The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mishandling of MOVE children’s remains is an expression of anti-Black violence

The mothers of MOVE were deprived the chance to protect and mourn their children after the Philadelphia bombing

A crowd gathers near the site of the 1985 bombing of the Black organization MOVE's headquarters in Philadelphia on Thursday. (Claudia Lauer/AP)

On May 13, 1985, the city of Philadelphia bombed the home of the MOVE organization in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia, killing 11 children, women and men and destroying 61 homes of Black residents in the neighborhood. A collective of mostly Black naturalists founded in 1972 in West Philadelphia, MOVE is dedicated to advancing environmentalism and respect for all life-forms — plant, human and animal alike — and to eradicating racial oppression and anti-Blackness.

Each year, the MOVE family memorializes the lives of their loved ones and comrades through oral retellings and direct action. This year, the organization’s losses and grief were compounded when a Black journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed that in 1985, the University of Pennsylvania Museum took possession of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, two children who were killed in the bombing. The remains were mishandled, transported and used as academic material by Penn and then Princeton University anthropologists without the consent of their parents. The city has also mishandled the remains, showing total disregard for the families of the MOVE victims.

The bombing, and subsequent mishandling of the remains of the MOVE children, are both part of a longer history of anti-Black police violence to which Black children and mothers have been and still are especially vulnerable. This violence continues through the mishandling of the children’s remains and in the suffering of their mother, Consuewella Africa, who was incarcerated alongside other MOVE women whose children were killed in the bombing. They were deprived of the ability to protect, mourn or keep vigil over their children.

For more than a decade before the bombing, tensions between MOVE and Philadelphia’s police escalated. As police chief and then as mayor of Philadelphia from 1972 through 1980, Frank L. Rizzo sought to crush Black radicalism, including the MOVE organization’s challenges to policing and to racist and capitalist social structures in the city.

Throughout the 1970s, several MOVE women and mothers testified to suffering the continual loss of their children at the hands of police violence. These losses were often obscured or denied by the police. In keeping with the group’s radical vision for autonomy over their lives and bodies, MOVE didn’t always register babies born to members with state agencies, nor would they give the bodies of their children over to the city for investigations. Several MOVE women remember miscarrying after experiencing police assaults during arrests at protests and even in city jails. Like most Black women and mothers, MOVE women were overpoliced and underprotected. MOVE’s efforts to protect the lives of women and children heightened the group’s confrontations with police. MOVE took a militaristic stance of armed self-defense as a result.

This violence against MOVE’s mothers reflects the broader ways that policymakers, media outlets and public officials pathologize Black mothers through myths that Black women are morally and culturally deviant and unfit to parent. Social welfare programs often carry out punitive measures and surveillance of Black women, children and families. For MOVE women, this was intensified because of their intentional choice to live outside societal norms.

Their minimalistic and community-oriented lifestyle was based in practices of collective care, which was a mode of survival and resistance against an oppressive, racist society. Some of their mothering practices included unassisted birthing, breastfeeding and generally caring for children collectively in the face of state violence and arrests of members who had children.

Frequently, MOVE mothers were separated from their children by the city’s Department of Welfare, especially at protests. For example, in 1975, after an arrest during a direct action, Valerie Africa’s child was taken from her by force and placed in foster care. Such interventions provided the state with tools to surveil MOVE’s home life and to threaten its members with separation from their children by suggesting problems of child welfare. Yet placement in the social welfare system made MOVE children more vulnerable to harm, including physical and emotional abuse, violence and forced abdication of their families’ practices and dietary preferences. Like many 1970s Black families, MOVE’s exposure to child welfare services subjected them to social and familial control.

In March 1976, Janine Africa’s infant son, Life Africa, died after police brutalized Janine with her child in her arms. She recalled being kicked and stomped by police who were beating MOVE members in the front yard of their home. Afterward, police cited contested neighbors’ complaints about noise disruptions at the MOVE house. The police denied any role in the death of Life Africa, claiming that the child didn’t exist. Janine recently recalled that she refused to give the remains of her child to the city in part because of her knowledge of the postmortem violation of Black bodies.

In 1978, a militarized police raid on the group’s Powelton Village home resulted in the incarceration of a group of adult members known as the MOVE 9. The city said it acted in response to neighbor complaints about disturbances from MOVE’s naturalist lifestyle and protests in the neighborhood. Some neighbors complained of the heavy police presence in the area leading to the raid. The MOVE 9 were convicted after the death of a police officer during the raid.

This escalated tensions between MOVE and the city of Philadelphia. MOVE insisted that the MOVE 9 were wrongfully convicted political prisoners. The city considered MOVE disorderly and antagonistic. Meanwhile, the city’s redevelopment authority worked with private corporations and universities to remove Black residents, including MOVE, from the Powelton Village neighborhood for university housing and development.

On May 12, 1985, the city began a two-day militaristic attack on MOVE. Officials said they were attempting to enforce arrest warrants. Police evacuated the block surrounding MOVE’s new headquarters in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia and prepared to deploy military-grade weaponry provided by the FBI, including a c-4 bomb.

On May 13, police and the fire department deployed thousands of rounds of ammunition, tear gas and water deluge guns. The attack culminated when the city dropped a bomb on the home and then police actively ordered firefighters to let the resulting fire burn out of control. When MOVE members attempted to escape the blaze from the rear of the home and bring their children to safety, they were shot back into their home by police ammunition.

Five children, Delisha, Tree, Netta, Little Phil and Tomaso, were killed. All of their mothers, Consuewella, Janet, Janine and Sue Africa were incarcerated at the time, some of them members of the MOVE 9. Consuewella Africa recalls being in a Restrictive Housing Unit (segregation) with other MOVE women when they learned of their children’s deaths. She said they were notified about the bombing by prison officials who said: “Oh, they murdered your daughters.” The prison personnel trivialized the MOVE mothers’ grief and the severity of the violence inflicted on the organization, within and beyond prison walls.

Six adults were killed in the bombing, including Rhonda Africa, Teresa Africa, Frank Africa, Raymond Africa, Conrad Africa and John Africa, the group’s founder. Rhonda’s son, Birdie, was one of two survivors of the bombing, along with Ramona Africa, who was incarcerated for seven years on charges of riot and arson — the only person to be punished for the MOVE bombing.

MOVE members believed that Tree and Delisha had been laid to rest. But it has recently been revealed that the children’s remains were obtained without their parent’s knowledge or consent; their ability to provide or withhold consent was compromised by their incarceration.

The city’s and elite institutions’ desecration of their remains is a blatant extension of a system that criminalizes and exploits Black children and mothers. Penn issued a statement of apology after being contacted by a local journalist but did not contact the mothers directly to offer apology or any form of repair.

The MOVE organization has long done the work of memorializing its own history on its own terms, rather than relying on state institutions, universities or museum sites to do so. It continues to reprint its own history in the pamphlet 50 Years On The MOVE. This year’s May 13th Day of Remembrance invited the community to march from the MOVE historical marker at Cobbs Creek Parkway to Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia.

This year’s MOVE bombing anniversary calls for renewed attention to the suffering of Black people and children in life and death — and to the work of Black women who mother against all odds, despite oppression, incarceration and across communal bonds.