When we think of past encounters between anti-government groups and the authorities that ended in tragedy, Ruby Ridge and Waco are the names that come to mind. But today marks the 30-year anniversary of a major tragedy that has been largely forgotten, and that was the dropping of a bomb on the members of the strange cult-like group known as Move. Alan Yuhas takes us back to that day.
While the other two events involved white people, in this one the people defying the government were black. And unlike the other two tragedies that took place in remote areas, this one was right in the heart of a major city, Philadelphia, in a densely populated neighborhood close to where I had lived just a year before. The Move members barricaded themselves in their house and refused to come out and blared out their anti-police message through a bullhorn. But as far as was known, none of the members had actually committed any crime. But Move members had been involved in an altercation with police seven years earlier in which an officer had died.
Nonetheless, the authorities tried to flush them out using fire hoses and blowing holes in the walls to pump in teargas. They even fired, by their own account, over 10,000 bullets. But nothing worked. Then in an unbelievable act of recklessness, the mayor of Philadelphia and other authorities thought that the best way to flush out the members of the organization was to drop a bomb on the roof of their house. The bomb missed the target and the ensuing fire spread and “killed six adults and five children, destroyed more than 60 homes and left more than 250 people homeless”.
There was the inevitable commission of inquiry.
The commission’s final report denounced the city from top to bottom. Police tactics were “grossly negligent” at best, the report found, and outrageous at worst: “Dropping a bomb on an occupied rowhouse was unconscionable.” Police would not have done so, the commission noted with only one dissenter, “had the Move house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood”.
Race, class and the status of police and officials all came into play, Osder said, noting the relatively high proportion of black officers in the force and that Move’s black neighbors despised the group. “It’s absolutely about race every single day of the week,” he said. “But there are other dynamics too. The details matter, and you have to get into them.
Greg McDonald, who served as the deputy director and legal counsel for the commission of inquiry, notes that the 2013 report issued by the Department of Justice about Philadelphia’s policing practices found systemic problems, just like they had.
“I was struck how many DoJ recommendations were right out of the assessments from the commission, and not just the police but the city government and services,” McDonald said, listing some shared findings: “federal authorities supplying military equipment to urban police departments, the lack of preparation and training”.
“We’ve got a lot of real tinderboxes in large cities now,” he said. “Move was certainly not a normal neighborhood problem, but the police reaction to it was so overdone that it reminded me of the way that police actions taking place at a much smaller scale are also overreactions.”