One of the most controversial events in Philadelphia’s history occurred on May 13,1985, with the bombing of a residence on Osage Avenue. The home belonged to MOVE, an organization somewhat associated with Black Power, but also dedicated to animal rights and the rejection of technology. The organization’s unorthodox methods, such as shouting the teachings of their founder, John Africa, through a loudspeaker, earned the ire of their neighbors and led to tensions and a confrontation with police. In May of 1985, police attacked the barricaded house, eventually dropping a makeshift bomb on the building’s rooftop bunker. The attack ignited a fire that killed several members of MOVE, including children, and burned three blocks, leaving 250 people homeless. The event has the sad distinction of being the only aerial bombing carried out by police on US soil.
The organization eventually known as MOVE began in Philadelphia in the
1970s as the American Christian Movement for Life or the Christian Life Movement.
The group, which defies easy categorization, was founded by Vincent Leaphart,
who took the name John Africa. Africa’s philosophy for the group included black
liberation, communal living, animal rights, and vegetarianism. The group was
founded in 1972 and was centered primarily in West Philadelphia.
The first serious confrontation between MOVE and Philadelphia police
came on August 8, 1978, when officers attempted to evict the group from its
compound in Powelton Village. The move came after numerous complaints from
neighbors about unsanitary living conditions in the building, the number of
animals on the property, and the group’s use of a bullhorn to broadcast John
Africa’s teachings, as well as numerous other issues.
Police attempted to remove residents from the house with a battering
ram and water cannons and members of MOVE opened fire. In the melee, a police
officer named James Ramp was fatally shot and several others were injured.
Though the exact events leading to Ramp’s death are disputed, two years later,
nine members of MOVE were convicted of murder and sentenced to between 30 and
100 years in prison.
Following the shootout at Powelton Village, MOVE set up a new compound
at 6221 Osage Avenue in a middle-class, African American neighborhood. The group
gradually turned their row house into a fortress of sorts, with boarded up
windows and a bunker on the roof. Their unorthodox behavior continued,
alienating neighbors, who eventually contacted the police. The police issued
warnings to the group, which remained belligerent and continued broadcasting
its tirades over loudspeaker. MOVE members refused to leave the building or to
allow the children inside to leave.
On May 13, 1985, hundreds of police officers, a bomb squad and several
fire trucks arrived at Osage Avenue. They turned fire hoses on the residence
and when MOVE members refused to leave the building, police blew holes in the
walls to fumigate the building with tear gas. When the tear gas failed to force
the residents out, a shootout ensued, with police firing thousands of rounds
into the building. Police then decided to bomb the rooftop bunker by dropping
C4 explosives from a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter. The powerful
explosives triggered a fire and, concerned that firefighters would be injured
in the ongoing shootout between police and MOVE members, city officials made
the controversial decision to let the fire burn. In a neighborhood of rowhomes
and narrow streets, it spread over several blocks, leaving 250 people homeless
as the city watched the event play out on live television. Six adults and five children were killed in
the attack, leaving only two survivors from the Osage Avenue residence: Ramona
Africa and thirteen-year-old Birdie Africa, who later began using his birth
name of Michael Ward.
In the aftermath of the bombing, Mayor Wilson Goode, Philadelphia's first African American mayor and the person many Philadelphia residents blame for the attack, convened a committee to investigate the bombing. The result was a report that denounced virtually every level of city government involved in the attack, concluding that dropping a bomb on an occupied rowhouse was unconscionable. Mayor Goode maintains that he ordered the fire be put out, but the city's fire commissioner testified that he never received the order. Ramona Africa was convicted on riot charges and served seven years in prison, but in 1996, she and relatives of some of the MOVE victims killed in the fire won a $1.5 million settlement from the city.
Osage Avenue and some of the surrounding streets have never fully recovered from that day in 1985. The city eventually hired developers to rebuild the neighborhood but the homes were shoddily constructed, and in the 2000s, the city offered to buy back the homes for $150,000 each. Many residents took the buy out and left the neighborhood, an exodus which further damaged the beleaguered area. As of this writing, many of the buildings remain vacant and boarded up, including the rebuilt home at 6221 Osage.