Workers Vanguard No. 1034
15 November 2013
Let the Fire Burn
A Powerful Documentary on the 1985 Bombing of MOVE
A Review by Conor Kristofersen
On 13 May 1985, black Democratic mayor Wilson Goode and his city administration, acting in collaboration with the Feds, firebombed the West Philadelphia home of the MOVE organization, a mostly black, back-to-nature commune. It was the culmination of a daylong police siege, during which over 10,000 rounds of ammunition had been pumped into the house. With the Fire Department under orders to “let the fire burn,” high-pressure water cannon on site sat idle for over an hour. In the ensuing inferno, eleven people were incinerated, including five children, and hundreds were left homeless as an entire city block in the black working-class neighborhood was reduced to ashes.
The operation to “evict” those inside MOVE’s Osage Avenue home, which resembled more the leveling of a Vietnamese village, began with the proclamation: “Attention, MOVE. This is America!” Indeed, the hideous crime that followed was a concentrated expression of the racist state terror meted out to black people every day in capitalist America. None of the perpetrators ever faced charges, while Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor, was arrested and served every day of a seven-year prison sentence. The only other person to make it out of the MOVE house alive was 13-year-old Birdie Africa, later known as Michael Ward, who recently died at the age of 41.
From the day of the massacre, and ever since, the Spartacist League has solidarized with the victims of this racist atrocity and vowed to sear it into the memory of the working class. The recently released documentary Let the Fire Burn is a valuable tool for this very purpose, making it a must-see. The director and producer, Jason Osder, has described in interviews the impact that the bombing of MOVE had on him as an eleven-year-old growing up in Philly. He spent more than ten years collecting clips from television news programs, police videos and other archival film footage that comprise the documentary. The result is a vivid chronicle of the day of the slaughter and its background, namely the ever-escalating cop vendetta against MOVE, a group that first appeared in 1972 denouncing “the system” and would come to proclaim the right of armed self-defense in the face of brutal state repression.
Minimal narration (in the form of captions) is given to this footage in an effort by Osder to force his viewers to “interpret and deal with” the events of May 13. What filmgoers are forced to deal with are the visceral and shocking images of mass murder by the state that the capitalist rulers would prefer for people to forget. There is no escaping the devastating explosion of MOVE’s roof, the flames that engulf Osage Avenue and the unapologetic racism of the cops. In one of the more shocking moments, cops can be heard laughing and joking in the background of a police video of the burning house: “They won’t call the police commissioner a motherf----r anymore!” The cover-up is also evident, with Mayor Goode and Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor shown blatantly lying and contradicting each other’s stories about who ordered who to put out the fire, if anyone had at all.
The bombing polarized the “city of brotherly love.” In its aftermath, liberals and virtually the entire left rushed to alibi Goode, Philly’s first black mayor, who vowed: “I’d do it again.” These apologists for Goode exuded disdain for the intended victims of racist state repression, even as they expressed shock at the “excessive” force and the harm done to b1acks whose houses were burned down in the process. Among those groups attempting to straddle the line between MOVE and its murderers was the Socialist Workers Party, which helped organize a May 30 demo in Philadelphia, purportedly to protest the massacre. We initially pledged to mobilize 100 supporters to stand with MOVE, which was planning to attend. But after the organizers had the gall to debate whether to censor MOVE at the protest, MOVE pulled out and in solidarity so did the SL. The demonstration was a travesty, with the emcee announcing that organizers “wanted it to be made very clear to the city administration and the City of Philadelphia that we are not marching today in support of MOVE” (Philadelphia Daily News, 31 May 1985).
Some weeks later, we held a public forum in New York City where MOVE supporters LaVerne Sims and Louise James were able to express their outrage and pain. In the discussion period, a member of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) rose to denounce us for not sufficiently polemicizing against MOVE—at a public meeting specifically called to honor the memory of the MOVE martyrs! To attack them would have been obscene. But that’s exactly what the LRP did. In its publication Proletarian Revolution (Summer 1985), the LRP blamed the victims, writing: “MOVE’s isolation opened it up for a police siege.”
The mass murder of MOVE members was a signature act of the Reagan years, which were marked by a concerted drive to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement and other social struggles of the 1960s and early ’70s. The bourgeoisie had also thrown down the gauntlet before the organized workers movement, exemplified in the mass firing of 13,000 striking members of the PATCO air traffic controllers union by the White House in 1981. This all-sided social reaction was the domestic reflection of U.S. imperialism’s Cold War push to “roll back Communism” internationally, from the threats of nuclear annihilation of the Soviet Union to efforts to crush leftist insurgents in Central America. Only days before the MOVE bombing, Reagan had returned from saluting Nazi SS graves in Bitburg, Germany.
