Ed note: This article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated. Reporter Anna Orso left Billy Penn in 2017.
It was just around Mother’s Day in 1985 when the Philadelphia city government stuffed explosives into a satchel, flew a helicopter over a home on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, and dropped the bomb on top of it.
A massive fire blazed — and officials let it. Eleven people were killed, among them five children. More than 60 homes were razed, and a neighborhood was left in ruin.
Mayor Wilson Goode and his top advisors at the time — including then-District Attorney Ed Rendell — approved the decision to drop the explosives. They were attempting to get rid of MOVE, a radical liberation group living in a commune.
City officials characterized the group as terrorists. The dozens of people who were members of MOVE compared their leader John Africa to Jesus Christ. Neighbors complained for years of cult-like tendencies, of members of MOVE constantly screaming diatribes out of loudspeakers, and they expressed their concerns about child abuse and neglect in MOVE’s house.
But MOVE, for all these years, has contended it is simply an organization that hopes to revolutionize the world to rid itself of “the system,” a blanket term that covers police brutality, technology and anything man-made or impure. They call MOVE their religion, and feel they have been persecuted for the wrong reasons.
How did an attempt to arrest MOVE members turn into a fiery inferno that killed 11 people and destroyed a neighborhood of more than 60 homes? Billy Penn looked through archives from both the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, in addition to other local news coverage and documentaries made about the bombing and the events that led up to it. Here’s a look at how it all happened.
So what exactly is MOVE?
MOVE is short for “The Movement,” and it’s largely unclear when it began; however, some people have reported remembering the group as far back as 1968. Its founder and leader was John Africa, a man born Vincent Leaphart, who was a handyman for a housing cooperative at 33rd and Powelton in Powelton Village.
Donald Glassey was a Penn grad student who had strong beliefs about the social rights of the poor. After he met Africa, he apparently transcribed 800 pages of Africa’s ideas into a document that became the guidelines and the backbone of what MOVE stood for, including everything that is “unnatural” and man-made, according to the book The MOVE Crisis in Philadelphia: Extremist Groups and Conflict Resolution.
MOVE wanted to stop man’s system from imposing on life, and it taught that man-made creations harm water, air, food, soil and pretty much everyone’s lives. MOVE started when Africa’s friends and family would sit around with him and study that 800 page document — dubbed “The Guideline” — and soon, the group grew to include a former Black Panther, college students, ex-prostitutes, businessmen and nurses. And while the group was predominately black, it accepted members of all races.
By the late 1970s, it was speculated there were 57 active members and more than 50 “supporters,” or people who would deliver food and goods to the group.
What was in these guidelines?
A lot. Pretty much everything about how they should live their lives. A few highlights:
- All members of MOVE took the last name Africa, which signified that they were all members of the same “family.”
- They opposed technology and didn’t use machines, electricity, heat or soap.
- Their diet would consist of almost exclusively fruit, vegetables and nuts. Children would be raised on raw meat.
- Children were not sent to public school, but were instead taught based on The Guideline.
- They would at all times be kind to all animals, including birds, bugs and rats. There were consistently more than 50 or 60 dogs living with the people in MOVE.
- Children would wear as little clothing as possible so their skin could not be tainted.
After several years of being based in Powelton Village in the 1970s, people around them started to take notice. MOVE neighbors had concerns about health and housing, and complained of garbage, fecal odor, rats, unvaccinated dogs and other clear health code violations. They also had concerns of child neglect because children were not sent to school and were consistently dressed in minimal amounts of clothing at all times of the year.
Did MOVE want to spread their way of life?
They started making public appearances in the mid-70s by protesting at places like the Philadelphia Zoo for keeping animals caged. They started attending public meetings and protested block parties. By 1974, MOVE started protesting police brutality which was, at the time, a major grievance of the black community in West Philadelphia — earning them some respect from outsiders.
But their form of protest was angry, and profane. According to the MOVE Crisis book, people who watched their protests were often taken aback by the amount of f-words and s-words and other terrible language used when the group was yelling in public about its cause. In 1975, MOVE members were arrested more than 150 times over seven months.
When they would attend court, MOVE members refused to use lawyers and would not swear to tell the truth — they didn’t want to give into the system. But the refusals led to lots of contempt of court charges, and MOVE members were consistently in and out of jail.
When did this get violent?
The year 1976 proved a turning point in terms of the group’s relationship with the police.
