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Mike Africa Jr. was six years old when the West Philly home of his uncles, aunts, brothers and cousins was blown to pieces.
Five children and six adults were killed in the infamous MOVE bombing of 1985, when police dropped C-4 on an Osage Avenue rowhome. Inside the house were 13 members of an at-times controversial Black liberation organization that had previously sparred with law enforcement. The fire caused by the explosion was allowed to spread, eventually destroying more than five dozen homes.
On the 35th anniversary of the ignominious event, then-Mayor Wilson Goode, Sr. says Philadelphia should take responsibility by issuing a formal apology.
Current Mayor Jim Kenney isn’t into the idea. City Council President Darrell Clarke said COVID-19 is the main priority right now. West Philly Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, however, said she plans to introduce a resolution formalizing a city apology later this year — and more than half her colleagues support that plan, they told Billy Penn. On Wednesday, 11 councilmembers, including many who responded to Billy Penn, signed a letter in support of a Council apology resolution.
To Africa Jr., it’s not that simple.
“You can’t reconcile murdering somebody’s kids,” he said in an interview. “I would say that you can begin to take steps in the direction of helping to, for lack of better terms, right the wrongs for the community…. Apology without action is meaningless.”
Goode, who doesn’t dispute he was in charge of of city government when it all went down on May 13, 1985, laid out the argument for a formal apology while making his own in an op-ed for the Guardian. This marks Goode’s fourth time asking forgiveness.
“A formal apology is crucial for the healing process, and overdue,” wrote the 81-year-old reverend.
Asked this week for his feelings on the grim event, Mayor Kenney said his focus on healing the MOVE scar has been supporting renovations to the housing around 62nd and Osage — which was at first shoddily rebuilt.
“[W]e have no plans to formally apologize again to anyone,” Kenney said on Monday. “Council’s free to do what they want, and I’m not complaining to them, but I’m not participating.”
Who supports a City Council apology resolution?
Gauthier, who plans to launch the city’s official MOVE bombing apology effort, called the incident a “brutal attack.” Her resolution will be co-sponsored by Councilmember Helen Gym.
Co-sponsor Gym said a resolution can’t make amends for what occurred on Osage Avenue, but “if we are to move forward, we must find ways for redress and to show we can learn from our mistakes.”
Councilmembers Cindy Bass, Kenyatta Johnson, Derek Green, Cherelle Parker, Kendra Brooks, Curtis Jones and Isaiah Thomas all told Billy Penn the city should formally apologize. “I think that following Mayor Goode’s leadership on this issue is the way to go,” Bass said.
Additionally, Councilmembers Allan Domb, Mark Squilla, Katherine Gilmore Richardson and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez joined Gauthier, Brooks, Gym, Thomas, Jones, Johnson and Parker by signing a letter that expressed intent to formalize an apology for the MOVE bombing later this year.
“An apology is more than a symbolic gesture – it’s a starting point for conversations on reconciliation, that can build towards a more just and equitable future,” the letter read.
Thomas is the youngest councilmember. At 35 years old, he was not yet born when the event took place. “I’m upset that it’s 35 years later and there’s still no apology,” he said, “but an apology is the absolute least we can do.
Councilmembers David Oh and Bobby Henon did not respond to Billy Penn’s question. Nor did the only councilperson who was in office at the time of the bombing, Councilmember Brian O’Neill.
Ed Rendell was Philly district attorney at the time. The former governor and mayor worked with the reconciliation group that helped organize the current apology effort, according to the Guardian.
Considering Rendell and Goode both support the formal apology, Africa Jr. said it’s shameful for current Philly officials to stand in the way.
“They both admitted that there should be an apology issued so why is Kenney even talking,” Africa Jr. said.
4 times Mayor Goode apologized for the bombing
Goode offered his first apology for the MOVE bombing the day after the incident took place.
He’s since expressed regret many times, but has said he didn’t know then-commissioner Sambor would use a C4 bomb and instruct the fire department to allow the blaze to engulf the block. “There was no way to avoid it. No way to extract ourselves from that situation except by armed confrontation.”
His second apology came a year later, in 1986, after a report he commissioned vociferously criticized his handling of the incident. In a televised address that November, Goode called the incident :the most tragic day of my life.”
“When I think of the MOVE children I weep for them and their families,” he said. “A part of me died with those children and to their families and to all of you I say I’m sorry.”
Goode was Philadelphia’s first African American mayor and went on to serve a second term. The now-reverend heads a one-to-one mentoring program for children with incarcerated parents called Amachi. He was named a Champion of Change by the Barack Obama administration in 2013.
His third apology for the MOVE bombing came in 2018, when the 2400 block of North 59th Street was named in his honor. Amid public backlash, he apologized for what went down in 1985.
“I apologize for having appointed a police commissioner who would design a plan to drop a C-4 bag on a roof of a house with children and adults living in it,” he said at the time. “I regret that I appointed a fire commissioner who let the police commissioner not put the fire out. I regret that the result of that was people losing their lives and MOVE members losing their lives, five children and six adults, and I regret people on Osage Avenue losing their homes, but with it, priceless possessions.”
Goode has maintained he didn’t sign off on bombing or burning the neighborhood. As he professed his regret and said he was sorry for a fourth time this week, he suggested a formal apology from the city would somehow make things better.
“That way,” Goode wrote in the Guardian, “we can begin to build a bridge that spans from the tragic events of the past into our future.”