A Basic History of the 1985 MOVE Bombing: Rogue Police and Weak Leadership
Some of the largest public outrages against the police came through the tragic mishandling of events. These events, which include the fatal shooting of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Chicago and the later bombing of MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia disproportionately involve African-Americans. This is not merely coincidence but rather shows a sad fact of policing, one that is described by “Black (1980)…[who] found that encounters between police and African Americans were more likely than encounters between police and White Americans to result in formal or legally based decisions (398).” Consequently, the amount of publicity these events get is nowhere near the amount given to negative portrayals of African-American individuals, and with each year that passes fewer and fewer individuals recall the events that transpired.
Where racial antagonism between “predominantly white police forces and expanding black communities” may have offered an explanation for police racism in policing in Hahn and Feagin’s 1970, the approach loses robustness with the increasing prevalence of African-American police officers. This tendency to disproportionately affect African-American individuals (whether it be through arrest or force) has not changed in light of more diverse police; cases including those of Rodney King (1991), Abner Louima (1997) and Amadou Diallo (1999) show that this problem is as prevalent as ever.
MOVE started as the American Christian Movement by Vincent Leaphart, a former dog-walker. The group began gaining converts when Leaphart’s (now John Africa’s) musings on a variety of subjects were transcribed and put into a book form by graduate student Donald Glassey (Maddox 1995, 30). These teachings held that all living life is sacred, that all matter should be “cycled” (recycled), and that childbirth should be a natural happening, without drugs. Couple these beliefs with a revolutionary strain of thought, that human law was not to be followed due to it not equally affecting individuals (through loopholes) and that “all living things instinctively defend themselves”, and one has a dogma that brought in a number of individuals to a communal house in Powelton Village (MOVE 2005). Powelton Village at the time was a heavily-black neighborhood that was fending off the gentrification advances of Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania; it was with this obvious intrusion against the MOVE belief that “all living things, beings that move, are equally important” that MOVE began to agitate for change. This agitation would eventually bring a bomb down upon MOVE, in a typical bout of police over-action that killed 11 citizens of the United States in 1985.
For a short period after moving into the Powelton village house, things were relatively quiet as MOVE kept to themselves. MOVE soon started agitating through constant tirades using a bullhorn and by actively leading protests, a move which finally lead to the creation of a data-collecting team by the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) (Maddox 1995, 38; Assefa and Wahrhaftig 1988, 22). After being arrested for non-violent protests at high-publicity places (the Philadelphia Zoo, the Board of Education), MOVE actively committed offenses that would force police to put them in the criminal justice system. Ramona Africa, the only MOVE member that survived the 1985 bombing, would later say in a radio interview: “You want to arrest MOVE people? You want to put us in the court system? OK, but you're going to have to do it consistently. And we were going in and out of jail so much that we racked up so many cases that it clogged the court system. (Sanchez, 1996)”
Cycling members through the court system was admittedly not something to raise the ire of police; at some level, they were making money for each time a MOVE member was sent off to jail regardless of the offense. The event that escalated MOVE-PPD tensions occurred in March 1976, when MOVE and Philadelphia police members skirmished, leaving a number of individuals on both sides injured (Assefa and Wahrhaftig 1988, 23). One of these individuals was Life Africa, an infant that was killed (or that MOVE claimed to be killed) in these attacks. This death was so heinous that it brought John Africa to move to a more Black Panther-esque type of armed resistance; that “MOVE would counter with violence if attacked. (24)”
It was this change in philosophy that ultimately led to the Philadelphia police bombing of MOVE’s house in 1985; what had originally been perceived as institutional racism by MOVE was turned into a set of individuals that actively disobeyed Mayor Goode in pursuing their anti-MOVE agendas. It is this individual action that is supported in theory concerning structural racism in policing. Scholars like J.M. Floyd-Thomas would explain the interest in the operations of MOVE by the Philadelphia Police Department was “due to the MOVE family’s racial composition, counter-cultural lifestyle, radical politics, and unorthodox religiosity made them fair game to receive the full brunt of police oppression (16).” Furthermore, the lack of faith in the criminal justice system by African-Americans is not something that is only present in the more radical and fringe groups. Countless studies, including those by Engel (2005), Hagan and Albonetti (1982) and Wiley (2002) have shown that African-American individuals feel that they are treated worse by police both in terms of treatment and ultimate outcome (what punishment they are given, if any). Studies may show that there is a psychological difference in the way African-Americans and whites see their treatment by police, but there are some cold, hard facts that inform these outlooks on the world.
MOVE may have felt (whether rightly or wrongly) that they were being unduly persecuted because of their race; after so many arrests and complaints on their group, it is really no surprise that MOVE would gradually grow into something that was completely different from the non-violent, naturalist group that was founded by John Africa in 1973. Scholars including Waddington (2004) and Weitzer (2000) describe the real-life circumstances of racially-biased policing as a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. This means that disproportionate amounts of African-Americans are confronted or placed in the criminal justice system because they are visibly acting in a way that is contrary with the law and the norms of society.
