As the smoke rose from 6221 Osage Avenue, Philadelphia residents watched through their windows or television screens in a state of stunned disbelief. Their city had just bombed its own people.
On the evening of May 13, 1985, longstanding tensions between MOVE, a black liberation group, and the Philadelphia Police Department erupted horrifically. That night, the city of Philadelphia dropped a satchel bomb, a demolition device typically used in combat, laced with Tovex and C-4 explosives on the MOVE organization, who were living in a West Philadelphia rowhome known to be occupied by men, women, and children. It went up in unextinguished flames. Eleven people were killed, including five children and the founder of the organization. Sixty-one homes were destroyed, and more than 250 citizens were left homeless.
For the next several years, the confrontation with MOVE would be remembered as an ordeal that transformed the fabric of the city. The show of force, unjustified to many, solidified mistrust between Philadelphia’s residents and government. “The story is a parable of sorts; it’s a parable of how the unthinkable comes to happen,” said Jason Osder, the director of Let the Fire Burn, a documentary about the bombing. “It’s a tragedy. In my opinion, everyone who was an adult in the city failed that day ... collectively, the whole city failed.”
MOVE, not an acronym, was a political and religious organization whose principles were anti-government, anti-technology, and anti-corporation. Its creator, John Africa, born Vincent Leaphart, was a West Philadelphia native and Korean War veteran whose ideology combined black revolutionary ideas with environmental and animal rights, as well as a back-to-nature movement.
MOVE was founded in 1972 and still exists today, though its membership numbers are unknown. Members lived communally and described themselves as a family, changing their last names to Africa out of reverence for their founder and for the continent. In nonviolent but disruptive demonstrations, members protested at zoos, pet stores, and political rallies; the group believed in composting, homeschooling, and a diet of raw foods, and spoke out against war and police brutality. They maintained a complicated relationship with Philadelphia residents; some sympathized with their mission, while others found their lifestyle to be disruptive.
Members frequently had run-ins with authorities. In 1978, MOVE engaged in a 15-month standoff after then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, notorious for a volatile relationship with black residents and activist groups, ordered the group to be removed from their home. The confrontation ended in the death of a police officer for which nine members of MOVE, nicknamed the MOVE 9, were controversially convicted and given life sentences.
Four years later, MOVE relocated to the quiet, largely middle-class African American residence on Osage Avenue. Their neighbors continually complained to the city about trash around their rowhouse, confrontations with residents, and that MOVE members broadcast sometimes obscene political messages by bullhorn. After they’d spent three years on Osage Avenue, then-Mayor Wilson Goode, the first African American mayor of Philadelphia, gave the order to evict them. What began as a door-to-door evacuation of the neighborhood the night before became a violent, day-long ordeal no one in the community could have foreseen.
Only two people survived the bombing — Ramona Africa, then 29, and a child, Birdie Africa, then 13, later known as Michael Moses Ward; both were badly burned. Despite two grand jury investigations, a civil suit, and a commission final report that cited the bombing as “reckless, ill-conceived, and hastily-approved,” no one was ever criminally charged for the attack. Survivor Ramona Africa immediately went on to serve seven years in prison on rioting and conspiracy charges for arrest warrants from before the bombing.
Neighbors returned to shoddy construction in 1986, and by the early 2000s, two-thirds of the neighborhood was bought out by the city. Today, the houses are largely vacant. The bombing, now deemed one of the worst tragedies in the history of Philadelphia, lives on in the memories of the city’s residents. A few years later, the Waco siege standoff between law enforcement and a Texas religious sect would sear itself into the country’s consciousness. The MOVE bombing remains largely forgotten nationally.
Based on testimonies, interviews, and retellings from then and now by people who lived it, here’s the tale of how the fateful tragedy unfolded and changed Philadelphia forever. Some quotes have been condensed for clarity.
Diane J., a resident of the neighborhood: I went to hang out at the home of my friend’s in-laws that day. It was a beautiful day outside, a beautiful neighborhood. They were out of town and we went to watch the dog. We got there early and hadn’t been in the house very long. The police knocked on the door and told us everyone had to leave. There was a swarm of police officers outside — we had no idea what was going on. They told us it was an investigation of the MOVE people on the block over and we could come back later. So we took the dog and left.
