The militarization of American police departments, on display during the Ferguson protests, has roots in numerous strategies for “dealing” with Black activist movements in the ’60s and ’70s. Few events symbolize the results of this warlike behavior more clearly—and scarily—than when, 31 years to this day, police bombed a West Philadelphia rowhouse occupied by the Black radical, back-to-nature group MOVE.
The police department had long considered MOVE the enemy. In the ’70s, under the leadership of the notoriously racist police chief then mayor, Frank Rizzo, police regularly clashed with the group.
MOVE was a polarizing force in their freshly integrated, left-leaning Powelton Village neighborhood due to their expletive-laced interruptions of community meetings, their recycling method of throwing garbage into their backyard, and their refusal to kill vermin. While quality-of-life complaints factored into the law enforcement response to MOVE, the group’s protests against police violence and the incarceration of members most rankled authorities.
On August 8, 1978, police conducted a military-style raid with the intention of evicting MOVE from their residential headquarters. In an ensuing shootout, a police officer was killed. Several MOVE members, firefighters and other cops were wounded. Police severely beat one MOVE member extracted from the house in full view of news cameras. Nine members, known as the MOVE 9, were incarcerated.
By May 1985, the group had relocated to a home in the predominantly Black, middle class neighborhood of Cobbs Creek. Many neighbors regarded MOVE as a menace due to its use of bullhorns in protesting the incarceration of its members, sanitation problems at the home and a rooftop bunker members had built to defend itself against another military-style raid by police. (According to Colorlines editorial director and West Philadelphia native Akiba Solomon, some community members disparaged MOVE for wearing dredlocks, a hairstyle they considered dirty in 1980s.)
The protracted conflict between police and MOVE once again erupted on May 13, 1985. Under the leadership of the city’s first Black mayor, Wilson Goode, firefighters and police used high-power hoses and thousands of rounds of ammunition to force members out of their home. A little after 5 p.m. a police helicopter dropped two C-4 bombs on the home. As instructed, firefighters let the fire burn.
Six MOVE children and five adults were burnt to death and 61 homes were destroyed.
Today, surviving members of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated despite their eligibility for parole in 2008. The 1985 police attack on the MOVE house is one of the last times a police department dropped an actual bomb on its residents.