As we wrote in our front-page article “Philly Inferno: Racist Murder!” (WV No. 380, 31 May 1985), which was part of our coverage of the atrocity reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 3 (February 1986):
“The Osage Avenue massacre was supposed to be a message to anybody who gets ‘out of line’ in Reagan’s America—blacks will get the Philly treatment, labor will get the PATCO treatment and everyone, not least the Marxists, will get the ‘terrorist’ treatment. But you can fight the terrorists in City Hall and the White House and win. Black people do have social power: they are concentrated in some of the key sections of the American proletariat, constituting its most militant layer. But to unlock this power means breaking the capitalist two-party stranglehold, fighting for a workers party to mobilize labor and oppressed blacks in revolutionary struggle against this racist, capitalist system. Avenge the Philly inferno—For black freedom through socialist revolution!”
Lies and Racist Mass Murder
For all its merits, Let the Fire Burn shies away from addressing a vital part of the story of the MOVE bombing: the fact that the responsibility for this horrendous crime went well beyond Mayor Wilson Goode and his ghoulish coterie of Philly cops and extended right up to the Ronald Reagan White House. The film leans heavily on footage of the investigation commission that was set up by Goode to absolve his administration but which nonetheless was compelled by the sheer magnitude of the massacre to reveal its horrors. Yet Let the Fire Burn does not even allude to some of the most important testimony before those hearings, which implicated the Feds in what was a carefully planned conspiracy to commit state terrorism.
Even before the commission was convened, chief Sambor told the New York Times (19 May 1985) that two days before the bombing he had gone over the assault plans with FBI agents, who “found the plan sound.” At the hearings, both Sambor and Goode’s managing director, Leo Brooks, who was nominally in charge of the operation, testified that the use of explosives had been planned for over a year. The commission obtained evidence from the FBI that agents had supplied Philly cops with nearly 40 pounds of the military explosive C-4. Other testimony before the commission revealed that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms helped the city obtain military-grade arms for the assault, including Browning automatic rifles, an M-60 machine gun and an anti-tank gun.
Mayor Goode’s handpicked eleven-member commission would later seek to whitewash the coldblooded state murder in the report on the findings of its nine-month investigation. The commission acknowledged the obvious racism behind the assault and declared that the deaths of the five children “appear to be unjustified homicides.” At the same time, it called MOVE “an authoritarian violence-threatening cult,” implying the adults deserved to die!
Washington’s role was apparently too hot for the commission members to handle, so they went to absurd lengths to avoid implicating federal authorities. While noting that an FBI agent had delivered the C-4 plastic explosive to the Philadelphia police, the commission report claimed that “neither agency kept any records of the transaction.” As such, the report concluded that FBI officials “unwittingly furnished the commission with inaccurate and untruthful accounts of that agency’s involvement.”
Years-Long Campaign of
The film depicts the odd lifestyle and social views of MOVE and shows them shouting obscenities at their neighbors and the cops over outdoor loudspeakers. A wave of racist propaganda painting MOVE as violent crazies accompanied the 1985 slaughter. In Reagan’s America, to be black and a social nuisance was enough to be made a non-person and bombed to smithereens. In fact, the eclectic MOVE group reflects a long tradition in this country of attempted non-cooperation with the state on moral, religious or political grounds, from Quaker pacifists who refuse to fight in wars to right-wing tax resisters.
The cop vendetta against MOVE got its start at a time when Philadelphia was lorded over by Mayor Frank Rizzo, a law-and-order racist. In one scene in the film, he rails against a “vocal minority” that has supposedly gained undue influence over the country. Under his direction, police planted themselves on MOVE’s doorstep, hounding members and supporters every time they left their home. Arbitrary stops, beatings and arrests became the norm. In 1976, blackjack-wielding cops descended on a MOVE celebration, and in the resulting melee Janine Africa’s newborn infant was trampled to death.
