On May 13, 1985, at approximately 5:28 p.m., two, one-pound bombs were dropped onto a house at 6221 Osage Avenue. The bombs were dropped from about 60 feet above the house by a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter. It was recorded, that the 500+ police officers at the scene, fired approximately 10,000 rounds of ammunition in the direction of the house in 90 minutes. This act of terrorism caused the deaths of 11 people (6 adults and 5 children) and destroyed 61 houses in the predominately Black neighborhood of West Philadelphia.
The city police department had been locked in an ongoing feud with a group called MOVE. Founded by John Africa in 1972, the MOVE Organization, is a Philadelphia-based Black liberation group that preached revolution and advocated a return to a nature lifestyle. They lived communally and vowed to lead a life uninterrupted by the government, police, or technology. They were passionate supporters of animal rights and members adopted vegan diets. Members also adopted the surname “Africa.” Often times they would engage in public demonstrations related to issues they deemed important.
In preparation for a stand off, police evacuated the neighborhood on May 12th (the day before the bombing), telling residents they could return in 24 hours. By early Monday morning on May 13th, there were more than 500 police officers surrounding the MOVE house. At 5:35 a.m., police gave four MOVE members named in arrest warrants, 15 minutes to surrender, however no one exited the house. When MOVE refused to surrender, the police began their attack with tear gas, smoke grenades, and water cannons. At some point during the attack, gun fire broke out. It’s unknown who fired first. Police say MOVE took the first shot. MOVE says the police fired first. The shooting continued for nearly 90 minutes. At 5:35 p.m., the type of bomb the police chose to drop on this residential, highly populated area of West Philadelphia was called a Tovex TR2. It was a commercial explosive, invented in the 1960’s as an option to dynamite, and its purpose was to dig trenches through rock in order to lay pipes. The bomb’s manufacturer, the DuPont Company, had an explosive products division located a little more than a half hour from Philadelphia in Delaware. However, no one from the fire or police department ever contacted DuPont to ask what could happen if TR2 were used in a residential neighborhood. Under the assumption that the two, 1-pound bombs wouldn’t be enough to breach the bunker, the police decided to strap a one-and-one-quarter-pound block of C-4 on top of the two Tovex bombs.
The Pennsylvania State Police helicopter took off from the command post at 63rd and Walnut, flew a few times over 6221 Osage Avenue, and then hovered 60 feet above the two-story house in the Black, middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood. After radioing firefighters on the ground and lighting the bomb’s 45-second fuse — and with the official approval of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor — Lt. Frank Powell, chief of Philadelphia’s bomb disposal unit, tossed the bomb onto the roof of the bunker.
The resulting blast, lead to a large, bright orange ball of fire that reached 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The aftermath left 11 dead (including five completely innocent and defenseless children) and the incineration of 61 homes. Among the dead were, 7-year-old Tomasa, 9-year-old Delicia, 10-year-old Phil, 11-year-old Netta, 13-year-old Tree, and 25-year-old Rhonda.
Once the bomb was dropped on the MOVE house, the city’s fire department that was already on the scene, was instructed to stand down and let the resulting fire destroy the building. The fire department stood idly by, as the intense fire spread and destroyed a total of 61 homes, most of them owned by residents who were forced to watch helplessly as their houses were consumed by fire. Although many of the block’s residents had complained about being besieged by MOVE members spreading their beliefs using a bullhorn, these same residents tried to stop the police siege of their community when they saw the police force that was deployed.
In the wake of the bombing, the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (better known as the MOVE Commission) was formed to investigate the bombing. After extensive interviews, many of which were of police officers, the Commission said what took place was “criminally evil.” There is eyewitness testimony and evidence, to indicate that the people fleeing the burning building were shot at and shot by the police, as they exited into the back alley of the building. The Commission also stated on record, that this would never had happened “had the MOVE house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood.” MOVE Commission Chairman William Brown, stated, “I firmly believe that more people got out than Birdie and Ramona and that’s something that still nags at me. I believe that someone, someday will deliver a deathbed confession …” And the Commission itself noted in Finding Number 28 of its official report that “police gunfire in the rear alley prevented the escape from the fire of some occupants of the MOVE house.”
Even though the city of Philly had a Black mayor, Wilson Goode, and a Black city Managing Director, Leo Brooks, this atrocity was still allowed to occur. Even after the mayor had a meeting with 5 influential Black political leaders at his home on the morning of the bombing, he still gave the go-ahead to the police department to execute the dropping of the bombs.
“Were we wanted for rape, robbery, murder? No, nothing,” Ramona Africa, the only living MOVE survivor of that day, told the Guardian newspaper. Africa linked the bombing to the recent police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray: “These people that take an oath that swear to protect, save lives – the cops don’t defend poor people, poor white, black, Latino people. They don’t defend us, they kill us.
“All you have to do is look at the rash of police murders and the cops not being held accountable,” she added. “That should really alarm and outrage people, but the thing is that it’s happening today because it wasn’t stopped in ’85. The only justice that can be done is people seeing this system for what it is.”
Want to learn more? Here are some additional articles on this topic:
- 11 Things You Didn’t Know About The Time Police Bombed An American Neighborhood
- POLICE DROP BOMB ON RADICALS’ HOME IN PHILADELPHIA (Article published in theNew York Times the day after the bombing)
- Why Have So Many People Never Heard Of The MOVE Bombing?
- MOVE Bombing Barely Significant in Philadelphia Politics Thirty Years Later