Brooke Gladstone: This is the On the Media midweek podcast, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last Friday, remains of at least one victim of the infamous 1985 MOVE bombing were turned over to a Philadelphia funeral home, capping more than a week of confusion and reopened wounds.
Reporter 1: The Terry Funeral Home says it picked up the remains at the Princeton home of Professor Alan Mann. The bones had been in the possession of the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.
Reporter 2: The city medical examiner's office gave the bones to Penn in 1985 with the hope of identifying them. Penn said it was not able to but the bones were still used in anthropology classes.
Speaker 1: Not only did they kill my children, kill my sisters and brothers, but they have desecrated what they say are their remains, defiled them, and had them hidden away on exhibit as a learning tool for their students.
Brooke Gladstone: MOVE members claimed the remains were those of 14-year-old Tree Africa and 12-year-old Delisha Africa, among the five children and six adults, killed 36 years ago this month. They died after an anti-government pro-environment, Black liberation group called MOVE defied arrest warrants and barricaded themselves in a West Philadelphia rowhouse. Early in the morning on May 13th, 1985, after a standoff with some 500 law enforcement officers, MOVE members began shooting and the hundreds of police gathered outside the home returned fire.
Speaker 2: It sounds like automatic fire to me. There's quite a bit of it.
Brooke Gladstone: Over the next 90 minutes, the police responded with 10,000 rounds of ammunition.
Reporter 3: There's more gunfire right now. We're going to crouch down.
Reporter 4: Police are unloading Winchester cartridge shells from the back of a highway patrol car.
Brooke Gladstone: Later in the afternoon, frustrated that his police had failed to evict the group, the mayor of Philadelphia himself gave the police the go-ahead to drop C-4 explosives onto the house.
Reporter 5: State police helicopter drops it. There is the explosion. As you can see, a very dramatic explosion that really rips into the MOVE compound.
Speaker 3: Some of the homes have started burning.
Reporter 5: You're telling me that the homes on the other side of Osage Avenue may be on fire?
Speaker 3: That's correct. There is white smoke.
Brooke Gladstone: The fire that spread destroyed 61 homes, scarring the block to this day. In recent years, the MOVE bombing has inspired awareness and reconsideration alongside the ongoing outcry over police violence and militarized law enforcement, but when NPR correspondent, Code Switch co-host, and native Philadelphian, Gene Demby reported on the 30th anniversary of the bombing back in 2015, the response to his reporting shocked him. When we spoke to him then, he explained that many people said they'd never even of it.
Gene Demby: I assumed that a lot of people would just jump in and be like, "Oh yes, I remember when this happened," but we got the opposite response like, "Wait, this happened?"
Brooke Gladstone: The people who said, "This happened," were they all from out of town or what?
Gene Demby: It was hard to tell. Some people were from Philly and some people seemed to be from elsewhere, but there was no obvious generational skew. It just seemed to be like this broad base, when did this happen? How did I not hear about this?
Brooke Gladstone: It wasn't just white people who were telling you this?
Gene Demby: No, there were quite a few people of color who said that they hadn't heard of it either, which surprised me, but then as the days went on, I guess I stopped being surprised at how many people hadn't heard of it. I'm a Philadelphia native. I would have been four when this happened. It wasn't something that was really disgusted in Philadelphia in part because as extreme as it was, there weren't a lot of ramifications for the city officials who were involved in it. Nothing changed all that much. No one went to jail, no one suffered any sort of long-term consequences. It was a cataclysm almost without consequence.
Brooke Gladstone: Do you know how it was covered at the time?
Gene Demby: It was national news as it was happening. The Times covered it, but it didn't seem to have a very long tail.
Brooke Gladstone: How was MOVE characterized?
Gene Demby: The times called them a Black radical group. Other people called them a Black nationalist group. Ramona Africa, who is the only surviving member of MOVE, told me that she did not agree with the Black nationalist label. One, they weren't nationalists, but two, they weren't actually founded by John Africa who was Black, but a Penn student who was white.
Brooke Gladstone: Was a co-founder?
Gene Demby: Yes, he helped germinate the early muddy tenets of MOVE, but she did say that there were revolutionaries.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm wondering what your prevailing theory is for why this didn't stick in the public mind? The long tail consequences obviously is one point, but I know that you reckon it was the nature of the group of MOVE that created a notable lack of alliances to keep the story alive. Is that fair?