Akhen Wilson, then a next-door neighbor of MOVE: The cops evacuated our block the night before. A lot of families went to shelters or hotels. My dad took us to a condo he started renting that week, because my parents were through with the situation. We took stuff to stay overnight and left everything else in the house.
Andrea Walls, writer and resident of the neighborhood: That morning, there was an announcement the police commissioner made over a bullhorn. I’ll never forget it.
Gregore Sambor, then-Philadelphia police commissioner (in testimony): With the bullhorn, I read the message ...
Ramona Africa, lone adult survivor of bombing (in 2015 interview with PressTV): Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor came out and said “Attention MOVE, this is America. You have to abide by the laws and rules of [the United States]”, words to that effect. I’m still trying to figure out what he meant by that...After they made that announcement, they didn’t just try to wait us out or anything. What was the hurry?
Albert Revel, then-Philadelphia police sergeant (in testimony): The tactical plan as I understood it was to remove the MOVE people, all the people from the house safely … by causing a diversion on the roof, inserting the insertion teams on either side of the properties, and by then, inducing an amount of CS gas in a sufficient concentration to make those people come out of the house.
Ramona Africa, lone adult survivor of bombing (in 2010 interview with Angola News): They aimed four water cannons at our home. We were all in the basement and the water was just pouring down on us for the longest time. Mind you, this is when there was no fire at all...
Michael Moses Ward, lone child survivor, also known as Birdie Africa (in testimony): We was in the cellar for a while … and tear gas started coming in and we got the blankets. And they was wet. And then we put them over our heads and started laying down.
Angie Lofton, a resident of the neighborhood: I went to work and turned on the news. I saw clouds of tear gas and the gunfire started. It was rapid-fire. I couldn’t believe it. I had heard the MOVE kids were supposed to be picked up by authorities at Cobbs Creek Parkway before any action was supposed to happen. It was horrifying to know that they were still in the house.
Wilson Goode, then-mayor of Philadelphia (during a press conference): There was no way to avoid it. No way to extract ourselves from that situation except by armed confrontation.
William Brown III, chair of the Special Investigation MOVE Commission: It was clear that the MOVE people didn’t have any automatic weapons. They later found only a couple of shotguns and a rifle [in the MOVE house]. Yet the police fired so many rounds of ammunition — at least 10,000 — into that building during the day that they had to send up to the police headquarters to get more.
Andrea Walls, writer and a resident of the neighborhood: How could they decide to fire 10,000 rounds of ammunition into a building with women and children? It was absolutely insane.
Ron Archer, a resident of the neighboring block: Helicopters were everywhere. I was standing at the corner and I climbed on top of the mailbox so I could see better. I saw a bomb drop. Then it felt like someone had pushed me.
Michael Moses Ward, also known as Birdie Africa: That’s when the big bomb went off. It shook the whole house up.
Arnett Woodall, a resident and current store owner in the neighborhood: We were playing basketball at a recreational center in the area. When the explosion went off, it shook the ground.
Gregore Sambor, then-Philadelphia police commissioner (in testimony): … I had recommended that the best way was to use an explosive entry device to blow a hole in the roof to insert gas in through the roof, and also to dislodge the bunker.
Frank Powell, retired Philadelphia police lieutenant, known for dropping the bomb (in 1985 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer): The bunker was not destroyed. There was a hole in the roof, a football-shaped hole about 1 foot wide, 2 feet long. I looked down in the hole. There was no fire and no smoke. … About 15 to 20 minutes later, I started to receive information from the stakeout post that there was a fire …
Ramona Africa, lone adult survivor of the bombing: We felt the house shake, but it hadn’t occurred to us that they dropped a bomb. Pretty quickly, it got smokier and smokier. At first we thought it was the tear gas, but then it got thicker. … It started getting hot in there. The house was on fire.
Michael Africa Jr., MOVE member and son of Debbie and Michael Africa Sr.: I was living with my grandmother at the time. We were 4 miles away, but I could see the black smoke in the sky as if it was down the street. ... I went in and saw my grandmother and aunts watching the news. They were all huddled up together and they were all crying. I looked at the TV and I said, “That looks like our house”. And my aunt looked at me and said, “It is.”
Akhen Wilson, then a next-door neighbor of MOVE: We watched the bombing on TV at the condo. Our house started to go up in flames. I went out on the balcony and I could see the smoke billowing from across the city.
