Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad is an organizer and writer from West Philadelphia. They are also a cofounder of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative.
The terror of May 13, 1985, is often mistakenly framed as a last-ditch effort by city officials to evacuate MOVE members from their West Philadelphia home. Yet this was not an act of last resort. Archives show it was a deliberate scheme to rid us, our city and our Black futures, of John Africa and his cadre.
For over a year before the bullet-riddled bodies were haphazardly hoisted into vehicles and taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office, where desecrated remains were suddenly rediscovered last month, the Philadelphia Police Department studied how to make a bomb.
Under then-Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor and Managing Director Leo A. Brooks, a former Army brigadier general, the PPD Bomb Disposal Unit spent time working to construct explosives.
Instead of dismantling bombs, as its name suggests, the unit experimented with making a weapon of war. That police “secretly tested explosive substances” on “lumber structures, in preparation for the siege on MOVE” was known immediately after the tragedy, according to a reconstruction of events first published by The Inquirer on May 17, 1985.
The gel eventually used in the bombing, Tovex TR-2, was designed to burn hot. According to manufacturer DuPont, it was intended for “very special uses, underground or in rock.”
As officials prepared to drop the military-grade explosive on 6221 Osage Ave., they made preparations. On May 12, the city health commissioner at the time, Stuart Shapiro, called Medical Examiner Marvin E. Aronson, who was later removed from the investigation of the remains.
Aaronson later stated Shapiro’s call was to warn him that “something big may happen” and to “be on alert.”
The alarm would ring one day later.
‘A malicious device’ that destroyed Black-owned properties
Linn Washington, a professor at Temple University and former investigative journalist who has written extensively about MOVE, was on the scene that day.
The Philadelphia Daily News had assigned him to cover the city’s command post at the intersection of Walnut Street and Cobbs Creek Parkway, he said. On his way there, he got a hint of what was coming when he ran into fellow reporter and friend Vernon Odom, who was with Channel 6 at the time.
“We were … both expressing, you know, just utter astonishment at what was happening,” Washington said. And then his colleague said something that shocked him further: “You know,” he recalled Odom saying, “my sources said that the city is considering dropping a bomb on MOVE.”
Later, Washington saw Managing Director Brooks peek out of a door, see the journalist, and tell a police officer, “Get him out of here.” Washington crossed the street, trying to find some shade, and ended up in a parking lot in front of a Pa. State Police helicopter. He had a flash. “Oh, now this is the vehicle that you want to use to drop this bomb.”
He remembers watching as three armed men walked toward the helicopter, one with a “submachine gun” and one carrying a green satchel. “Oh snap,” he thought to himself, “it’s the bomb.” The helicopter pilot then politely asked him to leave, so he picked up and proceeded south towards Osage Avenue.
A few hours later, Philadelphia Police Lt. Frank Powell, the lead of the Bomb Disposal Unit, stood in that helicopter with the door agape and prepared to drop his satchel.
Knowing that gasoline reserves were present at the MOVE house, Powell and his superiors understood a fire would potentially ensue.
Officials knew everything about the house because they did aerial reconnaissance, and had already begun waging assault. In the hours prior to the bombing, police used water cannons to pump gallons upon gallons of liquid into the house, drenching small children. They intruded upon next-door neighbors and shuttled tear gas into cracks in the walls.
Earlier during the siege on the rowhome, whose residents then-Mayor Wilson Goode said he would evict “by any means necessary,” police had blasted the front steps of the property, making it impossible to exit via the front.
As the fire burned, police fired bullets down Osage Avenue. They also shot into the back of the MOVE house, having stationed themselves in Pine Street neighbors’ homes.
“They came into these people’s houses and showed no regard or respect for the property. And the property rights of those people who lived on that block — who are Black,” Washington said. “It was never necessary for them to drop that bomb there. That was a really malicious device.”
‘These deaths were not caused by accidental means’
In his report after the bombing, the forensic pathologist hired by the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission made scathing observations.
“These deaths were not caused by accidental means,” pathologist Ali Z. Hameli wrote. He was especially pointed about the young lives that had been lost. The deaths of the children, he wrote, “were caused as the consequences of the measured and deliberate acts of and interactions between the adults” and officials of the City of Philadelphia.
The five who had their childhoods stripped from them were Tree Africa, Delisha Africa, Netta Africa, Tomaso Africa, and Little Phil Africa. They joined in death six adults: John Africa, Raymond Africa, Rhonda Africa, Theresa Africa, Frank Africa, and Conrad Africa — who were surveilled, criminalized and ostracized before they were killed.
There were two survivors of the bombing, Birdie Africa and Ramona Africa. They escaped despite the city’s attempts to keep anyone from fleeing the blaze.
After the entire block had burned to the ground, the desecration did not end. Trucks outfitted with bucket cranes began digging through the rubble, further damaging any victims’ remains. Pathologists from the city Medical Examiner’s Office, who were on site to investigate those remains, did not stop them.
When city pathologists brought the remains back to their offices, they did not take tissue samples right away, or follow other standard procedures. Commissioner Shapiro also “allowed media representatives and photographers to be present during the MOVE autopsies,” according to Hameli’s report.
Christina Sharpe, author of “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” asks “What does it mean to defend the dead?” It means laying to rest falsehoods, violent untruths that malign the innocent. And it means stirring up murky water with a counternarrative.
We know police officers will lie to protect their own. When it comes to MOVE, there is sufficient archival evidence that the milk ain’t clean. Leadership in Philadelphia was to blame for the abject failure in 1985. Have things gotten much better?
Back then, frozen in ignominy, Mayor Goode laid his power in subordinates. That’s echoed in what current Mayor Jim Kenney did this past summer, when he allowed Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw to deploy tear gas in residential areas and on peaceful protesters.
“When I think about it, the city really hasn’t learned the lessons of MOVE,” said Washington, the Temple professor. “[It’s] an element in a pattern and practice of institutional racism and police brutality.”
We must end the systematic deference to police statements and accounts as facts of the matter. The bodies of the Osage Avenue dead were held and mistreated for more than 36 years. That’s evidence this ugliness has not gone away.
No more “shoo fly, don’t bother me.” We need to speak out now — our future depends on it!