Police Abuse

MOVE Bombing Barely Significant in Philadelphia Politics Thirty Years Later

Judge who signed warrants leading to bombing now running for mayor without a worry about her history.


10 News

Thirty years ago today in Philadelphia, police dropped a bomb on a residential area in a misbegotten effort to force members of MOVE, a black radical liberation/back-to-nature group founded in 1972 with which local authorities had a long history of getting into confrontations, out of their homes so that they could be arrested.

The magazine Philadelphia reprinted a 2012 article on the bombing, which explains what happened:

On May 13, 1985 at 5:20 p.m., a blue and white Pennsylvania State Police helicopter took off from the command post's flight pad at 63rd and Walnut, flew a few times over 6221 Osage Avenue, and then hovered 60 feet above the two-story house in the black, middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood. Lt. Frank Powell, chief of Philadelphia's bomb disposal unit, was holding a canvas bag containing a bomb consisting of two sticks of Tovex TR2 with C-4. After radioing firefighters on the ground and lighting the bomb's 45-second fuse — and with the official approval of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor — Powell tossed the bomb, at precisely 5:28 p.m., onto a bunker on the roof.

This was followed shortly thereafter by a loud explosion and then a large, bright orange ball of fire that reached 7,200 degrees Fahrenheit. That day, Powell, the mayor, the police commissioner, Fire Commissioner William Richmond, city Managing Director Leo Brooks, and numerous police officers committed, in the words of Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (better known as the MOVE Commission) member Charles Bowser, a "criminally evil" act that led to the death of 11 human beings, including five completely innocent and defenseless children, the destruction of 61 homes, and the incineration of thousands of family photos, high school and college sweetheart love letters, heirloom jewelry, inscribed Bibles and Korans, and many other totally irreplaceable mementos.

Goode was Philadelphia's first black mayor and in the second year of his term when he ordered the bombing of a middle-class black neighborhood. The "criminally evil" act didn't cost Goode his job. A Although he lost some support from his base, he eked out a close win over Frank Rizzo, who served as mayor as a Democrat from 1972 to 1980 but was in 1987 running as a Republican. Rizzo had previously served as the city's iron-fisted police commissioner from 1967 to 1971. As mayor, Rizzo led the city onto a path that over the decades saw the police contract lean further and further to cops' benefits at the expense of transparency, oversight, and accountability.

The choice for Philadelphia residents in 1987 between a man who ordered a fatal bombing of a residential area and a man who was named "de facto mayor" while still serving as police commissioner in the early 1970s illustrates the narrow choices offered in mainstream politics, particularly in big cities. Philadelphia hadn't had a Republican mayor since 1952 and Rizzo, a former Democrat, came closest since then. By one interpretation of the events leading up to the MOVE bombing, a black mayor would have been most likely to give such an order because he would feel the most pressure to be "tough on crime."

The pressure to be tough on crime, whether it comes from voters or special interest groups like police, still exists. One of the candidates in next week's primary for the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia mayor, Lynne Abraham, served as district attorney from 1991 to 2010, touting her tough on crime credentials throughout her tenure. She was also the judge who signed the warrants on which the police action against move on May 13, 1985 was based. Abraham, who has largely avoided critical questions about her tenure as DA at a time of widespread police brutality and her role in the Philadelphia police's controversial history, instead complains the media treats her differently because she's a woman. Another Democrat, Jim Kenney, a former councilmember who worked to decriminalize marijuana in Philadelphia last year, is a big friend of the police unions. In 1997, in a bid to shore up the tough on crimes credentials many politicians believe they need to win in big, Democrat-majority cities, Kenney lamented cops couldn't use clubs on the head or shoot anybody anymore. With Democrats so thoroughly internalizing "tough on crime" politics they often simultaneously blame Richard Nixon on, perhaps there's room for Republican alternatives that look a lot different than the Frank Rizzos (or Wilson Goodes) of the political world after all.

Check out Reason TV's interview with Jason Oster, director of the MOVE documentary "Let the Fire Burn":