A lot of people have been asking, "What's going on in Philadelphia?" Just seven months ago, the city was moving forward under W. Wilson Goode, its first black mayor, who was establishing an enviable record as a take-charge administrator.
But today, not only has that reputation been severely tarnished, but also Philadelphia has become the site of government-sanctioned bombing and arson, and neighborhood racial strife.
The unfortunate chain of events that brought Philadelphia to this sad state began on May 13 when Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the house where members of the radical back-to-nature group, MOVE, were barricaded.
That attack killed seven adults and four children and left 61 innocent families homeless.
Immediately after the bombing, six of every 10 Philadelphians polled said they supported Goode's actions. But a storm of criticism descended upon the mayor from the media, human rights activists and civil rights leaders.
"The highest and best police behavior is not to shoot it out," Jesse Jackson told a group that gathered in July to raise money for the homeless families. "The reason 11 are dead on Osage is because there was confrontation rather than adequate consultation."
But "adequate consultation" seemed elusive even after the assault.
Goode and his top officials contradicted each other about events surrounding the house bombing, and questions and speculation mounted about what really happened in that bloody assault.
On Oct. 8, a special investigative commission picked by Goode began an inquiry, amid considerable criticism. "Can you imagine a murder defendant picking all the jurors in his trial?" asked Richard Costello, a Fraternal Order of Police official.
During five long weeks of hearings, stories of official bungling and personal terror emerged. Some of the most dramatic testimony came from Michael Moses Ward, a shy teen-ager known as "Birdie Africa," who described MOVE members' unsuccessful efforts to help four children escape from the burning row house.
According to Ward, after police dropped a bomb on the roof, adults attempted to evacuate children but were stopped when "the cops started shooting."
He said a second attempt to flee was blocked by the flaming debris falling from the roof. He was the sole young survivor.
The testimony at the hearings showed conclusively that there were gross miscalculations and communication breakdowns on the part of Goode and his officials. The police commissioner pleaded ignorance, and the fire commissioner revealed he agreed to let the fire grow out of control. Goode said he did not say 'no' to dropping a bomb on the MOVE house and wasn't even present during one of the worst crises in Philadelphia's history.
As the hearings ended, commission member Henry W. Ruth Jr., a former Watergate special prosector, spoke to Philadelphia's granite-faced officials, not one of whom had accepted blame for the bombing and fire.
"The idea of dropping a bomb in an urban area of row houses should have been rejected out of hand," he said. Philadelphia Police Chief Gregore J. Sambor later resigned.
Then, just as the city and Goode were trying to regain their balance, another eruption occurred. More than 400 whites mobbed the street outside the home of a black family and an interracial family after they moved into a white southwest Philadelphia neighborhood.
"We want them out!" the crowd chanted.
In the midst of this new crisis, Goode declared a state of emergency in that neighborhood, saying he would not allow demonstrations against blacks moving there to escalate into violence.
While the mayor should be commended for his stance against bigotry, he should be condemned for not fully understanding the relationship between bombing the MOVE row house and citizens' attempting to take the law into their own hands. When elected officials needlessly turn a city block into a blazing inferno, they contribute to an atmosphere of lawlessness and even bigotry.