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35 years after the MOVE attack that killed 11, Philadelphia apologizes

Philadelphia City Council formally apologized this week for the 1985 decision to drop a makeshift bomb on a row house occupied by separatist group MOVE, a desperate move that resulted in a fire that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 houses.

The resolution, approved on Thursday, marked the first time the city has officially apologized for the action. The measure, which also calls for an annual day of commemoration on May 13, the anniversary of the bombing, was sponsored by Jamie Gauthier, a city councilor who grew up near the West Philadelphia neighborhood where the bombing took place. .

Ms Gauthier remembers watching the aftermath of the bombing on television as a child and said the neighborhood was only starting to fully recover from the devastation.

“There have been divisions in our town between the police and the community for decades, and I think if we had done the real job of acknowledging what happened with MOVE and other acts of violence police officer, and we had really worked not only on recognition but in building better relationships and working for reconciliation, we would not find ourselves in the place we are now, ”she said in an interview on Friday.

“It always struck me that we did this, that our city did that and that no one was ever held responsible,” she added. “I thought it was unacceptable.”

Ms Gautier began circulating a draft resolution ahead of the May 13 anniversary of the MOVE attack, but the effort stalled and then was delayed due to coronavirus restrictions. The murder of George Floyd on May 25 gave renewed energy to the resolution, she said, and the need to recognize the effects the police murders of blacks have had on the community. increased even more with the October 26 murder of Walter Wallace Jr., who was shot and killed by police during an encounter in the same neighborhood where the MOVE house once stood.

In a statement, Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia acknowledged the importance of the resolution. “In an effort to learn from our past and do better through our residents in the future, this annual day of observation is a positive step in the healing process that our city desperately needs,” he said. “This year, we have seen that the pain and trauma from the MOVE bombing is still alive in West Philadelphia, so I commend the Council for taking this step towards healing.”

The mayor acknowledged the missteps in the city’s attempts to rebuild the neighborhood in the years immediately following the attack, but said a recent public-private partnership had succeeded in rebuilding houses in the affected area.

MOVE, a group described by its members as a “back-to-nature movement” that would bring the United States back to Native Americans and abolish all government, has been viewed as an “authoritarian and violence-threatening sect” by city officials. , who said the group used threats, abuse and intimidation to terrify neighbors and provoke confrontations. At the time of the attack, police were acting to evacuate the group from a townhouse at 6221 Osage Avenue in response to complaints from neighbors about the dirty living conditions in the house and the overnight amplified lectures from MOVE members. .

At 6 a.m. on May 13, 1985, Philadelphia Police were shot at by people inside the house, which led to a one-day standoff. Throughout the day, the Philadelphia Special Commission of Inquiry later found, police had fired more than 10,000 rounds in less than 90 minutes at the townhouse, which was occupied by men, women and men. children. Describing the actions of the police as “patently excessive and unreasonable,” the commission report acknowledges that the police have not been able to fully suppress the shooting from the house and that efforts to negotiate with people at the interior were haphazard and unsuccessful.

Police bomb squad members made an improvised bomb from plastic explosives, and an officer dropped a helicopter charge on the roof of the MOVE townhouse in an attempt to destroy a bunker fortified wall that the group had built there. At 5:27 p.m., the bomb exploded, igniting a blaze that police ordered firefighters to let burn. The fire spread, eventually destroying 60 other houses nearby.

“The plan to bomb the MOVE house was reckless, ill-conceived and hastily approved,” according to the commission’s report in 1986. “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unacceptable and should have been rejected out of hand.

“The hasty, reckless and irresponsible decision by the Police Commissioner and the Fire Marshal to use fire as a tactical weapon was unacceptable,” the report added.

The deaths of 11 people, six adults and five children, in the action of the police, were classified as “wrongful killings”.

Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, who directed the aerial bombardment, resigned in November 1985. A grand jury in 1988 cleared Mayor W. Wilson Goode and other senior city officials of criminal responsibility for the death and destruction resulting from the operation.

In an editorial published by The Guardian on May 10, Mr Goode, the former mayor, called on the city to issue a formal apology for the attack. “I apologize and encourage others to do the same,” Mr. Goode wrote. “We will be a better city for this.”

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