Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode today defended his actions to evict the radical group MOVE from its row-house bunker as the Justice Department began an investigation into the siege last May that left 11 persons dead and 61 homes destroyed by fire.
Goode, speaking at a convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, said he was not worried about the outcome of the federal inquiry, which officials said might lead to a full-scale criminal investigation into whether civil rights were violated.
"I don't have any concern about my role, my motives and what I wanted to see happen," Goode said in response to questions. "I would go in again, knowing what I know full well from this."
The May 13 confrontation between police and MOVE members turned a west Philadelphia neighborhood into an inferno when the police dropped an incendiary device on the roof of the group's well-fortified home on Osage Avenue. The resulting fire left 261 people homeless and precipitated a political crisis for Goode's administration.
Goode was asked to address some of the questions running beneath the surface of the controversy: Did a black mayor feel any particular dilemma about using Philadelphia's police, who have been accused of brutality in the past, against black radicals? What would citizen Goode think if former mayor Frank L. Rizzo, whose administration was marked by racial tensions, had done the same thing?
Goode made it clear to his predominantly black audience that he sided with the established system. "I was able, as the son of a sharecropper, to go to a city and become its mayor," he said. "For some of us, the system works . . . .
"I made a conscious decision about whose side I was on. The 261 people who live on that block also had rights," he said, and MOVE members were holding those citizens "hostage."
Goode also said the public sees his actions through a different lens than they would a similar act by Rizzo. "I think people deal with motives," Goode said.
Goode named an 11-member commission May 22 to investigate the handling of the siege. The police plan he had approved did not call for dropping the small bomb, he said today.
Brushing aside most specific questions about how events led to the dropping of the bomb and the fire, he said he preferred to wait until the commission reached its conclusions.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, with help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will conduct its "preliminary inquiry" based on two federal laws, one that prohibits conspiracies to violate a person's civil rights and another that prevents law-enforcement agencies from willfully violating civil rights, according to department spokesman John V. Wilson.
"We're starting out with no assumptions," Wilson said. "There were people killed, and police were involved. Whether that adds up to a violation remains to be seen."