Philadelphia has officially apologized for the 1985 MOVE bombing, but without intentions to address demands from Black organizers in the midst of racial turmoil and a global pandemic, their apology rings hollow.
By Rasheed Ajamu
CW: state violence and Black death
On Thursday, November 12, 2020, Philadelphia Councilmember Jaime Gauthier went to Twitter to share the news that her MOVE bombing resolution passed unanimously and thanked her peers for their decision. But while it seems that they were thrilled for this “resolution,” it proved to be not enough for Philadelphia’s Black people when they took to social media to express their uneasiness with it. Their deepest concerns were that it comes 35 years too late, and that real demands still are not being met.
A Quick History
Before the bombing, there was a lengthy history of the police harassing the MOVE Family, a Black radical communal group founded in 1972 that advocated for Black rights and animal rights. The MOVE Family was prominent during Frank Rizzo’s time as mayor of Philadelphia. Rizzo, best known for his targeted violence of Black people, most notably instructed police to beat the “Black asses” of high school protestors with nightsticks and telling voters to “vote white.” The police’s excessive harassment of the MOVE Family under Rizzo’s orders led to their home being invaded by the police and ended in a shoot-out in 1978, in which Officer James Ramp was killed. Though eyewitnesses say the shot that killed Ramp came from the police side, the MOVE 9 were arrested and sentenced to a maximum of 100 years in prison.
In their attempt to start over, MOVE relocated to a row home at 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philly in 1981. Things still were not great between the police and the MOVE Family, and their next big blowout happened in 1985. By then, Rizzo had been out of the office for a few years. Wilson Goode was now the mayor and he had deemed MOVE a terrorist organization, motivating the police to obtain arrest warrants for various reasons. Before their attack, the police evacuated neighbors with the promise that they would be able to return after 24 hours. Sadly, they didn’t know that there would be nothing for them to return to.
The police arrived on Monday, May 13, 1985, ready to arrest and assail the MOVE Family. There were nearly 500 officers stationed outside of their home. After refusing to respond to evacuation requests, the police invaded their home with deadly force, leading to another standoff. After launching tear-gas canisters and firing massive and excessive amounts of rounds into the house of eight adults and six children, Police Commissioner Sambor ordered the bombing of the home. Eleven of the members were killed, including five children. The fire spread and destroyed 65 of the nearby homes. Firefighters reported that police did not allow them to extinguish the fire for fear that MOVE members might shoot at them, allowing for excessive fire spread. Only two members survived: Ramona Africa and the only child-survivor, Birdie Africa.
Why An Apology Isn’t Enough
While Councilmember Gauthier’s sentiments for an apology appear genuine, it still misses the mark by a long shot. Good intentions are great—and I will admit that change cannot occur without acknowledgment—but it’s important to note that when the people’s sentiments and wants are clear and exact, the city should be offering something else with this apology.
Aside from its radical Black history, Philly has carried on the legacy of movement work this past summer exceedingly. Day-after-day and week-after-week, Black organizers and comrades were taking Philly’s streets to demand justice for Black folks who lost their lives to police violence like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade. Aside from gathering for protests, we were doing teach-ins on abolition and related subjects, organizing bail funds for protestors, holding vigils for our Trans sisters, and creating and sustaining mutual aid relief funds to support the people. And all of these things are still being done. But none of these things are just random and non-purposeful happenings; they exist for a reason. They exist because there is an apparent disconnect between the people of Philadelphia and Philadelphia’s city officials.
On June 27, 2020, the Black Philly Radical Collective, a coalition of Black grassroots organizations, released 13 demands to end the war on Black Philadelphians during a press conference. These demands came after a plethora of reasons that still go unresolved. On May 31, police responded to protests and looting on 52nd Street in West Philly by using tear-gas and rubber bullets, carelessly unloading these weapons on innocent residents and bystanders. Protestors and residents say that while there was looting, there were no acts of violence occurring and that these police attacks were intentional. The next day, downtown protestors were lured to I-676 by the police for what they thought was a clear “okay” to take the highway. What was waiting for them in the middle of the interstate was teargas. Protestors were blocked off from the exit and forced to climb over the gate on the other side of the interstate to escape. Be reminded that protestors enacted absolutely no violence during that demonstration, and it was later revealed that police were given pre-approval for the force if it was “called for.” For both situations, do you know what these victims of unnecessary force received? A non-apology from the mayor that reassured the full-on assault on protestors as still justifiable, though he claims to regret having to do these things. We also got militarized occupancy on the streets of Philadelphia. The National Guard was called twice, back in June and again in October, as extra support for the PPD.
But the 13 demands from Black Philly Radical Collective seek to address so much more. Empty apologies feel like trying to fix a cracked fish tank with a band aid—no matter how you place it, the water will continue to leak, and it’s going to come crashing through if you don’t repair it with the right tools. The more significant issue is that they are attempting to compartmentalize our problems and make our suffering into a checklist, rather than seeing them for what they are, intersecting issues. They believe that taking care of these things one-by-one is easy enough, and if they deliver enough apologies and small measures, it will bring the city peace and pardon their guilt. To their dismay, Black folks refute that sentiment.
