30th commemoration of MOVE bombing unites anti-police brutality forces

WW photo: Joseph Piette

WW photo: Joseph Piette

Right near the site where, about 30 years earlier, Philadelphia authorities had authorized the dropping of a bomb from a State Police helicopter on the MOVE compound, around 1,000 people rallied this May 13.

The bomb contained military grade C-4. The resulting fire destroyed 62 homes in the Black working-class neighborhood near 63rd Street and Osage Avenue, killing 11 men, women and children in the MOVE organization.

Before the fire ignited, over 500 police had fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the MOVE home in a racist onslaught against this Black urban community. This blatant act of police brutality, fully supported by public officials and white-washed by the MOVE Commission, set back the fight against police terror in Philadelphia for decades.

In the 1970s, following state prosecution of the Black Panther Party, the MOVE organization had become the dominant anti-police brutality group in this historically Black city. Nine MOVE members were sentenced to 30 years in prison after a months-long standoff against a police assault on their Powelton Village compound ended in 1978 when a police officer was killed — most likely by “friendly fire.”

Former BPP member and prominent journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal covered this conflict, frequently coming into open conflict with then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo. Activists like Abu-Jamal who spoke out against police corruption and violence ended up targeted as well. In 1982 Abu-Jamal was framed for murder by police and court officials and sentenced to death row.

Solidarity with Baltimore youth rebellion

For Philadelphia the movement against police brutality has come full circle. The 30th anniversary observation of the 1985 MOVE bombing was markedly different from earlier events. It united an historic struggle against police brutality led by MOVE with the emerging and youthful Black Lives Matter movement.

Participants included three generations of MOVE members marching side by side with anti-police brutality activists from Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Boston and North Carolina. Many carried banners naming victims of police brutality, including Freddie Grey, Rekia Boyd, Brandon-Tate Brown, Frank McQueen, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as the MOVE 9.

Speakers at the rally expressed solidarity with the rebellion of Black youth in Baltimore in the wake of the murder of Grey, who died April 19 after his spinal cord was severed by police. At a rally outside a police station, a solidarity message was delivered to demonstrators in Madison, who were marching there to protest the May 12 decision not to file charges against police officers who murdered Tony Robinson on March 6.

Participants also included low-wage workers fighting for $15 and a union, members of the Philadelphia Student Union fighting against school closing and education cuts, and Osage Avenue neighbors engaged in a 30-year struggle to save their community.

After the rally, a spirited march wound through West Philadelphia, stopping for a speak-out at a police precinct. Some ran the 3-mile route, others rode bicycles or walked.

The bicyclists and runners acted like Paul Revere, telling people that a march was coming. A caravan of cars bearing the names of the MOVE adults and children murdered by the state on May 13, 1985, followed the marchers.

Students at a middle school and two high schools, as well as people on porches or standing outside stores in commercial districts, cheered as the march passed. Some joined in.

Indoor event draws 1,700

A late-afternoon indoor rally at the First District Plaza on Market Street drew over 1,700 people; extra chairs had to be added. Photos of the 11 who died were arrayed on stage next to the message, “Never let it happen again.”

Messages of solidarity were delivered by video conference from Angela Davis, Alice Walker and Minister Louis Farrakhan.  Imprisoned MOVE 9 member Janine Africa called in, and a radio interview was aired from Mumia Abu-Jamal, currently hospitalized. Several speakers addressed the state’s latest attempt to murder Abu-Jamal through medical mistreatment and demanded his release from prison.

Rally speakers included Pam Africa, Cornel West, Michael Coard, Gloria Rubac, Amina Baraka, Suzanne Ross, Johanna Fernandez and Ramona Africa, the lone survivor of the bombing. Rebel Diaz, Chuck D, Impact Theater and the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble provided entertainment.

Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School, brought students and staff to the program, noting, “We must teach the younger generation. We should never forget what happened.” Two long-time Osage Avenue residents, Connie Renfrow and Gerald Renfrow, voiced concern over attempts to gentrify their neighborhood and push people out of their homes.

Several speakers urged continuing the struggle to free all political prisoners, including Abu-Jamal and the remaining members of the MOVE 9, who still languish in Pennsylvania prisons, unable to gain parole. Two of the MOVE 9, Merle Africa and Phil Africa, have died under mysterious circumstances while incarcerated.