On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the row house of MOVE, a dissident group the city had been feuding with for several years. Eleven residents in the house, including five children were killed by the bomb and ensuing fire that destroyed the neighborhood. There was ample municipal equipment at the scene to extinguish the blaze but top city officials gave the order, "Let the fire burn!"
From the house, one adult, Ramona Africa, and one child escaped with injuries by police fire.
Mayor W. Wilson Goode later appointed a commission to investigate the bombing, which resulted in no civil or criminal charges against any city official or employee. The only person charged was Ramona Africa, who was indicted and convicted of inciting to riot and sentenced to seven years in prison. She was offered probation after five years on condition that she not associate with her MOVE family. She refused, saying the conditions violated her First Amendment rights, and served her full sentence. Upon release, she filed suit in federal court and was awarded damages for actions of the city.
Africa is a graduate of Temple University, and I brought her to my constitutional law class several times so my students could hear directly from someone whose rights were violated by the City of Philadelphia, where the Constitution was written.
In 1985, I was president of the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia and condemned the government bombing of MOVE as a violation of the Constitution. I proposed that a major marker be erected in City Hall Courtyard, the seat of government, to detail what was essentially a municipal homicide.
The city ignored my plea, which was reiterated at least annually. This year - 32 years after the MOVE bombing - school children succeeded where adults had failed. Students of Jubilee School convinced Pennsylvania to erect a memorial plaque to the victims of the MOVE massacre. The site is on Cobbs Creek Parkway at Osage Avenue across the street from site of the bombing. A memorial service was held there on Saturday.
It is a calamity that it took so long for any official recognition of the murderous event. It is even more disappointing that the language of the plaque is flaccid to the point of inaccuracy. It asserts that "an armed conflict occurred between the Phila. Police Dept. and MOVE members" and suggests that was the reason that a "Police helicopter dropped a bomb on MOVE's house."
There was no "armed conflict." MOVE had no guns. Thousands of police bullets were fired into the house and not a single bullet was fired at police. Even when Ramona and Birdie Africa escaped from the burning house, police fire was trained on them.
The plaque continues, "An uncontrolled fire killed 11 MOVE members, including five children." The fire was "uncontrolled" by the firemen and police of the city for the purpose of killing the MOVE family.
That wasn't the first time Philadelphia police destroyed a MOVE house. Several years before, in the area of 34th and Poweleton Avenue, at the direction of Mayor Frank Rizzo, a MOVE house was destroyed and all the inhabitants were sentenced to prison, where some still remain.
These facts need to be known to all, not just passersby of a remote site near the devastation. The proper place for a marker is the seat of city government, where the homicide was ordered. Philadelphia should erect such a memorial in City Hall courtyard without further delay.
Burton Caine is a professor of law at Temple University School of Law. email@example.com