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American Ethnic cleansing: The forgotten police bombing of a Philadelphia pro-black group

MOVE is a Philadelphia-based black liberation group founded by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) in 1972. The group lived in a communal setting, abiding by philosophies of anarcho-primitivism.

The group is particularly known for two major conflicts with the Philadelphia Police Department.  In 1985, the confrontation ended when a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the MOVE compound, a row house in the middle of the 6200 block of Osage Avenue, causing a fire that killed eleven MOVE members, including five children, and destroyed 65 houses in the neighborhood.

The three blocks on either side of Osage Avenue following the MOVE bombing and resulting fire.
The three blocks on either side of Osage Avenue following the MOVE bombing and resulting fire.

The majority of houses on this West Philly block are boarded up — doors and windows replaced by thick plywood. Packed together like sardines, it’s easy to imagine how the neighborhood lit up like kindling three decades ago, when first responders watched idly as cops started a fire that would ravage 65 homes and claim the lives of 11 Black activists.

Today, there’s no monument to explain how the City of Brotherly Love bombed its own residents. Beneath the yellow roses and lilac petals strewn by locals to memorialize 6221 Osage Avenue is a relatively forgotten story of tense relations between police and the community it was tasked to serve long before such stories galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.

The moment the bomb dropped
The moment the bomb dropped

It’s a lesson in how tragedy can change a community overnight. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, children would race their bikes down the wide one-way streets, remembers Howard, who still lives on 62nd Street facing Osage. Asking us not to use his last name, the 58-year-old mail-room clerk recalls the grand barbecues families would host on weekends, filling roads with DJs and bouncy castles to celebrate. It was around that time, 1981, when new neighbors took roost in the row house at 6221: “We thought they were just another family that had moved in,” Howard says.

But that wasn’t the case. It was home to around a dozen members of the MOVE Black liberation group founded by Vincent Leaphart, who renamed himself John Africa, encouraging his followers to change their surnames too. They donned dreadlocks and protested police brutality and racism, oftentimes wielding a bullhorn to broadcast their views. “They were outrageous with all their noise, all the cussing, because they wanted us on their side,” says Hazel Taylor, a 71-year-old Black woman who lived — and still lives — across the street. “But the hardest thing was to see those kids: The kids wouldn’t come outside.”

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