Labeling theory works in MOVE’s context because the group was originally acting in a way that they felt was legal under their beliefs during the non-violence actions at places like the Philadelphia Zoo. When group members were labeled troublemakers and put into the criminal justice system for action they thought was legal, they began to act more like troublemakers. This is shown by the press release of MOVE during the lead-up to the shootout, which said that “We are prepared to hit reservoirs, empty hotels, and apartment houses, close factories and tie up major cities of Europe (Floyd-Thomas 2002).”
More police intervention brought behaviors that were even farther outside the norms of society. This downward spiral of action culminated in two events: MOVE’s outside patrolling of their house with weapons and the later 1978 shoot-out, which led to “one death, several woundings, and deepened distrust that would lead to worse violence in the future (Assefa and Wahrhaftig 1988, 27, 37).
It is important to see that at each step there was an escalation of the police presence that dealt with the problem that MOVE created. This escalation began as arrests during the non-violent actions in the early seventies and only ended with a bombing that killed “11 people (all MOVE members), 61 homes completely destroyed, and 250 persons left homeless (Persons 251).”
This escalation further supports the “rogue police” explanation of the disproportionate number of African-Americans that are pulled over or otherwise acted upon by the police put forth by individuals like Tomaskovic-Devey et al (2004). This theory concedes that there are these disproportionate amounts of African-Americans being arrested or affected by the police, but that these actions are done by individuals that are racist or have some problem with the group in question. Coupled onto the higher number of African-Americans placed through the criminal justice system is a beefed-up set of circumstances that could lead to apprehension, with the most visible precursor “offense” being what is colloquially called “driving while black”. After getting pulled over, African-American individuals are more often assessed a fine or arrested for matters that would normally just be a warning for white individuals (broken taillight, moving violation). However, this line of theory is under fire by theorists like D’Alessio and Stolzenberg (2003), who say that it is not necessarily the race of the offender but rather other factors (if the crime is done to a friend or committed alongside other crimes) that determine arrest-ability.
The “rogue police” explanation, regardless of the other explanatory theories, is the best fit in trying to understand the lead up of tension that would eventually lead to the 1985 bombing of MOVE headquarters. Where the patience of individual police may have been tried by the number of times they were called out to MOVE headquarters for noise violations or smaller complaints, the defining event in the changing of police attitudes occurred with the murder of Officer James Ramp during the May 1978 standoff. While the forensics expert at the later MOVE Commission would absolve MOVE from any murder charges (the bullet entered from the back of Officer Ramp, instead of the front), the hostility of the police officers that were part of this standoff was so great that the then-Mayor stopped all officers from being present at the 1985 siege.
Instead of following the orders of the Mayor, who “in July of 1984…met with two former MOVE members…[who] implored Mayor Goode to release MOVE members from jail in order to diffuse the escalating tensions between neighbors, police and MOVE.”, the police came to the MOVE house in the early morning of May 13th, 1985 and proceeded to shoot 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the house and drop a 3.5 pound bomb on its roof (Assefa and Wahrhaftig 1988, Maddox 1995, 99). Both the components of the bomb and a gun used in the attack were of a military-grade quality that was expressly banned by the leaders of the Philadelphia police department (Floyd-Thomas, 2002). How could the 1985 bombing have been avoided? The behavior of the Philadelphia Police Department in dealing with MOVE was retributive instead of restorative in this case.
A shift in the behavior of the corrections and police departments of Philadelphia along the same lines as the Mayor’s department would have defused the situation before it lead to the deaths of 11 in 1985. First off, lesser penalties for the MOVE 9 would have kept the demands of the rest of MOVE reasonable; each of the members was given 30 years for murder, even though only one bullet hit Officer Ramp. Secondly, a greater amount of sensitivity training should have been given to the Philadelphia police force, as put forth by Huisman et al in their “explaining commonalities” between races (2005). This move might have led to a greater empathy for the situation by leaders like Police Chief Gregore Sambor, who (aside from blocking the Fire Department Chief from putting out the fire on the MOVE house caused by the bomb), stoked more tension when he yelled out “attention MOVE, this is America (Maddox 1995, 85).” Finally, the continual arresting of MOVE members might have not transformed MOVE’s mission from something resembling Martin Luther King’s non-violent theories to Malcolm X’s armed resistance if there was a deferment program in place, tied to a greater following of Philadelphia law for all who lived in the MOVE house. Tie this continual arresting in with the fact that MOVE had gotten wind that a video tape showing one of their members, Delbert Africa, was being shown to the Philadelphia Police Department trainees as a training exercise, and a condition was created in which both sides, MOVE and the PPD were ready to fight (Sanchez, 1996). If the mindset of individuals like Chief Sambor was that MOVE and groups like MOVE needed to be stopped at all costs, why was there not a greater review of the literature available to them regarding the best course of action in removing individuals and groups from authority? The attack on Fred Hampton in Chicago had only occurred a decade before, and the outrage from that case brought more trouble to all involved than any Black Panther rally could ever bring. The original plan put forth by the Mayor, Fire and Police Chiefs, and the Mayor’s aide was to first knock off the bunker on MOVE headquarters by water cannon (to ensure that there would not be as many shots fired from an advantageous position) and eventually wear MOVE down to the point where it could then apprehend Ramona Africa, who was then leader of the organization. The plan was declared a failure after six hours; compare that to the 1978 siege, which lasted two months (Assefa and Wahrhaftig 1988). MOVE had guns in 1978 just as they had guns in 1985; what had changed so much to offer such a rapid change in plans and such a lack of patience?
