Brilliant "Let the Fire Burn" Explores 1985 MOVE Bombing by Cops in Philadelphia

Q&A w/ Jason Osder

In 1985, one of the most controversial - and catastrophic - police actions in U.S. history took place when the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb from a helicopter on a fortified residence occupied by members of a group called MOVE. The subsequent fire killed six adults and five children associated with MOVE and destroyed 61 homes. Decades later, controversy and acrimony still smolder and the tragedy speaks to ongoing questions about race, class, police brutality, and more.

Let the Fire Burna highly praised documentary directed by George Washington University's Jason Osder, tracks the tumultuous history of MOVE, a mostly black back-to-nature group that advocated separatism and strange child-rearing techniques, and its often-violent relationship with a police department notorious for racial tensions.  

Raised in the Philadelphia area, Osder was drawn to the story because of his childhood memories of the MOVE bombing but also because it raises a series of issues that are still relevant. "We tend to believe people should have a lot of freedom in the way they raise their children," he says. "But at what point if you're malnourishing your children is it society's job to come and do something about that?" MOVE members purposefully antagonized neighbors in their mixed-race neighborhood in West Philadelphia, he notes, and the police were constantly looking for reasons to crack heads as well. Let the Fire Burn daringly uses only contemporaneous footage in an attempt to "make the past present" and the result is not simply a stunning work of art but a searing, nuanced, and profoundly moving exploration of the failure of pluralism, government, and justice in the City of Brotherly Love.

Osder talked with Reason's Nick Gillespie about the complex issues at play in the MOVE bombing and how Let the Fire Burn tells a story whose tragic relevance lives on in contemporary America.

About 11 minutes. Produced by Joshua Swain. Camera by Swain and Amanda Winkler.

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  • Paul.||

    I remember that incident. Liberals and the media were rightly horrified.

    Fast forward to Waco, TX.

  • ||

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  • Paul.||

    When is my guy going to be in charge, Episiarch? When is it going to be Paul's time?

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  • creech||

    Then the City rebuilt the 61 row a cost three times what modern up-scale townhouses were being built for in the suburbs.

  • Paul.||

    So what you're saying is the bombing and subsequent fire by the Philly PD did millions of dollars in improvements to the neighborhood.

  • Almanian (sans exclamation pt)||


  • Surly Chef||

    I wanted to post the google maps street view but, I can't get the link to do anything but take you to Philadelphia map view of the whole city.

  • Paul.||

    That's just how much the bombing improved the area.

  • Surly Chef||

    It's paradise now. You don't even have to see it to know.

    I love my city...

  • anomdebus||

    Did you manually find the area? If so, you need to click the chain button to the left of the map. This gives you a link to the exact view you are looking at.

  • biersal||

    Creech, There was a lot more to it than that.

    "The homes were so shoddily reconstructed after the 1985 fire - nearly every house had leaky roofs, bad plumbing, sagging floors because beams had not been properly installed, cedar siding peeling off exteriors, and faulty electrical wiring - that the original contractors went to jail because money was misused. The city offered families $150,000 to leave their homes, and all but 24 accepted...Thirty-seven of the 61 brick twin homes now sit abandoned, with plywood in front windows and exposed, tattered insulation flapping in the wind." ( /2011-05-13/news /29540262_1_plaintiffs-legal -fees-brick-twin-homes)

    This doesn't even capture all the shit that happened to those people. All of them felt the 150,000 was a low offer by the city considering all they had been through - from the original burning onwards. So when the 24 remained to fight, the city kept lowering the offer price. Eventually a few became desperate and accepted the lower amount. I was at a closing where one of the residents only got 100K (if I recall correctly) Man she was super pissed and yelled so much....don't blame her.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Dropping a bomb from a helicopter in the middle of a city. What could possibly go wrong?

  • RishJoMo||

    Sometimes man you jsut have to roll with it.

  • wef||

    Mayor Goode's barbeque.

    Remember it well.

  • OneOut||

    We are told that jason Osder works at GWU. We are never told what he does there.

    Is Jason Osder a janitor at GWU ? Is Jason Osder the President of GWU ?

    Tune in next week. Same Batreason channel. Same Batreason time. ( some of you may not be old enough to get the reference...too bad for you )

    Find out "What does jason Osder do at his "work" at George washington University !

  • Mock-star||

    I know. Thats not answered until a full 30 secods into the video!

  • avocats||

    Eager to see the film. I was there during much the period. Seems like some major elements were left out, including a decade long history of making neighborhoods unlivable. The group was not just rearing children in a unique way. They were playing music and speeches very loud at all hours in the middle of what was a working class primarily black neighborhood. They collected human and animal waste in the yards. They (and the police) often caused the closing of streets around them, diverting rush hour traffic in a dense area. It was sad, because the neighbors in both of the locations I recall were working blacks with their own homes, and they complained strongly to the government. Goode was the first black mayor, I think. Now, the Philadelphia police were amazing--decades ahead of their time with profiling, abuse and interference with people's privacy. I will never forget the police snipers on the roofs o high-rises during a college anti-war march to downtown.

  • Lord Peter Wimsey||

    Does the movie mention that the MOVE group were a bunch of violent, commie pieces of shit? I'm not excusing what the cops/city did; that was fucking nuts, but these "activists" would get on the bullhorn xmas morning and rant against "motherfuckin' Santa Clause" while the neighborhood kids were unwrapping their gifts.

    The MOVE group was about ten thousand times more annoying and dangerous to their fellow citizens than the Branch Davidians, who were murdered with nary a peep from the left.

    I'm happy to watch the movie. I'll add it to my list. But please tell me it's not a typical piece of left-wing "cinema of resistance."

    Besides, the real story is that black residents had to live with these deranged Stalinist MOVE fuckers and the cops ignored their pleas for help. THAT'S the racism. Please tell me that's the focus of the film, and not how John Africa was trying to lead his people to justice and got smacked down by the man.

  • Michael||

    Apparently Birdie Africa passed away in September.

  • John Galt||

    Over the years my mind had muddled up this incident with the SLA/LAPD shootout in Los Angeles. The human mind is truly a retarded thing. Thankfully, we have Reason to help keep our inner skull fat fit and trim.

  • american socialist||

    I like the fact that the libertarian commenters here seem to think that having the government drop a bomb on an African-American neighborhood is a-ok, but having the government move in on a white Christian who murdered 4 ATF agents in cold blood is tyranny. I wonder why that is.

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