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Collective Trauma, Transitional Justice and Two Documentaries about Philadelphia’s Confrontation with MOVE

July 03, 2015

As “Let the Fire Burn” (2013) and “The Bombing of Osage Avenue” (1987) show in very different ways, May 13, 1985 was a traumatic day in the history of police/citizen relations in Philadelphia.  Its legacy is reflected in contemporary controversies over race relations in America.

By Regina Austin

I took a cab to the 6200 block of Osage Avenue this week, to the block where the City of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on a rowhouse in 1985.  I had been at work that day, in my office which is also in West Philadelphia and I wanted to see for myself what the location looks like now.  While the driver waited, I walked up and down the sidewalks with my cellphone camera and my small Cannon PowerShoot A2500.  The street was narrower than I had imagined.   I was shocked by the townhouses that had been built to replace the homes destroyed in the bombing and fire.  At most they were a step off the ground.  No stairs to sit on, no porches.  Small areas for a chair or two are enclosed with black wrought iron fencing.  Many houses are boarded up.  Others appear occupied but look unfinished.   There are flowers and other signs of life where people are living.  I tried to be discrete as I took snapshots.  I failed.  A man came up from the western end of the block … grumbling.  He pointed out 6221, the location of the MOVE house; maybe he assumed that was what I was looking for.  I introduced myself to a woman sitting in front of her property.   She expressed mild dissatisfaction with visitors/voyeurs like me. She said that all she wants is for the city to fix up the vacant properties and allow the neighbors to live in peace.  Thirty years and the MOVE fiasco is not over yet for either of us.


May 13, 1985.  That was the day a Philadelphia police officer, flying in a state police helicopter, dropped a bomb made of explosives obtained from the FBI onto the roof of a West Philadelphia rowhouse.  The explosion ignited a fire that was allowed to burn and burn.  By the time it was extinguished, 11 people (five of them children) associated with MOVE were dead, 61 homes were destroyed, and over 200 residents were displaced.  

I had been waiting for the right time to blog about “Let the Fire Burn” (2013)  and “The Bombing of Osage Avenue” (1987) – two very different documentaries about the events of that day.  “Let the Fire Burn” is a compilation documentary that was directed by Jason Osder who, in May of 1985, was a child growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs.  Osder’s documentary uses largely preexisting footage from news broadcasts, most of it shot live at the scene of the siege, as well as material drawn from television documentaries and public testimony before the Philadelphia Special Investigative (MOVE) Commission.  Lacking a narration, the film is a carefully assembled pastiche that lays out a broad linear macro-level account of the conflict between the police and MOVE that began during the repressive regime of Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo and continued over the next couple of decades.  I particularly appreciated segments from the Commission hearings that involved exchanges in which witnesses contested the official assessment of the MOVE organization and Commissioners or staff persons asked questions that revealed the (in)competency, (dis)honesty and (im)morality of the public officials and police officers who were, or were supposed to be, in charge during the siege.

“The Bombing of Osage Avenue” was produced and directed by Louis Massiah and written and narrated by novelist and commentator Toni Cade Bambara.  Massiah was the producer of the local PBS affiliate’s broadcast of the MOVE Commission hearings.  (He now heads Scribe Video Center, on whose board I serve.) The Massiah/Bambara film looks at the MOVE fiasco as the destruction of a black community by state violence, though not for the first time and unlikely for the last.  It constructs a three-dimensional image of the community and its residents by privileging their voices and points of view.  Bambara’s voiceover is virtually a prose poem that resonates in the culturally attuned ear like a black siren’s call to truth and justice.  It is clear from this documentary that the inability of the authorities to take measured and reasonable action to deal with MOVE’s conduct put the entire community at risk and caused social trauma through a loss of agency, though not necessarily pride and resilience.

How did I miss my chance to discuss these films upon the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the siege of MOVE!   Who knew?   


America has taken to naming traumatic events after the date on which they occurred and erecting memorials both to honor the victims and to pledge that nothing of the sort will happen in the future.  So where in Philadelphia is the memorial to May 13, 1985?  As far as I can determine, there is none. 

I fully understand why Philadelphians do not see the need to come to turns with the events of that day.  They are either ignorant of them or remain confused as to what to make of them. The usual explanation is that MOVE itself was too idiosyncratic to attract much of a sympathetic following, the city’s response was too bizarre to ever happen again and the story itself was too local to warrant national or international exposure. I am not sure that any of those points is true.

The MOVE organization certainly did a poor job of winning popular support for their cause.   They espoused a back-to-nature philosophy that irked their black neighbors on Osage Avenue because it translated into their scattering vermin-generating raw meat and refuse around their backyard and refusing to feed their children cooked food, which caused the children to go scavenging in garbage cans. Furthermore, MOVE operated under the mistaken belief that they could use their neighbors as a means to the end of obtaining release of or better conditions for their members imprisoned for murder following the police’s 1978 confrontation in Powelton Village (which is just due north of my office) which resulted in the death of an officer and the on-camera beating of a MOVE member.  As provocation, MOVE barricaded their house, appeared on the roof with guns, and harassed their neighbors over loudspeakers with harangues laced with profanity, even on Christmas Day.   MOVE totally misunderstood how little influence their black working class and lower middle class neighbors had. 

