight with the city. After the bombing, three rows of homes were burned completely to the ground. The city rebuilt those homes but very shoddily. So today after the city decided to offer buyouts instead of rehabilitating those homes, that block sits mostly empty. And the residents who are holdouts still love the neighborhood. They still love living there, but they're in the state of limbo. They don't know whether the houses will be - ever be rehabilitated. They don't know if the city will eventually decide to raise them.

INSKEEP: Well, did you feel you understood this story better having walked that street, Gene Demby?

DEMBY: No, I mean, when you look at the facts that sort of lead-up to the story, it is sort of incomprehensible, right? That a city could bomb a residential neighborhood and burn it to the ground and there be no repercussions in sort of a hard thing to wrap your mind around. I understand the details of the MOVE bombing now in a way that I couldn't have understood when I was 5 or 6, but that doesn't mean it makes any more sense.

INSKEEP: Does it inform your understanding of anything else that has happened in America having to do with cities, having to do with race, having to do with the police?

DEMBY: The echoes from the stories we've been following for the last year and a half or so resonate all over the MOVE story, and it's part of the reason that I've been so fascinated by it. There's the story of the mistrust towards the police among black communities. There's a story of a lack of police accountability because no one went to jail or no one stood trial in the MOVE bombing. And so there's this larger story that the MOVE bombing sort of encapsulates in a much more nightmare-ish fashion.

INSKEEP: NPR's Gene Demby, he's part of our Code Switch team. Gene, thanks for coming by.

DEMBY: Thank you, Steve.

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