Philadelphia activists remember the 1985 MOVE Bombing

By JOHN LESLIE

On May 13, 2022, Philadelphia activists gathered at the intersection of Osage Avenue and Cobbs Creek Parkway to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the bombing of the MOVE house by Philadelphia police—the most horrific example of police terror in U.S. history. Organizers recounted the events of that day while repeating the names of the victims, including five children—Tomaso Africa (9), Tree Africa (14), Netta Africa (12), Delisha Africa (13), and Little Phil Africa (12)—and six adults—Conrad Africa (36), Theresa Africa (26), Raymond Africa (50), Rhonda Africa (30, Frank Africa (26), and John Africa (54). Additionally, the names of the survivors, Ramona Africa and Birdie Africa, were repeated by those gathered. Afterward, a procession walked up the street to 6221 Osage Avenue while repeating the victims’ names.

“Attention MOVE, this is America…”

On Mother’s Day, May 12, 1985, police started to restrict access to the neighborhood and residents were ordered to evacuate. Those who refused to leave were threatened with arrest. By 10 p.m., the street was locked down. The house at 6221 Osage Avenue was surrounded by 77 cops, while hundreds more kept the area cordoned off.

At 5:35 a.m. on May 13, Police Chief Gregore J. Sambor shouted over a bullhorn, “Attention MOVE! This is America! You have to abide by the laws of the United States.”

Soon after Sambor’s ultimatum, a fire department “squirt truck” deluged the house with 1000 gallons of water per minute to dislodge a structure on the roof that the police referred to as a “bunker.” Fire trucks sprayed almost 460,000 gallons of water onto 6221 Osage over more than five hours.

Cops fired tear gas and smoke grenades at the house. At the same time, a team of cops entered the house next door and tried to blow holes in the wall between the two homes with plastic explosives. Police teams also used explosives to breach the walls in the house on the other side of 6221 Osage, in order to pump tear gas inside. By 10:45 a.m., cops had set off nine explosions. The front porches were blown off four houses on the street.

From 6 a.m. until about 7:30, police fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition at 6221 Osage Ave. The occupants had few firearms; afterward, two handguns, a shotgun, and a .22 rifle were found in the ruins of the MOVE house. The cops, on the other hand, were equipped with 16 M-16s, Thompson submachine guns, UZI submachine guns, 50-caliber machine guns, Browning Automatic Rifles, M-60 machine guns, and a 20mm anti-tank gun as well as handguns, sniper rifles, and shotguns. And yet, the following day, city officials falsely tried to claim that the majority of the gunfire came from MOVE.

Community members and family of MOVE members gathered on nearby streets. Activists tried to reach out to Goode, pleading for an end to the assault. The effort to dislodge the rooftop structure with the fire trucks failed, and an attempt to obtain a construction crane to do the job was reportedly vetoed by Goode because of the expense.

Police decided to drop a bomb from a state police helicopter. They referred to it as an “explosive entry device.” The bomb was no small device, containing both the explosive Tovex and about three pounds of the military demolition explosive C-4. The force of the explosion splintered the rooftop structure and ignited a fire. The fire was made worse by the presence of two gas cans on the roof.

The decision by Sambor to “let the fire burn” resulted in the fire spreading and destroying 61 homes. This happened despite the fire trucks and 150 firefighters who were already set up a block away. Fire crews were merely ordered to spray water on the adjoining houses to try to limit the fire to 6221 Osage Ave.

MOVE members had been sheltering in the basement, but as the fire intensified, it was decided to attempt to leave via a garage at the rear of the home. According to the later testimony of Birdie Africa, one of the two survivors, a MOVE adult shouted that “the kids are coming out!”

