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1985 MOVE bombing

On 13 May 1985, Philadelphia police bombed a building inhabited by 13 members of the “anarcho-primitive” group MOVE, including six children. MOVE’s politics were, reportedly, something of a mash-up between the Black liberationist socialism of the Black Panthers and the “flower power” ecological concerns of the hippie movement. The police of Philadelphia were notoriously racist and brutalised impoverished Black communities at will; MOVE pushed against this, leading to them being deemed a “terrorist organisation” by the City of Philadelphia.

So on that day in 1985, more than 500 police surrounded the building and fired tear gas and bullets at it. Any attempt by those inside to leave the building was met with a hail of bullets, so instead they took shelter in the basement. After that, the police dropped two bombs on the building’s roof, with the MOVE members still inside. Two members, including a 13yo girl, were able to escape; the other eleven, including the other five children, were killed in the resulting blaze.

The fire spread to three neighbourhood blocks and Philadelphia police still did not allow the fire department to put out the blaze until four hours had passed. 300 people became homeless. The mayor – the first Black Democrat to hold the role – was unrepentant, declaring he’d do it again. Usually you’d expect to see a huge protest movement in the aftermath of such a horror, but in this case there was none: the Black liberation movement had invested serious effort in getting that mayoral candidate elected, and were paralysed by confusion that he was so antagonistic towards their own.

The only punishment doled out to anyone involved in the MOVE bombing was against one of the two survivors, who served seven years in prison for “murdering” the eleven MOVE members the police had burned alive. After her release, she remained a committed revolutionary activist with a strident warning to make about the danger of protest movements being co-opted by the Democrats.

Two of the murdered children’s bones somehow got into the possession of the University of Pennsylvania, and were used in forensics classes. The state government claimed that the children’s families had never claimed their remains, but then it was revealed the government had ordered them destroyed without any effort to contact the families, and then instead of destroying them they gave them away to this university. Naturally, the remaining MOVE members were horrified by this ghoulish behaviour.

For more efforts by the US government to wreck left-wing Black movements, see my page on COINTELPRO.

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