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MOVE Bombing,
West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
May 13, 1985

Agencies: Philadelphia Police Department Pennsylvania

Last updated: about 1 month ago

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Historical Note

The confrontation of May 13, 1985 between the MOVE organization and Philadelphia's city government, which left 11 MOVE members dead and 61 homes destroyed, was one of the most controversial episodes in the city's modern history. The confrontation was the culmination of a dozen years of activity on the part of MOVE, which had emerged in the early 1970s as a "back to nature" group following the teachings of John Africa. A gun battle with police in August 1978 left one policeman dead and nine MOVE members arrested and eventually sentenced to jail terms. A number of the remaining MOVE members settled in 1982 and 1983 in a house on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek area. They began to campaign for the release of the jailed MOVE members and in October 1984 they began the construction of a bunker on the top of their building. The city finally determined in the Spring of 1985 on a plan to evict the MOVE members and arrest several of them. But the attack early on May 13 ended with the Police bomb unit dropping a bomb on the house. The ensuing fire was allowed to spread, and 11 MOVE members died in the house, including five children, and 250 neighborhood residents were left homeless. Only one MOVE member and one child survived the fire.

In the aftermath, Mayor W. Wilson Goode appointed the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, which investigated in detail the events leading up to and including the attack on MOVE, held televised public hearings, and finally in March 1986 issued a report which was highly critical of government actions. The head of the Commission, William Brown III, had been head of the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, and the Commission's eleven members included prominent individuals from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from attorney and politician Charles Bowser and Reverend Paul Washington to former Judge Bruce Kauffman and ex-Watergate Prosecutor Henry Ruth. William Lytton was retained as Staff Director and Temple Law School Dean Carl Singley as Special Counsel. Eventually, the staff grew to include seven investigators, as well as support personnel. Outside experts in explosives, fires and forensic pathology were retained, and eleven attorneys and forty five law students conducted about a thousand interviews in the summer of 1985.

After conducting its interviews and gathering evidence from a wide variety of governmental agencies the Commission held five weeks of televised public hearings in the fall, at which 92 witnesses testified. The members of the Police bomb unit refused to testify, taking the Fifth Amendment after attempts by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) to block their appearance failed. The surviving adult MOVE member, Ramona Africa, also refused to testify. However, witnesses did include all the key city officials, as well as residents, citizen negotiators and expert consultants. The hearings ended in early November. The Commission deliberated for several months before issuing its report on March 6, 1986. That report was a sweeping denunciation of the actions of the city government, typified by the finding that "Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable." The PSIC's conclusions about the facts of the MOVE incident were followed by 38 recommendations for specific improvements in relevant city planning and operations.

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