Relations between the radical group MOVE and its neighbors reached "a breaking point" months before police dropped a bomb on a MOVE headquarters last May, killing 11 group members and destroying 61 row houses, an investigative commission was told today.
MOVE members had harangued neighbors with obscenities for hours from a huge loudspeaker, provoked fights, built a rooftop bunker with wood that police ordered them to remove from the street and allowed garbage and animal waste to go unattended, creating a terrible stench, according to testimony.
Carrie Foskey, a neighbor who circulated an anti-MOVE petition two years ago, testified that one day when she "went out to hang up clothes, maggots fell on my head" from the MOVE compound next door.
After MOVE members provoked a fight with her son, she said, she hid the bullets for the gun she kept so she would have "thinking time" if she "went out of control again."
Foskey was one of three persons who lived near the MOVE house and testified today as the commission, appointed by Mayor W. Wilson Goode, opened hearings with high hopes, but a surprisingly low public turnout, in a television-studio amphitheater.
The hearings, being carried gavel-to-gavel on public television, are expected to last four weeks and represent the first public inquiry into the May 13 confrontation.
Only one-fourth of the 360 seats set aside for the public at WHYY-TV were filled today, and eight were occupied by demonstrators who attempted to disrupt proceedings, shouting, "This commission is a cover-up."
The independence of the 11-member commission has been attacked by the Fraternal Order of Police and others. Chairman William H. Brown III tried today to dispel criticism, putting officials on notice that "careers and reputations will be at stake" in the investigation of what he called "one of the most devastating days" in city history.
Among dozens of questions to be answered, Brown said, are "What did the mayor do, and when did he do it? . . . . Who was in charge? Who was accountable?"
Today's testimony focused on MOVE's long history of conflict with Philadelphia police and its neighbors in a blue-collar area of West Philadelphia. On Wednesday, the panel is to take "a look inside MOVE," a small band of self-described back-to-nature revolutionaries. Goode is expected to testify later this week.
Joseph O'Neill, a former city police commissioner, testified that, under his leadership, the police department spent months planning for an August 1978 confrontation with MOVE and that, during a siege at a MOVE headquarters, members had been urged repeatedly to allow children to escape. He said he never considered using explosives.
O'Neill was apparently called to contrast official planning for the 1978 confrontation, in which a policeman was shot to death, and plans last spring.
Four children died in the police assault and fire May 13, and commission members have expressed puzzlement about why little apparently was done to save youngsters.
Police detectives testified that MOVE has been a problem for years. In a three-year period beginning in 1973, for example, MOVE members were involved in 141 demonstrations, 97 court cases and 193 arrests, police said.
Detective George Draper, who said he knew MOVE founder John Africa as a boy and has followed the group for years, provided some of the day's most revealing testimony.
Although one of the department's top experts on the group, Draper said he was never consulted about planning for the assault. He said that, although he filed detailed reports on growing tensions in the MOVE neighborhood, his superiors rarely acted on them.
Today's most jarring moment came when a reluctant Draper was pressed to tell the commission how MOVE members harangued neighbors. He said they often shouted obscenities at children and housewives. "They'd call you a faggot, a child molester, anything that was vile, and they'd go into great detail," he recounted.