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2010-05-13

25 Years Ago: Philadelphia Police Bombs MOVE Headquarters Killing 11, Destroying 65 Homes

Guests

Mumia Abu-Jamal, journalist on death row in Pennsylvania. From a radio commentary recorded for PrisonRadio.org.

Ramona Africa, only adult member of MOVE to survive the 1985 bombing. She escaped with major burns by crawling through a basement window with a thirteen-year-old boy then known as Birdie Africa. Ramona went on to serve seven years in prison on a riot charge.

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Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of a massive police operation in Philadelphia that culminated in the helicopter bombing of the headquarters of a radical group known as MOVE. The fire from the attack killed six adults and five children and destroyed sixty-five homes. Despite two grand jury investigations and a commission finding that top officials were grossly negligent, no one from city government was criminally charged. MOVE was a Philadelphia-based radical movement that was dedicated to black liberation and a back-to-nature lifestyle. It was founded by John Africa, and all its members took on the surname Africa. We hear from Mumia Abu-Jamal and speak with Ramona Africa, the only adult survivor of the bombing. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of a massive police operation in Philadelphia that culminated in the helicopter bombing of the headquarters of a radical group known as MOVE. The fire from the attack killed six adults and five children and destroyed sixty-five homes, an entire neighborhood. Despite the two grand jury investigations and a commission finding that top officials were grossly negligent, no one from city government was criminally charged.

MOVE was a Philadelphia-based radical movement that was dedicated to black liberation and a back-to-nature lifestyle. It was founded by John Africa, and all its members took on the surname Africa.

We’ll be joined in a moment from Philadelphia by Ramona Africa. At the time of the bombing, she was the sole adult survivor in the house. She escaped with major burns by crawling through a basement window with a thirteen-year-old boy then known as Birdie Africa. Ramona went on to serve seven years in prison on a riot charge.

But first, here’s a clip from Mumia Abu-Jamal’s latest commentary from death row.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: May 13th at twenty-five. May 13th, 1985 is more than a day of infamy, when a city waged war on its own alleged citizens, but also when the city committed massacre and did so with perfect impunity, when babies were shot and burned alive with their mothers and fathers, and the killers rewarded with honors and pensions, while politicians talked and the media mediated mass murder. On that day, the city, armed and assisted by the US government, dropped a bomb on a house and called it law. The fire department watched buildings ignite like matches in the desert and cut off water. The courts of the land turned a blind eye, daubed mud in their socket, and prosecuted Ramona Africa for having the nerve to survive an urban holocaust, jailing her for the crime of not burning to death. Eleven men, women and children died, and not one killer was even charged with a misdemeanor.

    But on that day, more than MOVE members died. The city died, too. Its politicians died, its media died, its courts died, and its churches and houses of worship died, for they ceased to function, and they served power and money. In a very real sense, the city massacred itself, for one’s faith in such institutions died. They became empty, hollow and dead, but for the shell. May 13th, 1985 is a day that shall live in infamy, but for far more reasons than the obvious. It was the death knell of a system committing suicide. It proved that a man called John Africa spoke powerful truths when he spoke about the nature of the system as corrupt, as flawed, as poisoned. Every day past that date has only proved it even more.

    From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal also a former Philadelphia reporter, that commentary courtesy of the Prison Radio Project.

Ramona Africa joins us now from Philadelphia on this twenty-fifth anniversary of the MOVE bombing.

Ramona, welcome to Democracy Now! Go back twenty-five years ago. You were the sole adult survivor of the police bombing, May 13th, 1985. Describe what happened as the bomb was falling on your house.

RAMONA AFRICA: OK, the first thing I want people to understand is that that bombing did not happen because of some complaints from neighbors. This government had never cared about black folks complaining about their neighbors or any other people complaining about their neighbors. They bombed us because of our unrelenting fight for our family members, known as the MOVE 9, who have been in prison unjustly going on thirty-two years now, as a result of the August 8th, 1978 police attack on MOVE. I just wanted to make that clear.

In terms of the bombing, after being attacked the way we were, first with four deluge hoses by the fire department and then tons of tear gas, and then being shot at — the police admit to shooting over 10,000 rounds of bullets at us in the first ninety minutes — there was a lull. You know, it was quiet for a little bit. And then, without any warning at all, two members of the Philadelphia Police Department’s bomb squad got in a Pennsylvania state police helicopter and flew over our home and dropped a satchel containing C4, a powerful military explosive that no municipal police department has. They had to get it from the federal government, from the FBI. And without any announcement or warning or anything, they dropped that bomb on the roof of our home.

Now, at that point, we didn’t know exactly what they had done. We heard the loud explosion. The house kind of shook. But it never entered my mind that they dropped a bomb on us. But the bomb did in fact ignite a fire. And not long after that, it got very, very hot in the house, and the smoke was getting thicker. At first we thought it was tear gas. But as it got thicker, it became clear that this wasn’t tear gas, that this was something else. And then we could hear the trees outside of our house crackling and realized that our home was on fire. And we immediately tried to get our children, our animals, our dogs and cats, and ourselves out of that blazing inferno.

The adults were hollering out that we’re coming out, we’re bringing the children out. The children were hollering that they were coming out, that we were bringing them out. And we know that the police heard us. But the instant, the very instant, that we were visible to them, you know, trying to come out, they immediately opened fire. We were met with a barrage of police gunfire. And you could see it hitting all around us, all around the house. And it forced us back in to that blazing inferno, several times. And finally, you know, you’re in a position where either you choke to death and burn alive or you possibly are shot to death.

