The police swarmed the Philadelphia house armed to the teeth.
They were there to serve a warrant, but what should have been a routine police procedure escalated into a violent hours-long standoff that turned a quiet neighborhood into a war zone. Into the night, bullets rained through the streets as law enforcement trained their weapons toward the house, where at least one gunman inside refused to surrender.
That was the scene Wednesday, where one man’s shootout with police drew national attention. Even though six officers were wounded, police received praise for navigating a dramatic hostage situation and avoiding fatalities.
But it was also the scene nearly 35 years prior, when more than a decade of animosity between an anti-establishment black liberation group and the city where it was based reached a fiery climax. It ended when police dropped a bomb on a rowhouse, killing 11 people, including five children. Wednesday’s battle recalled the chaos in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985 — but the buildup to each incident, and their outcomes, were very different.
MOVE, which is not an acronym, was founded in 1972 by Vincent Leaphart, who later took the name John Africa. He was a Philadelphia native and Korean War veteran, and his group quickly gained an outsize reputation in the city. Drawing on black revolutionary thought, aspects of Rastafarianism, vegetarianism and the animal rights movement, MOVE eschewed technology, lived communally and protested often.
Years before the 1985 bombing, MOVE’s confrontations with law enforcement were becoming increasingly violent. In 1978, after city officials spent nearly a year trying to force MOVE members from a West Philadelphia home where they were squatting and sparring with neighbors, police attempted to storm the building. Shots were fired and one officer, James Ramp, was killed. Sixteen other police officers and firefighters were injured. MOVE eventually surrendered, but police vociferously beat one of its members.
Nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder for Ramp’s death and sentenced to up to 100 years in prison in a trial the group deemed unjust. From then on, advocating the release of the so-called MOVE 9 became the group’s cause celebre. Its protest drew in supporters like Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was later convicted of the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner and whose case became its own symbol of racial injustice. MOVE remained divisive in the city, as some supported or sympathized with them, while others couldn’t abide the group’s more radical tactics.
Facing heightened scrutiny from city officials and civilian peers, MOVE relocated its operation to 6211 Osage Ave. in 1981 — in a working-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia, where the group quickly became a source of frustration for their predominantly black neighbors.
Jason Osder, who directed “Let the Fire Burn,” a documentary about the bombing, recalled how MOVE routinely harassed area residents and left garbage around the property. Holidays were no different, according to Osder: On Christmas Eve three years later, the group used a bullhorn to hurl insults toward local families.
“Neighbors started going to city hall,” Osder said. “It gets to a point where it’s going to come to violence on the block.”
Tensions between MOVE and city officials continued into spring 1985, when authorities swarmed the rowhouse to serve warrants on four of the group’s members for illegal possession of firearms, among other charges. Police evacuated 300 people from the area the night of May 12, according to Time magazine, as negotiators attempted to peacefully evict MOVE from the house.
Once again, the group refused, asserting they would leave only if their nine comrades were freed from prison. The fleet of police cars and firetrucks that lined the street continued to grow in size. City officials used tear gas and water cannons to try to force the group outside.
But at that point, Osder notes, MOVE had transformed the modest rowhouse into a makeshift bunker containing weapons and militarylike fortifications.
It’s not exactly clear whether MOVE or law enforcement fired the first shots, but the aftermath is well-documented: Police unloaded more than 10,000 rounds into the home as those inside returned fire.
“Everything was pure escalation; everything was bigger than it could be,” Osder said. MOVE “were boogeymen."
Live TV cameras captured the exchange of gunfire and tear gas that served as prelude to a government act that would permanently stain the city: A Pennsylvania State Police helicopter dropped four pounds of C-4 explosives on the roof of the rowhouse without warning. It ricocheted off inch-thick metal plating that covered the roof, sparking a blaze that quickly burned out of control and eventually leveled 61 nearby homes.
Only one woman and a young boy managed to escape. Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor, later recalled being trapped inside the “blazing inferno,” where she and her adopted family choked on thick clouds of smoke.
Despite having water cannons aimed toward the house, the fire department deliberately made no effort to extinguish the flames.
“The instant we were visible to them, trying to come out, they immediately opened fire,” she said in a 2010 interview with Democracy Now. “Choke to death or burn alive or possibly shot to death, we continued to try to get out of that house.”
Though she managed to escape, Ramona Africa was immediately apprehended. While she spent seven years in prison on riot and conspiracy charges, no city officials or members of law enforcement were ever prosecuted for the bombing.
“That bombing did not happen because of some complaints from neighbors,” she said. “They bombed us because of our unrelenting fight for our family members known as the MOVE 9.”
In 1986, a special commission studied the bombing and determined it was “reckless, ill-conceived and hastily approved."
“Dropping a bomb on an occupied rowhouse was unconscionable and should have been rejected out-of-hand,” the report continued.
Steve Harmon, who lived nearby, told a New York Times reporter in disbelief: “Drop a bomb on a residential area? I never in my life heard of that. It’s like Vietnam.”
That day — when Philadelphia became known as “The City that Bombed Itself” — faded fast from the headlines. It’s rarely discussed in national media and is scarcely referenced in American history curriculums. But if only by echo — because the two incidents developed and unfolded so differently — the shootout in a North Philadelphia neighborhood Wednesday yanked the 1985 bombing back into the mainstream news cycle.
Osder said there are more apt comparisons — such as Tulsa in 1921, when white mobs massacred black residents and burned their homes and businesses — but he invites any reason to discuss the bombing, any reason to rescue it from what he fears will be its fate: a historic event, somehow nearly lost to history.