MOVE had a party for friends who had gotten out of jail, and when neighbors complained and police tried to break it up, fights broke out between MOVE and the police. Police said they showed up in the afternoon after neighbors called about the noise, and they were hit by bricks after trying to disperse the crowd.
MOVE member Phil Africa claimed they were actually followed by undercover police from prison and then were attacked when they got home. Three MOVE members were charged with aggravated assault against police officers.
MOVE also claimed a baby died during the conflict after being stomped by police. Police said that never happened and a baby was never involved. There’s no record of a baby being born, and MOVE members refused to turn over the body for an autopsy.
Later in 1976, the charges against police were dropped, but the three MOVE members accused of assault became the first members to be sentenced to long prison terms. By 1977, MOVE members started being spotted with weapons. The city promised it would keep up a massive police presence so that they could arrest MOVE members on weapons charges. At any given time, there were reportedly 100 undercover officers in the area.
That must have made MOVE members more frustrated
It did. Glassey flipped and became an informant for police and the FBI, and agents seized explosives and chemicals used to make bombs during a raid on a MOVE house. According to the MOVE Crisis book, Glassey said there was a “bizarre bomb plot” that involved setting up explosives in hotels and embassies.
After that happened, MOVE released a statement threatening “an international incident,” saying “we are prepared to hit reservoirs, empty hotels and apartment houses, closed factories and tie up traffic in major cities of Europe.” It’s unclear why they were thinking about bombing Europe.
The siege on MOVE cost the city $1.2 million over the course of 10 months with the goal of pressuring the group to leave its headquarters. That backfired and, in many ways, generated more support for the group. But MOVE pushed back, and threatened they would kill their children if police came near.
What happened next?
According to the Philadelphia Daily News, in August 1978, the city had an eviction order for MOVE’s Powelton Village home that ordered police to raid the house, get everyone out and bulldoze it. And firefighters basically flushed them from the home. “Deluge tanks were positioned close to the house,” Kitty Capparella wrote, “where they discharged columns of water directly into the basement.” MOVE members were physically pulled out of the house by police and violently arrested. A massive shootout ensued, and Officer James J. Ramp was killed. (The Ramp Athletic Fields in Holmesburg are named for him.)
Nine members of MOVE were convicted of murder in Ramp’s killing, even though MOVE claimed the shot that killed the officer was accidental friendly fire.
But MOVE didn’t go away?
Nope. By 1980, MOVE had regrouped in a new location on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue that was owned by John Africa’s sister. MOVE’s new neighbors, frustrated with a loudspeaker that constantly sent out statements and diatribes, wanted action from the city.
And then the bombing?
By May of 1985, D.A. Rendell convinced Mayor Wilson Goode that there was evidence for a search warrant that was signed by Common Pleas Judge Lynne Abraham (yes, that one). The neighborhood was evacuated and barricaded by police on May 12 as cops told MOVE to get out. On May 13, 1985, shots rung out and police used tear gas and water cannons to try to force people to leave.
Then, a helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof of the home. Eleven bodies, including John Africa’s, were found in the rubble. Out of the home, only one adult and one child survived. Fifty-three homes were destroyed and, in total, 61 were razed.
Officials from the city must have gotten in a lot of trouble
A commission found that Goode and others had acted recklessly in their decision to drop the bomb, but charges were never filed and Goode was re-elected. It’s since cost taxpayers upwards of $45 million over the years to rebuild the neighborhood.
In 2000, after new homes built by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority were found to be lacking, the city bought out 36 families and boarded up the houses there. It took 16 years for a new RFP to be issued, which was won by developers AJR Endeavors. In 2018, they began showing the completed dwellings — a project called Osage Pine — and they’re now selling for about $250,000 a piece.
What happened to the two survivors?
Ramona Africa, the surviving adult, remains a spokeswoman for MOVE. The boy, named Birdie Africa who was 13 when the house was bombed, became a prime witness during the depositions for the commission that was trying to figure out what happened that May in 1985.
Birdie’s name was changed to Michael Ward, and he was the subject of an iconic photo that captured the essence of MOVE. He was naked, riding in a bus away from the scene with burn marks across his arms. Ward died of acute alcohol intoxication in 2013 while on vacation with his family.
Are MOVE members still behind bars?
Several of the “MOVE 9” are still in prison. Merle Africa died there in 1998, and Phil Africa died behind bars in 2015 (no official cause of death was given). In June 2018, Debbie Africa became the first MOVE member released on parole; in October of that year, her husband Michael Davis Africa was also paroled. The group and activists who support them are working to have the remaining five released.