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“They don’t defend us. They kill us.” MOVE bombing survivor says things haven’t changed.

A scene from "Let the Fire burn"

Despair over the sense that police officers can take African-American lives without being held accountable has been the topic of extensive public debate over the past year. But it's nothing new.

It was 30 years ago — on May 13, 1985 — that a massive Philadelphia police operation to arrest four members of a radical black liberation group called MOVE incinerated more than 60 homes and left 11 people, including five children, dead.

What happened next will sound familiar to those who've followed many of the 2014 and 2015 police-involved deaths of black men: there were two grand jury investigations. An independent commission found that top officials were grossly negligent in ordering what is still the only aerial bombing by police on US soil, with all but one of the commissioners agreeing that "had the MOVE house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood," the bungled raid never would have happened. But no one from city government was criminally charged.

The Guardian's Alan Yuhas spoke to Ramona Africa, a MOVE member who survived the bombing, was convicted on riot charges, and served seven years behind bars before joining other plaintiffs in winning a total $1.5 million settlement from the city of Philadelphia in 1996. Africa linked the injustice she said she'd experienced to recent police-involved killings:

"Were we wanted for rape, robbery, murder? No, nothing," Ramona Africa, the only living Move survivor of that day, told the Guardian. Africa linked the bombing to the recent police killings of Michael BrownEric Garnerand Freddie Gray: "These people that take an oath that swear to protect, save lives - the cops don't defend poor people, poor white, black, Latino people. They don't defend us, they kill us.

"All you have to do is look at the rash of police murders and the cops not being held accountable," she added. "That should really alarm and outrage people, but the thing is that it's happening today because it wasn't stopped in '85. The only justice that can be done is people seeing this system for what it is."

Jason Osder, the director of the 2013 MOVE documentary Let the Fire Burn (watch the film's trailer below), told the Guardian the divide between 
law enforcement's view of what happened and those who thought the bombing was unjust hasn't been repaired.

Osder noted that police still remembered an officer killed in an altercation with Move seven years earlier, and that leadership was unwilling to risk any officer's life. "Fear is real regardless of how illegitimate it is, and police felt that they are the wounded party.

"And on the other side people have been beaten and arrested, who fear that the justice system is rigged - not an unreasonable thing to think in 1985 or 2015."

The persistent gulf between these two camps means that three decades later, we're no closer to agreeing on whether there's a systemic problem when it comes to how police treat black communities, let alone how to go about fixing it.

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