40 years later: Time to MOVE on? by Dennis Hartley

40 years later: Time to MOVE on?

By Dennis Hartley

Yesterday marked an auspicious anniversary. From the transcript of this morning’s Democracy Now broadcast:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, today marks the 40th anniversary of a massive police operation in Philadelphia that culminated in the siege of the headquarters of a radical group known as MOVE, dedicated to black liberation and a back-to-nature lifestyle. The group was founded by John Africa, and all its members took the surname Africa. It was August 8th, 1978, when police tried to remove members of MOVE from their communal home with water cannons and battering rams, even as some continued to hide in the basement with children. This is how an eyewitness described the scene in the documentary MOVE: Confrontation in Philadelphia. The documentary was directed and produced by Karen Pomer and Jane Manicini.

EYEWITNESS: I was standing on the porch, 3207—3207 Pearl Street. And I could hear—well, it’s only about 20 feet from MOVE headquarters. I could hear voices. I could distinguish who was calling. You know, I could distinguish the kids crying. You know, very clearly, he was calling out for help.

REPORTER: And two minutes later, hoses are blasted at the house to flood MOVE members out of the basement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During the siege on MOVE’s house, gunfire was exchanged, and a police officer named James Ramp was killed. MOVE members were beaten by officers as they were forced out of the home, including Delbert Africa, who was unarmed and half-naked as TV news cameras filmed police grabbing him by his dreadlocks, throwing him to the ground and kicking and stomping him. Two years later, nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder in Ramp’s death. They were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison and became the MOVE 9.

AMY GOODMAN: Philadelphia police attacks on MOVE would later reach new levels on May 13, 1985, when they surrounded the MOVE house, fired thousands of rounds of ammunition, then dropped a bomb on the house from a helicopter. The fire from the attack incinerated six adults and five children and destroyed not only the MOVE home, but 65 homes in the neighborhood.

Goodman goes on to conduct an interesting interview with Debbie Africa, the first of the “MOVE 9” to be released from prison, and her son Mike Jr., who was born soon after his mother was incarcerated (they were reunited this past June, when Debbie was paroled).

The rise and fall of the MOVE organization is one of the more fascinating (and tragic) chapters in America’s sociopolitical history. While I have not had a chance to see the aforementioned documentary, I did write a piece about the related 2013 documentary Let the Fire Burn, which seems apropos to repost today. The film is well worth seeking out.

[The following was originally posted on Hullabaloo on December 7, 2013)]

While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In an enlightening new documentary called Let the Fire Burn, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.

Depending upon whom you might ask, MOVE was an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all of the above. The biggest question in my mind (and one the film doesn’t necessarily delve into) is whether it was another example of psychotic entelechy. So what is “psychotic entelechy”, exactly? Well, according to Stan A. Lindsay, the author of Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, it would be “…the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions”.

In the context of Lindsay’s book, he is expanding on some of the ideas laid down by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and applying them to possibly explain the self-destructive traits shared by the charismatic leaders of modern-day cults like The People’s Temple, Order of the Solar Tradition, Heaven’s Gate, and The Branch Davidians. He ponders whether all the tragic deaths that resulted should be labeled as “suicides, murders, or accidents”.

Whether MOVE belongs on that list is perhaps debatable, but in Osder’s film, you do get the sense that leader John Africa (an adapted surname that all followers used) was a charismatic person. He founded the group in 1972, based on an odd hodgepodge of tenets borrowed from Rastafarianism, Black Nationalism and green politics; with a Luddite view of technology (think ELF meets the Panthers…by way of the Amish). Toss in some vaguely egalitarian philosophies about communal living, and I think you’re there.

The group, which shared a town house, largely kept itself to itself (at least at first) but started to draw the attention of Philadelphia law enforcement when a number of their neighbors began expressing concern to the authorities about sanitation issues (the group built compost piles around their building using refuse and human excrement) and the distressing appearance of possible malnutrition among the children of the commune (some of the footage in the film would seem to bear out the latter claim).

The city engaged in a year-long bureaucratic standoff with MOVE over their refusal to vacate, culminating in an attempted forced removal turned-gun battle with police in 1978 that left one officer dead. Nine MOVE members were convicted of 3rd-degree murder and jailed.

The remaining members of MOVE relocated their HQ, but it didn’t take long to wear out their welcome with the new neighbors (John Africa’s strange, rambling political harangues, delivered via loudspeakers mounted outside the MOVE house certainly didn’t help). Africa and his followers began to develop a siege mentality, shuttering up all the windows and constructing a makeshift pillbox style bunker on the roof. Naturally, these actions only served to ratchet up the tension and goad local law enforcement.

On May 13, 1985 it all came to a head when a heavily armed contingent of cops moved in, ostensibly to arrest MOVE members on a number of indictments. Anyone who remembers the shocking news footage knows that the day did not end well. Gunfire was exchanged after tear gas and high-pressure water hoses failed to end the standoff, so authorities decided to take a little shortcut and drop a satchel of C-4 onto the roof of the building. 11 MOVE members (including 5 children) died in the resulting inferno, which consumed 61 homes.

Putting aside any debate or speculation for a moment over whether or not John Africa and his disciples were deranged criminals, or whether or not the group’s actions were self-consciously provocative or politically convoluted, one simple fact remains and bears repeating: “Someone” decided that it was a perfectly acceptable action plan, in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood (located in the City of Brotherly Love, no less) to drop a bomb on a building with children inside it.

Even more appalling is the callous indifference and casual racism displayed by some of the officials and police who are seen in the film testifying before the Mayor’s investigative commission (the sole ray of light, one compassionate officer who braved crossfire to help a young boy escape the burning building, was chastised by fellow officers afterward as a “nigger lover” for his trouble).

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we still have go in purging the vestiges of institutional racism in this country (1985 was not that long ago).

In a strange bit of Kismet, I saw this film the day before Nelson Mandela died, which has naturally prompted a steady stream of retrospectives about Apartheid on the nightly news. Did you know that in 1985, there was a raging debate over whether we should impose sanctions on South Africa? (*sigh*) Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Previous posts with related themes:

The Black Power Mixtape

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--Dennis Hartley