Nonetheless, the group was adept at confronting “the system” and provoking and exposing the readiness of the police to marshal excessive force to repress black opposition to the status quo.  Moreover, prior to the police mobilization, nothing MOVE did on Osage Avenue rose to the level of a capital offense for which the death penalty was an appropriate punishment.  

The neighbors’ problems with MOVE began while Wilson Goode was Philadelphia’s managing director and continued after he became its first black mayor.  MOVE was a political hot potato for Goode.  It was important that he not appear soft on crime or weak and inept at dealing with black radicals.  The complaints of MOVE’s neighbors were ignored and a clash with MOVE avoided as long as possible, in order to solidify Goode’s election and leadership position.  The neighbors were, in essence, sacrificed for the greater good.  (No pun intended.)   

The City, when it finally acted through its police department, inflated the threat posed by the black members of MOVE, responded with a near hysterical military-style assault that included, in addition to the bombing,  a barrage of 100,000 rounds aimed at the house in less than 90 minutes, and deliberately allowed a fire to burn without regard for the lives of the people in the MOVE house, the homes and possessions of those who resided in close proximity, and the emotional wellbeing of the citizens who, as a result of their government’s brutal response, experienced trauma and guilt for having asked that something be done to curb MOVE’s nuisance behavior.  All of this is reminiscent of contemporary controversies over the militarization of the police, the exaggeration of the perceived threat posed by black citizens, the lack of restraint in the use of deadly force by the police, the ambivalence and loss of control minority citizens experience in seeking assistance from the police to deal with crime and violence in their communities, etc., etc., etc. 

To add insult to injury the rowhouses that were destroyed by the fire were replaced by poorly constructed townhouses.  Many of them now sit empty, having been bought back by the city. The only person held criminally responsible for the consequences of May 13, 1985 was the builder of the shoddy replacement units.  Today, only 23 of the 61 units are occupied.  The city which owns 36 units, all of which are vacant, is locked in a legal stalemate with the residents who refused to take a settlement and move on.  

Yet there is no plaque, no tree, no fountain, no permanent memorial dedicated to the victims of the city’s ill-advised confrontation with MOVE.  To this day, even the concededly innocent children who perished in the siege and the neighborhood residents who were emotionally, socially and economically harmed by the events of that horrible day in Philadelphia remain unacknowledged “collateral damage.”    


The violent events of May 13, 1985 were traumatic for the people who experienced the violence first hand, including the surviving MOVE members and the relatives and friends of those who died, the neighbors whose homes were lost or damaged and whose communal existence was destroyed, the police and fire personnel who participated in the siege, and the media who were at the scene.  Consider as well the indirect impact on the residents of the Greater Philadelphia Area who, like me, watched television, in disbelief, as the fire was allowed to burn and burn and burn, despite the known presence of children and others in the house and the existence of innocent neighbors’ properties all around.

Philadelphia still has some unfinished business with regard to MOVE.  The root causes of the violence of May 13, 1985 are not fully and widely exposed. There is still no reason to think that something similar could not happen in the future.   

Moreover, the collective trauma caused by the bombing of Osage Avenue persists because the city has not recognized the shared pain and shame its actions caused.  Such trauma cannot be overcome through depersonalization and objectification of the events of that day.  As architect Johanna Seleh Dickson argues in the pamphlet “MOVE: Sites of Trauma,” recovery from a traumatic event requires that it be constructed as a memory that enables the victims “to move forward while still living with and learning from the traumatic experience.”  A widespread traumatic experience must be acknowledged; it has to remain visible and be shared or communalized.   

Memorialization of victims is one of the elements of transitional justice, a term applied to legal mechanisms by which governmental entities move beyond a state where conflict and repression prevail to one marked by recognition of rights, redress of injuries, and promotion of civic trust and dialogue.  The Move Commission did a superb job documenting rights violations and assessing responsibility for the violence perpetrated against MOVE and its neighbors in 1986.  It may be time to deploy another mode of intervention to arrive at a historical memory and lasting understanding of the MOVE bombing that reflects contemporary times.   

Documentaries can be part of the memorialization process.  “Let the Fire Burn” and “The Bombing of Osage” provide an audiovisual record, a publicly available archive, a defense against possible erasure of the memory of the bombing in the face of a city government that seems deaf to the grievances of the remaining residents of the Osage community and blind to the needs of the citizens of Philadelphia to remember and grapple with the harm that was done that day in their name. 

As far as I know, neither was shown publicly in or around Philadelphia on or around May 13th of this year.  That is regrettable.  Until there is a fitting permanent memorial, screenings and rebroadcasts of these films are in order.  Had I been timelier with my blogging, I would have called for the screening or rebroadcast of the two documentaries this year.  Given the history, it is not too soon to begin the campaign for next year.