We have been in a pandemic for eight months and have only received two rental assistance phases, one of which seemed to have closed the first week it opened, while the others received heavy pushback from landlords. A primary qualification for that program was landlords had to agree to accept to be a part of the program. Many landlords have unsurprisingly shown their asses this entire pandemic, denying these assistance programs and then trying to evict their tenants after doing so. Councilmember Helen Gym went on Twitter to remind us that a rent moratorium extension is needed more than ever with “44% of landlords [declining] rent relief, [which blocked] over 7,000 tenants from paying their rent.” For now, the courts have halted residential evictions until 2021, but it still isn’t enough.
Philadelphia has seen two looting occurrences in the past few months, and they instantly called these folks “criminals” but do not assess how the pandemic has struck families. Looters in need walked away with packages of diapers, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, and groceries. Looting is a logical response when a city fails to take care of its citizens. It comes as no surprise that we have seen an insurgence of mutual aid initiatives around Philadelphia this summer. The people have been using mutual aids as another effective way to lower codependence on the city for support. These aids have included financial relief, crisis relief/recovery, food access/distribution, baby items, hygiene products, harm-reduction kits, and much more. Our people are tired of waiting for the government’s aid because, frankly, the government doesn’t care.
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And it doesn’t stop there. Philadelphia’s officials have shown a history of disregarding our overwhelming existence in this city. We have a District Attorney who claims dedication to a “fair” justice system, even as our political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal still sit behind bars under harsh conditions. MOVE 9 members are still on parole and receive no actual support from the city that took so many years of their lives. The statue of the racist former Mayor Rizzo got removed from outside City Hall this past June after years’ worth of organizers’ efforts, while other clear symbols of racial and state violence still stand without talks of removal. And in a time when we are adamantly demanding defunding police to add more money into our school district budget and to preserve cultural programs, the PPD dare to ask for an $18 million raise. They want money for tasers and overtime pay (though they can afford militarized weapons and body cams). Simultaneously, our schools have dirty water, contain asbestos, heavily crowded rooms, and have little-to-no air ventilation. We have an issue funding our children’s safety and education, but it’s apparently not a wild ask to provide more money to the very folks who brutalize the city. We get the message.
And if I’m honest, taking a “vote” to apologize to a community of folks who lost their homes and another group of folks who were wrongly jailed and had their family murdered by the police while they were behind bars is a fucking joke. There is nothing tangible being provided along with the apology to even require a vote in the first place. The only change is that Philadelphia will now publicly acknowledge the harm the city brought to a community of Black folks, and they promise to do so every year on May 13th from now on. What good is that doing folks who have already been doing that kind of work for years? It doesn’t bring us any real resolve. So yes, the people expect more than words after continuous periods of exhaustion and fight.
Only real change can come from the top down if the BPRC‘s list of demands are met. These demands include defunding the police, permanent removal of all state violence symbols, the release of political prisoners and vulnerable individuals, ending carceral systems, reparations, redistributing funds towards our children’s educations, and much more. This list of demands comes from educators, lawyers, activists, residents, students, and everyday people of Philadelphia. It comes from the folks who have been here their entire lives and continue to build a safer and better Philadelphia for Black folks. And the city knows that. After seeing these demands on significant outlets like 6ABC, WHYY, and the Philadelphia Tribune, apathy for the suffering of Black Philadelphians seems like the only real motivation to not work towards meeting these demands, offering us a measly apology—35 years too late—instead. These demands are not just for likes and hits on social media. Not just an overnight phenomenon that will die as we enter the colder months. This list is the necessary next step for our liberation, and until the city shows real intention in meeting demands that will help better the lives of Black Philadelphians, their apology for the MOVE bombing that devastating a Black community is nothing more than an empty gesture. We demand more.
How to Support the MOVE members and the BRPC
- Read and share the BRPC‘s 13 Demands HERE and sign up for alerts for future events and calls-to-action.
- Sign on to End the War Against Black Philadelphians
- Visit the MOVE Organization’s website, where they have a full list of actions to support them in various ways, including financially.
- Tune into 40 Years a Prisoner, a documentary highlighting Mike Africa Jr.’s journey to exonerate his parents and other MOVE members, on December 3 at 9 pm on HBO & HBO Max.
- Attend the Pan-African Activist Sunday School: From Protest to Movement series for the next three Sundays, starting November 15th.
- Attend the Brick By Brick discussion on November 19th at 6 pm and donate. All proceeds go to the Brick By Brick Freedom Fund.
- Donate directly to the Brick By Brick Freedom Fund, which focuses on securing freedom and life-sustaining support for current and former political prisoners in PA.
Rasheed Ajamu is a fat, Black, queer jawn from Philly. Rasheed runs the @PhreedomJawn page on Instagram, which informs, uplifts, and lists opportunities for all of the Philly Pham. They are 1/2 of The GWORLZ Room Podcast, which is an open forum where they and their sibling fat in peace. Ajamu has organized calls-to-actions and mutual aids in Philadelphia. They also freelance for outlets like BLAVITY, Noire Life Mag, and Medium.
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