Why disaster can't define a mayor or city

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Aftermath on Osage Avenue of a disastrous decision by Philadelphia leaders in the confrontation May 13, 1985, with the radical group MOVE. “Let the Fire Burn,” directed by Jason Osder / Zeitgeist Films

As I reflect on the 30th anniversary of the standoff between MOVE and the Philadelphia Police Department, it stands as a dark day in my life and the life of this great city. But, unlike some who want to make it my Waterloo, it was not a defining day in my life or career - nor was it a defining day for this great city. It was a shameful day and a regrettable day, but not a defining one. Citizens had a right to expect that their government would not have permitted the simple serving of warrants to result in the loss of lives and the burning of houses.

I am saddened each day at the destruction of lives and houses. But as I regret what happened, I cannot undo what was done. Moreover, I cannot live the rest of my life in that space. I am satisfied that the proper planning was done. I was briefed and was satisfied with the plan (which did not include dropping a device from the helicopter).

The execution of the plan was the problem. By all measures, the right people were in charge at the site: Managing Director Leo Brooks Sr., a highly accomplished former two-star general; Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, a career Philadelphia police officer; and William Richmond, fire commissioner, who had risen through the ranks. I had complete confidence in their experience and decision-making.

The problem arose when the well-thought-out plan did not work, and concern arose about the "bunker" on the roof and the potential danger to police, fire, and other city personnel at the site. That was a legitimate concern.

The method by which the device was used to destroy the "bunker" had to be precision-perfect. It was not precise, and a small fire started on the roof. That is where the execution fell apart. The plan should have been aborted, the fire put out, and those at the scene should have regrouped, replanned, and contacted me for approval. None of that happened.

Rather, the police commissioner made a decision to let the fire burn. The fire commissioner concurred, although he could have overridden the police chief - he did not. All fire personnel know you don't use fire as a weapon.

What happened next was the failure of technology that would have permitted me to get an order to put the fire out. Our mobile phone lines, which would have let me communicate with the people on site, were down. If the fire had been extinguished when it should have been, there would have been a different outcome. The late Charles Bowser, a member of the MOVE Commission, recognized in the book Let the Bunker Burn that not putting the fire out was the critical decision, one made without any concurrence by Brooks or myself.

After much reflection, I make these observations:

1. First, we should recognize that no other city had a similar problem. There was no tool kit on how to handle a problem of this nature. In contrast, however, the trash strike of 1986 presented a possible devastating challenge. In that situation, I consulted with Maynard Jackson, then the mayor of Atlanta, who had experienced a similar strike. He offered great counsel.

2. In the final hours, when critical decisions were made, technology failed - we simply could not communicate with one another. With the incredible improvement in technology today, an order could have been given - to multiple people in multiple ways at the same time - to put the fire out.

3. Expert negotiators should have been sent to attempt to resolve the issue. We did not do enough of that and placed an impractical timetable on resolving the issue by nightfall.

4. We did not look closely enough at the root cause of the problem. We did not take into account the relationship between the 1978 MOVE standoff with police and the May 13, 1985, confrontation. We did not ensure that those officers involved in 1978 were not involved in the 1985 event.

I want to spend the rest of this space offering an explanation as to why I would not permit one bad day to define the space I occupy. Although some had harsh criticisms, I knew that God would judge me by my heart and that he had much more work for me to do.

I was 46 years of age and a mere 17 months into my first term as mayor, and I had an ambitious agenda. I had already created the first homeless program of any major city in the country. I had worked with City Council to approve cable franchises, among them Comcast. I had created the Anti-Graffiti Program and the Mural Arts Program.

On May 13, 1985, we had the topping-off ceremony for Liberty One, an event that would forever change the city skyline. So there was more work to be done.

In 1986, I turned what could have been a devastating trash strike into a victory for the city - we were able to reduce the number of employees by getting the right to use larger trucks, while increasing efficiency.

After completing my term as mayor, I spent seven years as a deputy assistant secretary for the Department of Education in the Clinton administration. In 2000, working to improve the lives of children, I left to pursue a lifelong passion of working with children of the incarcerated. I helped organize and run the Amachi Program, which has helped more than 300,000 children in all 50 states. Civic Ventures honored me with the $100,000 Purpose Prize Award in 2006, and The Inquirer recognized me as Citizen of the Year.

Now, at the age of 76, I continue to run the Amachi Program in five states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, Arizona, and Texas. Two years ago, I took on the responsibility of running SELF Inc. - the largest homeless-shelter program funded by the city, serving about 600 people each day. Many lives have been changed because of my passionate work over the last 30 years.

I regret what happened May 13, 1985. Each day, I grieve for those who lost their lives on my watch. I was, and still feel, responsible for the actions of those who reported to me. I do not seek vindication for that day and what happened - just recognition for the totality of my work and contributions to this city and the nation. May 13, 1985, was tragic and devastating, but neither I nor the city should be defined by it.

 


To learn more about the 1985 MOVE confrontation, visit www.philly.com/move


W. Wilson Goode Sr. was mayor of Philadelphia from 1984 to 1992.

wgoode@amachimentoring.org