The location of the MOVE siege and subsequent bombing that burned down two city blocks of row homes.

MOVE House

“MOVE House” – Neighborhood: Cobbs Creek

MOVE is a Philadelphia-based black liberation group founded by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) in 1972.  The group is particularly known for two major conflicts with the Philadelphia Police Department.

Living communally in a house in West Philadelphia (Powelton Village initially), members of MOVE all changed their surnames to Africa, shunned modern technology and materialism, and preached support of animal rights, revolution and a return to nature.

Their first conflict with law enforcement occurred in 1978, when police tried to evict them from their house. A firefight erupted, killing one police officer and injuring several more on both sides.  After surrendering, Delbert Africa was subjected to one of the most horrific examples of police brutality ever witnessed.

Encouraged by the eminently racist Mayor of the City (Frank Rizzo), the police and investigators lied their asses off to justify their actions.

Nine members of the group were sentenced to 100 years in prison for the officer’s killing – even though evidence clearly pointed to “friendly fire” for this unfortunate action. In 1981, the group moved to a row house on Osage Avenue.

At their new home, MOVE members boarded up the windows and armed themselves in an attempt to protect their family from further police action.  Members continued to rack up violations from contempt of court to illegal possession of firearms, to the point where they were considered a terrorist organization by the mayor and police commissioner.

On the morning of May 13, 1985, the police moved on the house.

Arriving with arrest warrants for four residents of the house, the police ordered them to come out peacefully. Before long, shooting began – who started shooting first is a point of contention.

In response, more than 500 police officers discharged over 10,000 rounds of ammunition in 90 minutes. The house was hit with high-pressure firehoses and tear gas, but MOVE did not surrender.

Despite pleas for deescalation to the mayor from City Council President Joseph Coleman and State Senator Hardy Williams, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor gave the order to bomb the house.

At 5:28 p.m., a satchel bomb composed of FBI-supplied C4 and Tovex TR2, a dynamite substitute, on a 45-second timer was dropped from a state police helicopter, detonating on the roof of the house.

Within minutes, a fire had consumed the roof and begun to spread.

Firefighters, already fearful of being shot at, were told to let the fire burn.

The blaze raged out of control, spreading down the block of row houses and hopping the narrow streets.

By the time it was extinguished four hours later, 61 houses had been razed. Apart from a woman and 13-year-old boy who escaped when the fire started, everyone in the MOVE house was dead.

The 11 deaths included MOVE founder John Africa, five adults and five children between the ages of seven and 13.

Despite investigations and formal apologies, neither the mayor, nor the police commissioner, nor anyone else from the city was criminally charged.

The image above shows this address as it appears now.  It was rebuilt (along with two whole adjoining blocks) in the years that followed the incident.  Oddly enough, all of these new structures were built very poorly by city-awarded contractors, and were all formally condemned afterwards.

The featured image in this post (historic street scene taken at the height of the uprising in 1985) is credited to Peter Morgan of the Associated Press.

Want to know more?  Have a look at this excellent film…