Documentary

40 Years a Prisoner

The new HBO documentary looks at what happened before, during, and after the 1978 MOVE shootout in Philadelphia.

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In 1978, a conflict between the city of Philadelphia and the black anarcho-primitivist group MOVE, which had already featured a police blockade aimed at evicting the movement's followers by starving them out, culminated in a shootout that killed Officer James Ramp. The HBO documentary 40 Years a Prisoner looks at what happened before, during, and after that confrontation, tracking efforts to free the nine MOVE members who were convicted of third-degree murder in connection with Ramp's death.

Mayor Frank Rizzo, an authoritarian former police commissioner who took every opportunity to escalate tensions, threatened to use deadly force against MOVE members who resisted eviction, "children or not." He ordered MOVE's headquarters demolished immediately after the shootout, possibly destroying crucial evidence.

It remains disputed who killed Ramp. Former Mayor Wilson Goode doesn't buy the official story, saying he believes the officer was hit by friendly fire.

The MOVE defendants, who were prone to profane outbursts against the legal system, did not do a very good job of representing themselves. After the bench trial they requested, Judge Edwin Malmed imposed 30-to-100-year sentences on all nine, reasoning that they must have "acted in concert" because they considered themselves members of the same "family." Two of them died in prison, while the rest were released after four decades.

District Attorney Ed Rendell, whose subsequent career included stints as mayor and governor, initially claimed the cops had shown "extremely commendable restraint." His office nevertheless prosecuted three officers who were caught on film savagely beating an unarmed, surrendering MOVE member. A judge acquitted them in a directed verdict that Rendell describes as legally indefensible. "If that had happened today," he says, "people would have gone wild."

NEXT: Only Tolerance Can Save Us From Political Fanatics

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  2. Former Mayor Wilson Goode doesn’t buy the official story, saying he believes the officer was hit by friendly fire.

    Some conspiracy theories are more equal than others.

    1. Wilson Goode’s conspiracy theory is Da Bomb.

      1. HBO and Sullum have an issue with Italians it seems…or broaden that with any American of European background who is should be say the wrong type.

  3. One hopes, but will probably be disappointed, that the documentary covers the aftermath in rebuilding the homes on Osage Ave.
    The City paid to rebuild the burned out row homes (town homes) at a cost of more than double what the cost would have been to acquire newly built townhomes in the nice suburbs. Now, forty years later, the shoddy built houses need to be torn down and replaced again. When there is one party rule, corruption runs rampant.

    1. That would be critical of Wilson Goode, not Rizzo. And HBO isn’t going to call out Philly’s first black mayor.

      Although the argument could also be made that Goode’s biggest mistake with stopping the fire after 1 block.

  4. I am not sure putting HBO and documentary in the same sentence is a good idea.

  5. I watched it. It isn’t so much about MOVE as it is about one family’s work to get their members out after the MOVE/police shootout in 1978. I would recommend Let the Fire Burn to see more about all of MOVE’s history and the infamous MOVE bombing.

    Looking back MOVE was a misunderstood cult, similar to Branch Davidians.

  6. I remember seeing a city block on fire on tv for the first time in my life it was pretty awesome in the amazing sense not the Spicoli sense

    1. I remember seeing Mike Schmidt wearing a dreadlock wig…

  7. Frank Rizzo was a great Italian American..his police force could have invaded Cuba and won… as he stated in a speech..

    I’d trade Rizzo for that communist in NYC

  8. Frank Rizzo’s police force could invade Cuba and win!

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  10. I always find it interesting how often Italian Americans are portrayed as “bad guys”…by folks like Sullum. It might have to do with old Benito being a Fascist and not a Communist or pro Bolshevik???

    Wasn’t Wilson Goode the Mayor at that time? What the hell does Rizzo have to do with this? Come on Mr. Sullum tell us how you really feel about Italians?

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