The 1985 Philadelphia MOVE bombing

I heard about the Philadelphia MOVE bombing for the first time earlier this year when I saw the trailer for “Let The Fire Burn”, a new documentary about the incident. I couldn’t believe what the film was about, mainly because I couldn’t believe I had never heard of the event.

In 1985, following years of tension between the City of Philadelphia and a radical revolutionary “back to nature” group called MOVE, a stand off on a suburban street turned to mayhem when police dropped a bomb on the roof of MOVE’s house which that had refused to vacate, ultimately burning the house and the surrounding neighbourhood to the ground. In the end 11 MOVE members, including 6 children, were dead, and over 60 family homes in the neighbourhood were completely destroyed. Only 2 members (an adult woman and a child) survived.

MOVE are a fascinating group, essentially a cult based around a mysterious man, John Africa, who the members supported loyally. Whereas many people pay lip service to the environment and animal rights, MOVE walked the walk, to an extreme fashion, eating only raw veg, eschewing most technology (except, for instance, guns) and electricity. On paper, however, their way of life seemed quite positive. I have always been fascinated by cults, radical groups and communes, from Aum Shinrikyo, to the Weather Underground. (This weekend I also saw “The Source Family” about a 70s hippy commune, again orbiting around a central father figure)

It baffles me that MOVE isn’t more widely known. Maybe it is in the States, but given we live in such a US-centric, connected globe that this never took on the international infamy as say Waco is strange. But, then again, when you consider that the vast majority of MOVE’s members, and all who died, were African-American, sadly, maybe it isn’t that strange. To think that police forces dropped a bomb on civilians in order to end a siege seems unthinkable, but it happened.

While I wait for the film to get released here, I’ve started reading the book “Let It Burn” which the film is more or less based on. It’s been great so far, a matter-of-fact documenting of what led up to the inferno. I’ve also been soaking up everything I can find online about the MOVE standoff, including this 25th anniversary retrospective, and some interesting videos of a 1978 standoff that had resulted in the death of a police officer.