Gene Demby: Yes. In that neighborhood that MOVE settled into in the early '80s, it was a pretty middle-class Black neighborhood. MOVE actively antagonized the people in that block. They put megaphones on their compound, which was really just a fortified rowhouse, and it just really, really got under the skin of their neighbors. They just cursed at the residents as they walked by. One daily news reporter who was covering MOVE at the time said that MOVE very vocally broke up a very hard-won gang truce. There was a meeting between two rival gangs in West Philadelphia and MOVE came in and started yelling.
Brooke Gladstone: What did they want?
Gene Demby: Oh, it's really hard to figure out what their specific political aims were, but this is what MOVE wanted on this block. In 1978, in another neighborhood in West Philadelphia, they had this really ugly standoff with the police and a police officer named Jim Ramp died in that standoff. Several MOVE members, nine of them in fact, were convicted in that shooting, so MOVE relocated to 62nd and Osage, which is where this climactic conflagration happened, and what they wanted is not very linear.
They wanted to lean on the residents of 62nd and Osage. They want it to make life so unbearable that the residents of 62nd and Osage would then presumably lean on the city officials who would then presumably lean on state officials that have the MOVE nine released from state prison. It's a very long view kind of strategy. There was this big sense even among Black community groups and Black radical groups, that MOVE was a problem and a nuisance.
Brooke Gladstone: For instance, Bobby Seale, a prominent Black Panther was not a fan of MOVE.
Gene Demby: Yes. Lynn Washington, who was the daily news reporter that I spoke to, told me about a conversation he'd had with Bobby Seale, and Bobby Seale told him, "How can you be a Black revolutionary group if you're a plotting revolution against Black people?"
Brooke Gladstone: Now, part of the reason why MOVE doesn't stick in the mind the way that say Ruby Ridge or Waco does is because this wasn't a standoff between the feds and radical groups. This was a standoff between local police and radical groups?
Gene Demby: Yes, that's right. Ruby Ridge and Waco, and the Montana Freemen standoffs, those could be folded into a larger conversation about gun rights and about federal overreach. We forget that in big cities, the police make up their own political class. They are a constituency unto themselves and so it makes it harder for local officials to drill down or to wag their fingers too pointedly at the police, especially then when there were a lot of concerns about urban violence, because the police tended to enjoy widespread respect, at least outside of communities of color.
As we see now, when there are big controversies over aggressive policing in Black communities, there often aren't repercussions in part because of the politics of it.
Brooke Gladstone: Do you think it's even possible, Gene, to take a story that didn't fit into an established narrative when it happened and transport it 30 years into the future, in the sense, and fit it into the current narrative, you know what I mean?
Gene Demby: That's honestly what we were trying to do I think. We were trying to tease out all the residences you can see in the MOVE story to this meta-story of policing and Black folks that we've been covering over the last year, like what happened in Baltimore last month or what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson. It's not neat because the MOVE story resists comprehension. It's the same story we see, but the volume is turned all the way up,
Brooke Gladstone: Yes. The burning of an entire neighborhood and the death of 11 juxtaposed against the death of a single man. Not that one is worthless, but they would tend to generate different coverage.
Gene Demby: Absolutely. If this happened today, there would be people with cell phones out watching these houses burn. There would be people nearby watching the police shooting up these homes on 62nd Osage. You would see a critical mass of outcry as it was happening. It is so confusing because this story is frankly insane. The more you learn about the details, the less sense it makes. Yes, it would obviously set off some understandable outrage in 2013 or 2014, or 2015, but it is still incomprehensible that it did not set off outrage in 1985 even if the media apparatus looked entirely different. It is the kind of thing that should have changed something, right? You would hope anyway, but nothing's changed at all.
Brooke Gladstone: Gene, thank you so much.
Gene Demby: Thank you for having me, bro.
Brooke Gladstone: Gene Demby is an NPR correspondent and a co-host of NPR's Code Switch when we spoke to him in 2015. Thanks for checking out our midweek podcast. Be on the lookout Friday for this week's show. It'll probably drop around dinner time. This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.