Fleeing MOVE members were either shot dead by cops or returned to the house to avoid police gunfire. Six adults, Conrad Africa (36), Theresa Africa (26), Raymond Africa (50), Rhonda Africa (30, Frank Africa (26), and John Africa (54) died. Additionally, five children—Tomaso Africa (9), Tree Africa (14), Netta Africa (12), Delisha Africa (13), and Little Phil Africa (12)—died in the massacre. Only two survived, Ramona Africa (30) and Birdie Africa (13).

The MOVE fire of 1985 killed 11, including five children, and destroyed 61 homes.

Among the hundreds who gathered at the police barricades, people began to shout “Murderers! Murderers!” Rocks and bottles were thrown, and riot police were deployed to push the crowd back.

The investigation afterward revealed the willingness of the state to wipe out anyone it saw as an opponent. Not one of the perpetrators of this foul crime was held accountable—not the mayor, not Sambor, nor any of the cops involved. Ramona Africa, however, was convicted of riot and conspiracy and served seven years in prison.

Journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal covered police harassment and violence against MOVE before his arrest. Mumia was convicted of the murder of a cop in a framed-up trial in 1982.

Mumia’s coverage of the 1978 Philadelphia police assault on the MOVE house on Powelton Avenue only reinforced the hatred the cops had for the former Black Panther. In the 1978 attack, one police officer, James Ramp, was killed by so-called friendly fire by police. Subsequently, 9 MOVE members were imprisoned and charged with his death, sparking a decades-long struggle to free them.

“At his press conference following the cop assault, Frank Rizzo, then the mayor, looked directly at Mumia [Abu-Jamal] and declared that a ‘new breed of journalism’ was to blame for Ramp’s death and that someday those like Mumia were ‘going to have to be held responsible and accountable’” (“The Fight to Free Mumia Jamal” by Rachel Wolkenstein).

Philly police violence and corruption

In cities like Philadelphia, police violence against communities of color is rampant and the relationship between cops and the community is very often one like that of the relationship of an occupying force to an occupied country. Philly cops are notorious for their attacks on the Black community, especially on Black activist organizations, including the Black Panther Party.

A particularly egregious incident took place on March 1 of this year, when a police officer associated with a unit that had become noted for its “cowboy” acts of brutality and other misconduct, murdered 12-year-old TJ Siderio. The officer retaliated against the child because he thought he had fired a shot at an unmarked police car. Siderio was shot in the back while face down on the ground after running away, and even though the police knew that he had dropped his pistol half a block earlier.

A study published this year notes that numerous police scandals have rocked Philadelphia, including the 1995 39th Precinct scandal, in which cops framed civilians, planted evidence, and stole money and drugs: “As of 1998, approximately 170 convictions had been overturned in connection with the convicted officers and the city paid nearly $5 million ($8.5M in 2021) to settle civil cases filed by people who were assaulted by the officers or wrongfully imprisoned.”

Another example is the 2014 Narcotics Field Unit case, where six cops were indicted under the RICO statute. District Attorney “Larry Krasner, then a civil rights attorney, said in a public court session that the Narcotics Field Unit had been stealing money during raids and that law enforcement officials told him the unit ‘engaged in a pattern of theft and other falsification during drug arrests.’”

Police: the repressive arm of the state

The question of the police and their relationship to society is an important one for socialists. Police exist to protect and serve the interests of the bosses—the ruling class. Many unionists, members of oppressed nationalities, and social movement activists have experienced police repression. Any worker who has been on strike knows that cops are called to suppress workers’ picket-line actions and break strikes.

In the U.S., policing cannot be separated from the racist nature of the system. The origins of police in the U.S., especially in the South, can be partially traced to the slave patrols formed to catch runaway slaves. “Slave patrols were established to track them down, punish them, and return them to bondage. Slave patrols formed a basis for racial solidarity among the white population, as primarily working-class patrolmen were joined by Southern plantation owners who had a vested interest in participating in hunts to recapture slaves. Insurrections, such as the Stono Rebellion and Denmark Vessy in South Carolina, or Nat Turner in Virginia, justified the cruel repression of the slave patrol in the eyes of the slavocracy” (quotation taken from the Workers Voice document, History of Violence).