Beginning in May 1977, the cops put MOVE under round-the-clock surveillance. The following March, police set up a full-scale barricade, sealing off a four-block area of MOVE’s Powelton Village commune with eight-foot-high fences and cutting off gas and water service. Early on August 8, 600 cops surrounded the home. One member of the Philly cops’ notorious “Stakeout” squad, James Ramp, was killed by his fellow cops when they opened fire on the house. In the documentary, a brief clip of a witness insistently pointing at the source of the gunfire is included, followed by the caption: “MOVE members believed there was a police cover-up and that officer Ramp was actually killed by friendly fire.”
Nine MOVE members were framed up for that killing and eight remain imprisoned to this day, one having died in prison. Radical journalist and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal would become a supporter of MOVE in the course of reporting on the trial. Already known and despised by local police, Mumia became even more of a marked man as a result.
In the film, officers recounting the 1978 assault to the commission state that Delbert Africa emerged from the house with a knife and was then subdued. The documentary then jumps to footage of the scene showing an unarmed Delbert Africa with empty hands raised in the air. Cops proceed to almost beat him to death, slamming his head into the ground with their boots.
Little changed for the oppressed black masses after Rizzo left office in early 1980. The campaign against MOVE continued unabated for several years, building up to 13 May 1985. The documentary shows the overwhelming firepower deployed by the state that day: water cannons, tear gas, automatic weapons and, finally, the powerful mixture of Tovex and C-4 dropped by helicopter on the roof of MOVE’s Osage Avenue home. As the house burned, police were stationed at key locations in a back alley with shotguns and Uzis. When two MOVE members emerged from the blaze, one was gunned down by the cops and the other, a child, was driven back inside to die in the fire.
While some cops may relish it more than others, their job is to enforce racist law and order on behalf of the capitalist rulers. Toward the end of Let the Fire Burn, the film highlights the testimony before the commission by one cop who recalled leading Birdie Africa away after he emerged from the burning building. A caption concludes his story: the cop’s locker was later scrawled with the epithet “n----r lover” and he left the police force, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of Racist Cops and
Going back before MOVE, Philadelphia was known for its killer cops. Foremost among them were those in the Stakeout unit, an urban death squad made up largely of veteran military sharpshooters. This squad was established by Rizzo, then-deputy police commissioner, as part of the drive by the city rulers to crush any expression of opposition to vicious racism and police brutality after the city’s black ghetto erupted in 1964. Together with the department’s “red squad,” it spearheaded the brutal repression of the Black Panther Party and other black militants in the city. Later, when the police turned their attention to MOVE, Stakeout cops again played a forward role, from the vicious beating of Delbert Africa to the shooting in the Osage Avenue alley seven years later.
The city itself was a bastion of racist reaction. In the 1920s, Pennsylvania had the fourth-largest Klan concentration in the country; the Philadelphia area alone had 30,000 Klansmen. The city’s capitalist rulers played on racial divisions to pit white workers against black workers, who were last-hired and first-fired. Ethnic and racial hostilities in Philadelphia were further exacerbated with the devastation of its heavy industry, particularly in the 1970s. In this context, the racist bonapartism of the Philadelphia police became even more pronounced as the cops were deployed to keep the lid on this pressure cooker of discontent.
Another reaction by the ruling class to black discontent and rebellion in Philadelphia, as well as other cities across the country, was to install black mayors to contain the rage and frustration. But Wilson Goode—who instructed the cops to get MOVE “by any means necessary” prior to the firebombing of West Philadelphia—is the ultimate proof that the black Democratic mayors were and are the frontmen for the bourgeoisie’s war on black people, as well as on workers and all the oppressed. In the aftermath of the fire, Jesse Jackson spotted in the charred remains of people’s lives a chance to push a little black capitalism. His main concern was that Goode hire black contractors to rebuild the destroyed homes!
From the 1921 bombing of black Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the 1993 incineration of the Branch Davidian religious sect outside Waco, Texas, the American capitalist rulers have a long history of mass murder of those considered to have stepped out of line. When it came to MOVE, authorities first branded them “terrorists” to justify their slaughter. As we noted shortly after the 1985 massacre: “Our duty to combat the state vendetta against MOVE is part of our unremitting campaign against the government’s targeting of troublesome opponents as ‘terrorists’” (WV No. 381, 14 June 1985). This is all the more the case today, with the bourgeoisie having amassed a vast arsenal of surveillance and police powers under the pretext of the “war on terror.” Ultimately, it will take a workers revolution to put the capitalist state apparatus of violence and murder out of business for good and bring justice to its hired thugs who have committed untold crimes.