So we continued to try to get out of that house. And I got out. I got Birdie out. You could hear the shots hitting all around us. A cop grabbed Birdie, took him into custody, grabbed me, they threw me down on the ground and handcuffed, you know, me behind me, in the back of me. And I just knew that everybody else had gotten out. They were right behind me. And I didn’t find out until police took me to the homicide unit of the police administration building that there were no other survivors.

AMY GOODMAN: Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor. Six adults, five children killed that day. Juan, you were a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You were there on the corner when this happened.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well, Ramona, as you recalled, it was a — it was May 13th, but it was a Sunday that year, and it was Mother’s Day. And I’ll never forget, because the confrontation started early in the day and went for most of the day, and I remember precisely when that helicopter dropped the C4, because I was about a block away with my fellow Philadelphia Daily News reporter and longtime friend Linn Washington. And we saw the helicopter hovering overhead, and we said, "What’s that helicopter doing?" But we didn’t understand what it was up to at that point. We turned around, when all of a sudden the explosion goes off.

But the aspect that many people are not aware of, that as that fire raged, we remember the fire trucks, as you mention, that had been hosing down the building beforehand, suddenly the firefighters were just ordered to stand down, and they allowed the fire to rage, I would estimate, for — it must have been about an hour. And of course, eventually, the flames not only destroyed your house, but then destroyed sixty-five other houses, all in the entire neighborhood. But the firemen just stood there, under orders not to douse the fire, because they were trying to basically force you out.

The other aspect of the story, I think, and as you mentioned, was what happened in the rear as they attempted to shoot the MOVE members as they went out, because the stories the next day, in my newspaper then, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, were, because basically they came from police sources, that the MOVE members had tried to shoot their way out, when it was actually a — it later clearly — your story was backed up by the commission, that basically the police ended up shooting you down —-

RAMONA AFRICA: And by Birdie Africa.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- as you attempted to come out. And — but the —-

RAMONA AFRICA: You know -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Go ahead.

RAMONA AFRICA: Why MOVE people talk about how this system intended to kill MOVE, that this was not an attempt to arrest. They came out there to literally wipe MOVE out, exterminate MOVE. People want to poo-poo us and act like, "Oh, you’re just taking it out." But the fact that they deliberately shot at us as we tried to exit the building and the fact that you just brought up of how, you know, firefighters stood there and allowed that fire to burn, I defy people to tell me, you know, when William Richmond or really any other fire commissioner or firefighters had made a decision to let a fire burn in a building, a row house, where there are men, women, babies and animals inside. I mean, firefighters are known for running into burning buildings to save people. Now, William Richmond tried to excuse or explain away, you know, their actions by saying he wasn’t going to have his firefighters, you know, in danger or come under fire from MOVE. But for hours, when there was no fire, they put — they had four deluge hoses, each of which pump out 10,000 pounds of water pressure, according to them. They aimed those water hoses at our home for hours in the morning of May 13. Now, why wasn’t it a danger then? It’s only a danger when in fact there is a fire? I mean, it is very clear to any fairminded person looking at this situation that their intent was to kill. Wilson Goode said he wanted a permanent end to MOVE. That’s what he said.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, this was the second confrontation between the police and MOVE, following the 1978 shootout that occurred, where Police Officer Ramp was killed and where Delbert Africa was beaten senseless in front of all the television cameras as he attempted to surrender after that standoff. Could you talk about the impact —-

RAMONA AFRICA: Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —- that that had on how you regarded, as you were in that house, what could happen to you?

RAMONA AFRICA: Oh, absolutely, it had an impact on, you know, our realization of May 13th, 1985. We know that in 1978 they came out to kill MOVE then, too. I mean, you had cops testifying during the later trial that it was dark in the basement of MOVE headquarters in '78, so they couldn't really see, but they emptied their guns, reloaded, and emptied them again in corners where they heard babies crying. Now, that’s not an attempt to kill? What crime had the babies committed, you know?

It is obvious that MOVE did not kill Officer James Ramp, by their own, you know, admissions. James Ramp was shot with the bullet traveling on a downward angle. That’s what the system’s medical examiner determined and stands by. How could anybody in a basement shoot somebody standing on street level above them on a downward angle? It’s physically impossible. Second of all, why would the city send a demolition team out within hours after arresting MOVE people and completely demolish the scene of the crime? Vital evidence in a murder case where a cop is killed. They would have preserved every bit of evidence they could get their hands on if they really believed that MOVE killed a cop, you know?

So we know what their intent was, and knowing that they were coming after us again, we knew that they were going to try to come stronger than they did in '78, because they were upset, they were angry, they were pissed off, that they had not killed MOVE in 1978. So, coming out there to Osage, you know, after MOVE again, we knew their intent was to really get the job done this time. It wasn't about an arrest. Both situations, they keep using this word "eviction," that they were coming out to evict MOVE. Since when are evictions held, you know, carried out, by hundreds of cops armed for war? In ’85, they had —-

AMY GOODMAN: Ramona, we have five seconds.

RAMONA AFRICA: —- nine-millimeter Uzis, .50-caliber machine guns. OK, well, they came out there with the weaponry of war. War. Their intent was to kill.

AMY GOODMAN: Ramona Africa, sole adult survivor of the May 13th, 1985 police MOVE bombing that killed eleven people, five of them children. That does it for our broadcast. Juan Gonzalez, a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News at the time. You can go to our website at democracynow.org to see some of the images.

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