The MOVE Police Bombing: Never Forget The Time Cops Blew Up An Entire Philadelphia Neighborhood

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Smoke Rising from Destroyed Homes

An aerial view of smoke rising from smoldering rubble where some 60 homes were destroyed by fire after a shoot-out and bombing by police at the back-to-nature Black liberation group MOVE’s house in West Philadelphia while police were attempting to force the group’s eviction. | Source: Bettmann / Getty

UPDATED: MAY 14, 2024 —

On May 13, 1985, a bomb was dropped on a row house in Philadelphia, unleashing a relentless fire that eventually burned down 61 houses, killed 11 people — including five children — and injured dozens more.

The fire department stood by idly. The Philadelphia Police Department did the same. The fire raged on, swallowing up home after home until more than 200 people were without shelter.

It’s a shameful part of recent American history that’s somehow been buried under 39 years and other destructions that have fallen on the city of Philadelphia. NewsOne decided to take a trip back in time to explore what happened the day America bombed its own people.

Smoke Billowing Over Neighborhood

Smoke billows over rowhouses in West Philadelphia after the police bombed the home of the African American organization MOVE during a standoff. Police on horseback and emergency vehicles block off a street as residents walk towards the scene. | Source: Bettmann / Getty

Here are things you should know about the MOVE Philadelphia bombing.

  • The MOVE Organization is a Philadelphia-based Black liberation group that preached revolution and advocated the return to a natural lifestyle. They lived communally and vowed to lead a life uninterrupted by the government, police, or technology. They were passionate supporters of animal rights. Members adopted vegan diets and the surname “Africa.” Often they would engage in public demonstrations related to issues they deemed important.
  • MOVE did, however, have a past with the police. Since its inception in 1972, the group was looked at as a threat to the Philadelphia Police Department. In 1978, police raided their Powelton Village homes and as a result, one police officer died after being shot in the head. Nine MOVE members were arrested, charged with third-degree murder, and sent to prison. They argued that the police officer was shot in the back of his head on his way into the home, challenging the claim that he was shot by members inside the house. Eventually, the group relocated to their infamous house on 6221 Osage Street.
  • There are differing reports about the group and how troublesome they actually were. According to some reports, neighbors complained about their house on Osage Street, which was barricaded with plywood and allegedly contained a multitude of weapons. It has been said that the group built a giant wooden bunker on the roof and used a bullhorn to “scream obscenities at all hours of the night,” angering those living in nearby row houses. Neighbors ultimately turned to city officials for help, which put into motion the events of May 13, 1985.
MOVE Protesters Holding Placards

Relatives and supporters of the group MOVE conducted an anniversary march through the Osage Street neighborhood one year to the day after police bombed a MOVE house, destroying 61 homes and killing 11 MOVE members, on May 13, 1986. | Source: Bettmann / Getty

  • On that day, armed police, the fire department and city officials gathered at the house in an attempt to clear it out and arrest MOVE members who had been indicted for crimes like parole violation and illegal possession of firearms. When police tossed tear gas canisters into the home, MOVE members fired back. In turn, the police discharged their guns.
  • Soon, a police helicopter flew over the home and dropped two bombs on the row house. A ferocious blaze followed.
  • Witnesses and MOVE members say that when people started to run out of the burning structure to escape a fiery death, police continued to fire their weapons.
  • The fire department delayed putting out the flames. After the blaze, they claimed they didn’t want to put their men in harm’s way, because MOVE members were still firing their guns. But MOVE members and witnesses say the wait was deliberate.
  • In the end, 11 people, including MOVE’s founder John Africa, were dead. Five children died in the home.
  • There was only one child survivor His name is Birdie Africa, but it was later changed to Michael Ward. He ran out of the burning house naked and covered in flames. He survived his third-degree burns and went on to live a normal life, although he was scarred forever by the lifelong burns on his abdomen, arms and face.
  • Michael Ward was found dead on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, in the jacuzzi aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean. He was on vacation with his family. Initial autopsy reports say he drowned.
  • In 2021, partial human remains from the bombing discovered a few years earlier were destroyed by a city official, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced at the time. But in a turn of events, a city employee said they defied the order to destroy the remains and it was revealed the remains thought to be destroyed by the Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley were actually still intact. Farley learned of the remains in 2017. According to a city statement, Farley claims to have acted without the knowledge of any other city leadership. Instead of contacting survivors or families of the bombing victims, Farley simply destroyed the remains. Local news reported the mayor said Farley’s actions lacked empathy and demanded his resignation effective immediately.
  • In the end, no one from the city government was criminally charged.

This is America.

SEE ALSO:

‘We Are Victims Of Terrorism’: Fred Hampton Jr. Recognizes 30th Anniversary Of Philadelphia MOVE Bombing

Philadelphia Cops Kill Walter Wallace Jr., Who Video Shows Didn’t Pose Deadly Threat To Police

Protests Continue In Philadelphia Over Police Killing Of Walter Wallace, Jr.

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