This change could be seen as developing through a set of circumstances that in only the most tangential sense involved MOVE. Mayor Goode, the city’s first African-American mayor was elected on the backs of white liberals and middle-class African-Americans to oust Frank Rizzo, who was attempting to change election law to run for another term (Parsons, 1987). Those who lived in the same Osage Avenue district were essentially those that allowed Goode to be elected, and those constituents were growing tired of MOVE’s antics. By this time, MOVE has moved from directly protesting government locations and put the impetus of change on those individuals they lived near; when Osage Avenue residents complained about the bullhorn spewing such niceties as “MF Santy Claus”, MOVE told the residents to tell their politicians that “the reason MOVE is doing it is because they want their people home.” The reasons our people were doing this is because they couldn’t get Wilson Goode to listen (Assefa and Wahrhaftig 1988, 108).”
Aside from the pressure being enacted on Mayor Goode by the residents of Osage Avenue, MOVE exacerbated the situation by fortifying their house. For the time that MOVE was doing this, there was a lack of harassment of the Osage Avenue neighbors, which in turn led to a relaxation of the pressure on Mayor Goode. This relaxation caused all segments of the City of Philadelphia to let their guard down until late April, where the bullhorn messages restarted with more vitriol and violent threats than had occurred before. Instead of being nebulous threats as they were before the 1978 shootouts, MOVE threatened to kill Mayor Goode and any other individuals that would set foot on their property. This change in behavior from a timid and afraid style to something that seems like a viable threat forced the Mayor’s hand as much as did the construction of a gasoline tank on the roof of the house (which could conceivably be used for bombs).
This escalation shows that while the ultimate decision to bomb the compound was still the wrong one made by the Philadelphia Police Department, that MOVE was not necessarily as innocent as they would like to make themselves out to be. Aside from a shared responsibility of the eventual outcome, there also seemed to be some systemic distributional and government failures at play that led from the non-violent MOVE being arrested in 1974 and 1975 to an armed, almost terrorist-like group in 1985. In terms of distributional failures, there was an information asymmetry between the different City of Philadelphia groups. Mayor Goode was not aware of the plans to increase the power of the bomb, which was originally only intended to be a “concussive device” (Persons, 1987). Likewise, the Fire Department chief was unable of Mayor Goode’s order to turn the hoses on the raging fire that was created by this bomb. Even Police Chief Sambor was left in the dark about some of his officers bringing in a military-caliber gun for the assault. There was a bureaucratic failure in that the order from Mayor Goode to remove all officers that had participated in the 1978 shootout from the teams assigned to the May assault was not followed. MOVE themselves were unclear at the length that the City of Philadelphia would go in removing them from their home; if this was communicated to them more clearly, the situation may have defused without all the bloodshed and destruction that the fires created by the bomb committed. Finally, the pressure placed on Mayor Goode reflected a government failure in terms of geographic constituencies and electoral interests; if Mayor Goode was not going to do something drastic for the “nuisance” that was present in the Osage Avenue area, there was going to be a good chance a new Mayor would be installed on election day.
The bombing of MOVE headquarters, despite what may be said, was not the ultimate goal of an overtly racist police department. Rather, Tomaskovic-Devey et al’s idea of police officers that operate on their own rules in regards to the apprehension or the approaching of a group of citizens (whether they be by race or class) fits in perfectly in explaining why it was necessary in Chief Sambor’s eyes to drop a 3.5 pound bomb of C4 and Tovex on a building containing a number of infants (Floyd-Thomas, 2002). Operation MOVE can thus partially explain the disproportionate number of African-Americans that are put into jail on small charges or pulled over for minor violations; that certain individuals take their interpretation of what is right and lawful too far. The other sections that influence these higher numbers of African-American individuals being approached by police do not fit as nicely; stereotyping and racial profiling do not necessarily fit due to the length of exposure that the City of Philadelphia had with MOVE, a minority-heavy area does not necessarily fit because of the fact that Philadelphia itself is such an African-American heavy city (with an excess of 30% African-American population).
Individual responsibility of those individuals in power explains a large part of why the MOVE headquarters were bombed, but MOVE cannot escape all guilt in the matter. By being tagged as criminals at the earliest part of their existence, a kernel of criminality was created that simply because larger with each time that they were apprehended. This “labeling theory” shows the gradual shift in MOVE’s philosophy through the years from a non-violent group that believed in the right of all creatures to life to one that threatened to kill any City of Philadelphia individual that even dared to set foot on their property (MOVE 2005). There is some part of systemic policy and criminal justice that brought situations to a much more rapid boil; the existence of retributive justice (that espouses labeling theory as a method to “punish” the badness out of individuals in the system”) instead of a more holistic brand of justice that would encourage prison deferment based on the completion of programs that were in topics that individuals complained to city officials against MOVE about (cleanliness, child care).
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