When I was one year old, the government of Philadelphia firebombed its own people

The United States is a country that was founded on white supremacy, and that has yet to actually address the myriad of atrocities and injustices that followed from that aspect of the nation’s founding. The current “CRT” panic from the right wing is a not-so-subtle effort to prevent the teaching of any history that might undermine fanatical patriotism, particularly among white students. From what I can tell, the conservative movement is horrified that people have been learning about things like the 1921 pogrom in Tulsa Oklahoma. Personally, I love to see it. Lately I’ve heard a lot of fascists online talking about their belief that history is cyclical, and that “their time” is coming, especially with the recent backlash against social progress. There’s a degree to which belief in such cycles can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you have hugely popular people like Joe Rogan spreading a mix of fatalism, bigotry, and machismo, and talking about ancient prophecies, I think there’s a real danger of people trying to create hard times, or at minimum shrugging off dangerous trends in society.

So I think it’s worth remembering both the kinds of things that can come from a racist law enforcement system, and remembering that this stuff is not remotely cyclical. Even a cursory glance at history shows “hard times” happening all over the world on any given date. Sadly, state violence against black neighborhoods didn’t end in the 1920s. On May 13th 1985, the Philedelphia Police Department firebombed a neighborhood:

In case it wasn’t clear, officials made the decision to let the fire spread:

In May 1985, after attempts to evict the group from its home in West Philadelphia, the city flew a helicopter over it and dropped a bomb. The explosives resulted in a raging fire, which the fire department refused to control. Various accounts suggest that police began shooting at members attempting to flee. Only two people escaped, and six adults and five children died in the blaze.

This is all bad enough, but because the U.S. is what it is, it gets worse. See – ordinarily when people die, regardless of the circumstances, their remains are treated according to the wishes of loved ones. It’s generally considered bad form to just… keep the remains without permission.

A forensic pathologist produced reports on the human remains found in the debris, including two sets of bones identified as belonging to Tree Africa, 14, and Delisha Africa, 12.

Mike Africa Jr., a current MOVE member who spent his childhood with the group, remembered Tree as fearless, someone who would find the tallest tree in the park and race to its peak. “No one could climb higher than she could,” he said in an interview this month. “She never feared the way up.” Delisha, he said, was always right behind her.

After an investigation into the bombing,the remains were given to anthropologist Alan Mann by the city Medical Examiner’s Office, according to the MOVE Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission letters, for further analysis. At the time, he worked at the University of Pennsylvania. When Mann transferred to Princeton University in 2001, he reportedly took the bones with him.

Researchers connected to the schools also used the girls’ bones in an online forensic anthropology teaching video, without permission of the relatives’ families.

That the MOVE bones were still being held by the universities was not widely known before revelations published this week by online news site Billy Penn. It has led to public outrage as controversy builds over American museums’ display and study of human remains. Just last week, the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology pledged to repatriate another group of problematic human remains known as the Morton Collection.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said Thursday that he was “extremely disturbed” by the mishandling of the girls’ remains and that the city is reviewing its internal records from the time of the bombing.

On Thursday, MOVE member Pam Africa told The RemiX Morning Show her organization had never been contacted about the remains.

“None of these monsters have called one MOVE person,” Africa said. “Tree has a mother, Consuela Africa, who did 16 years in jail.”

Fortunately, last year the remains were found after Philadelphia’s health commissioner Thomas Farley was found to have ordered their destruction without notifying anyone – let alone the family. This stuff isn’t ancient history. I was a year old when this happened, and Farley’s attempt to destroy the remains was in 2017. White supremacy is still very much the default in how a lot of the United States operates. Black Americans have been saying this for decades, it has become pretty fucking clear in recent years just how right they were.

Right now the country is in the grips of a massive, well-funded effort to roll back as many civil rights as possible. Whatever you may have been told, the “moral arc of the universe” is a comforting fiction. There is no inevitable good outcome for us. If we want the world to get better, we have to understand what it was, what it is, and we have to work to make it into something that it never has been before.

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  1. says

    Hey, if universities are keeping human remains for study, why not just dig up then-mayor Frank Rizzo’s remains and add them to the collection? We don’t want students having only one ethnic group represented, do we?

  2. says

    I graduated high school that week, watching it unfold on the news. Where I lived, there were no Black people and I had never met any, and this strongly influenced my opinion and awareness of societal racism, and of cops. Nothing that anyone in MOVE did could justify shooting people escaping a fire, could justify killing children. Nothing. This was an exertion of power.

    The British learnt from their mass murder in the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and changed tactics, but the US learnt nothing from the atrocities against MOVE in 1985. They repeated it at Ruby Ridge in 1992, against David Koresh in 1993, and countless other “shoot first, blame the dead later” incidents. And of course, many similar incidents before 1985.

  3. Katydid says

    I was stationed in Mountain Home when Ruby Ridge went down. Randy Weaver was no hero and no victim–he was Ammon Bundy before Ammon Bundy made the news for taking over the people’s national park and trying to assassinate the people whose job was to protect it, Weaver, who survived Ruby Ridge, was pretty typical of that type of Idahoan: uneducated, white supremacist, chip on his shoulder, violent, ridiculously over-armed, yet hand out to collect welfare money. He was also a coward, putting his teenage son and wife out to defend him. He’d been wanted on a failure-to-appear for a gun violation–do you KNOW how bad it has to be in Idaho before they care about someone threatening other people with their guns? He was known to be armed and known to be a raving, malicious lunatic, so the marshalls went in armed with federal backup.

    I looked up David Koresh in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Koresh . His life is America in a nutshell; sexual abuse of young girls (his mother was 14) and whackadoodle religious beliefs (including believing he had the right to impregnate young girls to produce 24 children to take over the world and general violence). Add guns (on both sides) and you have the disaster. His death “inspired” the domestic anti-governtment terrorists who blew up the federal building in Oklahoma, including the daycare, because low-paid daycare women and children simply do not matter to that type of person.

  4. says

    I also think it’s worth noting how the people at Ruby Ridge are basically viewed as noble martyrs by conservatives to this day, but you can be damned sure they wouldn’t hesitate to say everyone from Cobbs Creek deserved what happened to their neighborhood

  5. Katydid says

    Cobbs Creek was city, and conservatives hate the cities because they’re filled with educated, hard-working people.

    Idaho is filled with various dregs with their hands out for sweet, sweet welfare while screaming about how independent they are and how much they hate…the people whose tax dollars are supporting the takers’ lifestyle. Conservatives love this.

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