May 15, 2020

The day police bombed a city street: can scars of 1985 Move atrocity be healed?

Row houses in Philadelphia burn after policed dropped a bomb on the Move house in May 1985. Photograph: AP
Eleven people, including five children, died and a Philadelphia neighborhood burned down in the airstrike against a black liberation group. Now an effort at reconciliation is under way



Ed Pilkington
The Guardian
May 10, 2020


Frank Powell, a Philadelphia police officer who in 1985 was chief of the city’s bomb disposal squad, remembers vividly the moment he was given his instructions. “Wow,” he recalls thinking. “You want me to do that?”

On 13 May 1985 Powell was handed an army-style green satchel containing a bomb made of C-4 plastic explosives of the sort widely deployed in Vietnam. He boarded a state police helicopter, and took up his position balanced precariously on the skids of the aircraft.

“I can’t remember being scared,” he told the Guardian, “though I must have been.”

At 5.27pm as the helicopter rose into a crystal-clear blue sky he carried out his orders. Flying over a largely African American residential neighborhood of west Philadelphia, he lined up his sights, lit the 45-second fuse with a military igniter and followed his orders.

“I reached out and I dropped it. Perfect. It was going right where it was supposed to go.”

It was to lead to one of the great, largely forgotten, outrages of modern America

His target was the roof of 6221 Osage Avenue, a row house which at the time had 13 American citizens inside. They were all members of Move, a group which combined the black liberation struggle with back-to-nature environmentalism.

Each Move member took the last name Africa to signal their commitment to race equality as well as to each other as a family. For years they had been in a running battle with the Philadelphia authorities culminating that May in arrest warrants, for a range of offenses including “terroristic threats”, “riot” and “disorderly conduct”, being served and a standoff ensuing that ended with the dropping of Powell’s bomb on to their house.

It led to one of the great, largely forgotten, outrages of modern America.

After the bomb struck, a fire took hold and began to spread. The police commissioner, Gregore Sambor, critically and fatally decided “to let the fire burn”.

By the following morning 61 homes had been razed to ashes, leaving 250 Philadelphians destitute and homeless.

Only two of the 13 residents of the Move house got out alive.

The remaining 11, including five children aged seven to 13, were similarly reduced to ashes.

As the 35th anniversary of the bombing approaches, efforts are under way to increase public awareness of the atrocity. It was one of the rare times in US history that American civilians were attacked on domestic soil by aerial bombing, another being the dropping of dynamite on to African American homes in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the bloody race riots of 1921.

Pressure is also mounting ahead of the anniversary for an apology to be issued by Philadelphia. Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of the city, who approved the 1985 attack though he claims to have been ignorant of key aspects of it, has said sorry on several occasions.

But there has never been a formal apology from the city. No one involved in conceiving and carrying out the assault has ever been prosecuted.

In an opinion article in the Guardian, Goode argues that it is now time for Philadelphia to follow his example and issue an official apology. Repeating his “deep and sincere” regrets, he calls on other former and current officials to join him in saying sorry for “indefensible” acts that led to a “horrific outcome”.

“After 35 years it would be helpful for the healing of all involved, especially the victims of this terrible event, if there was a formal apology by the city of Philadelphia. Many in the city still feel the pain of that day – I know I will always feel the pain.”

Goode’s Guardian article is part of a wider two-year effort to bring opposing parties in the Osage Avenue bombing together in a process of “reconciliation”. The discussions, reported here for the first time, began in September 2018 and are ongoing.

The negotiations involve both Move members and city dignitaries. On the city side, they include Goode and Ed Rendell, who was Philadelphia’s district attorney in 1985 and who served the arrest warrants that led to the bombing (he later went on to become governor of Pennsylvania).

Rendell did not respond to Guardian requests for comment. But he has approved a draft resolution of a city apology “for the decisions leading to the devastation that occurred on May 13th, 1985”.

On the Move side, discussions have been led by Mike Africa Jr. He holds a special place in the Move family because he was born in a prison cell – his mother Debbie gave birth to him soon after she was arrested along with his father Mike Africa Sr in a previous police raid on a Move house in 1978.

His parents both served 40 years in prison for the shooting death of a police officer, James Ramp, during the raid, although they along with all of their fellow incarcerated Move members always protested their innocence.

Mike Africa Jr said that his many face-to-face meetings with Goode during the secret talks were “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do”. His great uncle John Africa, the founder of Move, and his cousin Frank Africa both died in the 1985 fire.

“Wilson Goode for me has always been the boogeyman,” Mike Africa Jr said. “After some meetings with him I came out literally vomiting. He’s the face of the bomb that killed my family, the man who said after the bomb was dropped that if he had to, he would do it again. So to sit in a room with him, even decades later, was gut-wrenching.”

