30 Years Ago Today, Police Bombed Philadelphia

Photo: AP Photo
Thirty years ago today, on May 13, 1985, a police helicopter dropped a bomb on a Philadelphia neighborhood, killing 11 people, including five children. Sixty-two homes were destroyed. The operation was part of a massive sting against a radical black liberation group called MOVE. 

“[T]hey just began insanely shooting, over 10,000 rounds of bullets, according to their own estimates,” Ramona Africa, the sole member of MOVE who survived, told The Guardian. “That didn’t work, and that’s when they dropped the bomb on us, a rowhouse in an urban neighborhood.” The day is the only instance of a police bombing on American soil.

MOVE was founded in 1972 by John Africa. Its members believed in a radical back-to-nature philosophy that included living communally, and opposing science, technology, and modern medicine. All members changed their surnames to Africa, to indicate their reverence for the continent where they hoped to one day return. 

"They started to board up their windows and doors," Gerald Renfrow, a neighbor at the time, told NPR. "They started to espouse their philosophy. We thought it was inappropriate to come onto a residential block, with loudspeakers blaring all hours of the day and night." They also are said to have left compost and human waste in the backyard, attracting pests. 

On May 13, cops tried to clear the building, which resulted in an armed standoff and culminated in the bombing. Jason Osder’s 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn is named for a command reportedly given by police after the bombing, to let the fires rage. 

An investigation into the bombing, released in 1986, denounced the city's actions as excessive, but no one was charged. In 1996, a civil suit awarded $1.5 million in compensation to Ramona Africa and family members of the victims. The neighborhood has never fully recovered. 

Watch a clip of the documentary about the bombing, Let the Fire Burn, below.
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