After the destruction of chattel slavery, Southern police were the enforcers of Jim Crow segregation. Cops are an essential component of the regime of mass incarceration, which imprisons hundreds of thousands of young Black and Brown men and women.

From the beginning, police under capitalism have acted as enforcers for the ruling class and their state. And they are often likely to align with the ideas of the far right. Workers and movement activists cannot afford to have any illusions about police neutrality—especially in the face of a rising far right.

The state is the expression of the division of society into social classes with conflicting interests. In “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” Frederick Engels writes that the state is “a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”

The state does not exist to “reconcile” the interests of the various classes; it exists for the subjugation of workers and oppressed people by the dominant, or ruling, class. This is expressed in the formation of police, the army, prisons, and other instruments of coercion aimed at keeping working people in line.

Are cops workers?

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky was clear that cops are not part of the working class. In Fascism, What it is and how to fight it, he wrote, “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years, these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remains.”

It’s because of this that we call for the exclusion of police unions from the labor movement. Cop unions play a reactionary role inside the unions and act as a defense mechanism for corrupt and violent cops. Inside the unions, they bloc with others to obstruct progressive actions and resolutions which further divides the working class. Police unions work to prevent any civilian oversight and to stop the prosecution or firing of killer cops.

Police also have extensive ties to the far right. The police attack on counter-protesters during a 2018 far-right demonstration in Portland is another example of the reactionary role of cops. During a far-right “free speech” mobilization, there were friendly exchanges and “high fives” between police and ultra-right protesters. Cooperation with rightist “Oath Keepers” extended to one of the reactionaries’ assisting police with the arrest of a counter-protester.

During the 2020 George Floyd protests, Philadelphia cops fraternized with Proud Boys and other rightists who formed a vigilante mob of over 100 people, armed with baseball bats and other weapons, near a police substation on Girard Avenue. Cops high-fived and cheered on these goons even after they had intimated Black Lives Matter protesters, physically attacking three of them. It was reported that there were chants of “white lives matter.”

This is no accident. The U.S. socialist leader Farrell Dobbs was clear about the relationship of cops to fascism: “The approach of the ruling class is to begin to move toward a deterioration of those (democratic) rights. Their tactic is to protect the rights of the fascists while at the same time using fascist forces to try to keep others from exercising those rights. One of the forces used to implement this is that most malevolent of all the repressive instruments of capitalist rule, the police forces. The police structure is of a character that makes it a breeding ground for fascists.

“You don’t only have an army of capitalist cops that represses opponents of capitalism, you have a ripe recruiting ground for fascism itself. You not only have cops implementing ruling-class orders in aiding the fascists, you have a police force that is honeycombed with fascists.”

Abolish police, fight for liberation

The liberation of working people and oppressed nationalities must do away with the institutions of the existing society and replace them with popular, democratic structures controlled by the oppressed and exploited. Today, we fight for police abolition knowing full well that the abolition of police can only happen with the abolition of class antagonisms. In a socialist society, police will be replaced by democratic working-class militias. The prisons will be emptied, and society will seek other, more humane, alternatives to incarceration. In Philadelphia and other major cities, struggles against gentrification, mass incarceration, and police violence are linked. Working-class organizations have to take up all of these struggles and fight for the interests of the oppressed.

The fight for justice for the victims of the MOVE bombing continues. Until the city and those responsible are held accountable, there can be no real healing for a city traumatized by this act of state terror. Part of this fight is to redouble efforts  to free the remaining political prisoners held by the state. Until Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Mutulu Shakur, Jamil Abdullah al-Amin, and many others are freed, our work is not done.

Justice for the victims of the MOVE bombing! Free all political prisoners!

Photo: Participants in MOVE bombing commemoration on Osage Avenue. (John Leslie / Workers’ Voice)

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