Angie Lofton, a resident of the neighborhood: At the back of our house, the kids playing in their yards were yelling, “Ouch! Ouch!” because they were getting singed from ash falling.
Wilson Goode, then-mayor of Philadelphia: You can always second-guess any decision. The one thing we did that went wrong was when the percussion grenade was dropped, it caused a fire. That was an accident. I was as saddened by that as anyone else.
Diane J., a resident of the neighborhood: We went to my friend’s house, and later that day we saw the bombing on the news. We were devastated. I was angry, heartbroken. It was a beautiful home. They were travelers. They had things that were priceless. And they lost everything. Everything.
Angie Lofton, a resident of the neighborhood: Everyone’s question at the time was why weren’t they putting the fire out. They were just gonna let the fire burn. Later we’d find out that the police commissioner and fire commissioner agreed to use it as a tactical plan.
William Brown III, chair of the Special Investigation MOVE Commission: We were told by the experts that when the fire first started, you could have put it out with a bucket of water.
Andrea Walls, writer and resident of the neighborhood: The building is on fire, with firemen on the scene, and everyone agrees not to fight the fire and to allow 60 homes to burn. How can this happen? How could no one say, wait, hold up, something’s not right. Y’all are serving misdemeanor warrants and this is where we end up at the end of the day? What does it mean? For years, I’ve been trying to understand. And I came to the conclusion that we have been absorbing all of this anti-black rhetoric, all of this anti-black imagery, our entire lives. We’re just all absorbing this expectation that black life and black bodies have very little value.
Angie Lofton, a resident of the neighborhood: It started spreading only two blocks from where we lived; I stayed awake that night praying it wouldn’t spread to ours.
James Berghaier, retired Philadelphia police officer (in 2010 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer): That’s the closest I’ve ever been to a large fire. The heat would pop the glass … you couldn’t interpret if it was a gunshot or not. We heard over the radio that they were coming out.
Ramona Africa, lone adult survivor of bombing: We immediately tried to get our children, our animals, ourselves out of the burning building. We were hollering, “We’re coming out!” [The cops] immediately started shooting, trying to prevent anybody from coming out of that house. We were forced back in at least twice.
William Brown III, chairperson of the Special Investigation “MOVE” Commission: Police officers denied using gunfire, though it is unclear why MOVE members would choose to run back into the fire.
James Berghaier, retired Philadelphia police officer: Out of the smoke, the first person I saw was Ramona. Then I see who was later identified as Birdie come out of the fire … I ran out and scooped him underneath his left arm.
Angie Lofton, a resident of the neighborhood: I had never seen anything like it. I had seen the Vietnam War coverage on TV but never my neighborhood in flames. When I watered the plants the day after the bombing, they had burn holes.
Diane J., a resident of the neighborhood: I didn’t know until later there were people still in the MOVE house. I didn’t know that my friend’s husband who was a MOVE member was killed in that fire.
Debbie Africa, member of MOVE 9 released from prison in 2018: A prison guard came to our cells and told Janine, Janet, and Sue, “They just had a firebombing at your house and your children are dead.” I don’t blame her because it was her job to tell us. But we couldn’t believe it. It was just horrible and unbelievable.
Michael Africa Sr., member of MOVE 9 released from prison in 2018: Even while watching the footage it was unbelievable. Unbelievable something like that could happen, that a government would do that to its own people.
Akhen Wilson, then a next-door neighbor of MOVE: In ’86, it was a 180-degree [turn]. The neighbors were all excited to get back into our homes and back to the new normal. There were a lot of people displaced during that time … people returned with hope. They took tragedy and learned from it.
Ron Archer, a resident of the neighboring block: The stab to the heart was when the buyout happened, when the old people left. I want to say that 90 percent of those people took it. It was a close-knit community.
Diane J., a resident of the neighborhood: Folks just moved on from the community because it was easier. But the memories will always be there.
Gerald Renfrow, a resident on the block (in 2019 interview with WHYY): My hope is that it will be, once again, a beautiful community. And maybe once again, we can be extended family. We’ll be getting to know our new neighbors, they’ll be getting to know us.
Arnett Woodall, a resident and store owner in the neighborhood: We must rebuild and remember that day. We must remember the children who died, the lives that were lost. It’s a black eye on the city we can’t let them forget.
Lindsey Norward is a Brooklyn- and Philadelphia-based journalist who writes about history, culture, and media.