Mike Africa Jr said he disliked the phrase “reconciliation”, preferring “restorative justice”. The initial demand from Move was to have all the remaining seven members of the Move 9 who had been incarcerated after the 1978 siege released – an ambition fulfilled in February.

Now Mike Africa wants to see the release of an associate of Move, the former Black Panther member Mumia Abu-Jamal who has been incarcerated since 1981 for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. Africa also wants to see some form of reprimand for those who ordered and participated in the 1985 bombing.

Other Move members are skeptical about the value of the talks. One of the doubters is Ramona Africa, who was the only adult to escape the Move house in May 1985 after Powell dropped the bomb.

She told the Guardian how she and 12 others cowered in the basement of Osage Avenue as the house came under blistering attack. Water cannons were unleashed, teargas pumped in, the front of the house blown off with explosives. Then more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition were fired from police submachine guns.

And that was before the bomb was even dropped.

“We were deluged with water and gas,” Ramona Africa told the Guardian. “When that didn’t work to bring us out of the house, they dropped the bomb. The whole house shook.”

Ramona was able to flee through a basement exit along with just one child, Birdie Africa. The other 11 adults and children tried to follow them out but were forced back under a hail of police gunfire, she said, though that account has been disputed over the years by Philadelphia police.

Ramona was badly burned in the fire. For her pains, she was arrested, charged with riot and conspiracy, and spent the next seven years behind bars – the only person ever to be convicted of crimes arising from the attack.

Given her devastating experiences, she is dubious about the prospects of reconciliation. “We don’t want no apology,” she said. “They can’t make up for what they did, they can’t bring our people back who they murdered.”

Janine Africa, one of the Move 9 imprisoned after the 1978 siege, lost her 12-year-old son Little Phil in the bombing. She described the boy to the Guardian as “a very outgoing kid, very adventurous, a little comic”.

Janine bitterly remembers how she learned that her child had diedwhile she was being held in solitary confinement (she was released almost exactly a year ago after 41 years in prison).

She recalled: “The guard opened my cell door and said: ‘Your son is dead,’ then shut the door. That was it. No explanation. Nothing.”

Janine Africa is also unconvinced by the push for an apology. “It’s really insulting to say you’re sorry now, after all these years,” she said.

Despite such reservations, Ulysses Slaughter, a reconciliation strategist who has mediated the talks, is certain the process is needed to heal the wounds that are still open for so many Philadelphians. “The events of 1985 continue to silently traumatize people,” he said.

Five kids died, and the neighbors lost everything. We failed, and it bothers me. Nobody ever seemed to care.

“People need to ask themselves, what have we become as human beings when we allow our neighborhoods to become war zones.”

Several of the more than 500 police officers who took part on the siege on 13 May 1985, as well as firefighters, have also been involved in the reconciliation talks.

Jim Berghaier was on police duty in Osage Avenue that day and helped Birdie Africa escape the conflagration. He told the Guardian that he is haunted by the image of the boy walking through a wall of fire.

“Five kids died, and the neighbors lost everything. We failed, and it bothers me. Nobody ever seemed to care.”

Berghaier said he only found out later that children had been present in the house. “Even to this day I carry a lot of guilt because of those five kids. I was only a wall away from them. People say to me, ‘But you didn’t know,’ but you can’t help thinking about it. They died a horrible death.”

Linn Washington, who reported the events for the Philadelphia Daily News, believes it is long overdue for a formal recognition by the city of the grievous wrong done that day. “You can’t effectively move on until you find that kind of reconciliation. They killed five kids. The police commissioner called them ‘combatants’ – they were kids!”

Jamie Gauthier, the city council member who represents the area of Osage Avenue today, is one of several current elected officials backing an apology. She told the Guardian: “To this day this represents one of the most heinous acts done by a city government against its own people – not just in Philadelphia, but in the entire country.”

Paradoxically, the only person who the Guardian talked to who said they have not had to wrestle with trauma over the past 35 years is the man who dropped the bomb.

Frank Powell is convinced the fire that killed 11 people and devastated the area was not caused by the explosives in his satchel, but by the Move residents who, in his narrative, set fire to their own home in a deluded desire for suicidal martyrdom.

“What we did that day has never bothered me,” he said. “I went up in that helicopter with the truest intentions of getting those people out unharmed. It didn’t happen that way, but it wasn’t our fault. I can live with that.”

• This article was amended on 11 May 2020. An earlier version mistakenly said the Move atrocity was only the second time in US history that American civilians had been attacked on domestic soil by aerial bombing.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/10/move-1985-bombing-reconciliation-philadelphia

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