Philadelphia's Osage Avenue police bombing, 30 years on: 'This story is a parable'
On 13 May 1985, Philadelphia police moved in to arrest four members of a radical black liberation group called Move – but a bungled raid left 11 people dead. Alan Yuhas revisits the only aerial bombing carried out by police on US soil
Six adults and five children were killed in the raid.
By Alan Yuhas
Alan Yuhas @alanyuhas
Sodden from the spray of fire hoses, terrified by the thousands of bullets fired above and the teargas floating into the cellar below, 13-year-old Michael Ward was hiding under a blanket when a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof of his west Philadelphia home.
The raid killed six adults and five children, destroyed more than 60 homes and left more than 250 people homeless. It stands as the only aerial bombing carried out by police on US soil.
The 30-year anniversary of the bombing of Osage Avenue will be commemorated without Ward, who was one of only two survivors of the disastrous assault. Instead professor Cornel West, author Alice Walker and others will give speeches and protesters will march down the crumbling, mostly abandoned block where the bombing took place, drawing ties between police brutality and institutional racism then and now.
On 13 May 1985, police moved in to arrest four members of a group called Move, a mostly black, radical organization that believed in shedding technology and “manmade law” in favor of “natural law”. After years of antagonism with police, Move had fortified a rowhome on Osage Avenue as their headquarters. They boarded up walls, built a bunker on the roof, and broadcast their anti-police ethos through a bullhorn, night and day.
Neighbors in the predominantly black, middle-class neighborhood complained about the profane tirades and how Move’s children rifled alongside rats through the house’s compost and garbage. Then district attorney Ed Rendell authorized arrest warrants and mayor Wilson Goode sent in police.
“Were we wanted for rape, robbery, murder? No, nothing,” Ramona Africa, the only living Move survivor of that day, told the Guardian. Africa linked the bombing to the recent police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray: “These people that take an oath that swear to protect, save lives – the cops don’t defend poor people, poor white, black, Latino people. They don’t defend us, they kill us.
“All you have to do is look at the rash of police murders and the cops not being held accountable,” she added. “That should really alarm and outrage people, but the thing is that it’s happening today because it wasn’t stopped in ‘85. The only justice that can be done is people seeing this system for what it is.”
Hundreds of officers, several fire trucks and a bomb squad arrived that day, with military-grade weapons in tow. They first tried to flush out the house with firehoses. A team then blew holes in the walls to funnel in teargas, but no one budged.
“Then they just began insanely shooting, over 10,000 rounds of bullets, according to their own estimates,” Africa said. “That didn’t work, and that’s when they dropped the bomb on us, a rowhouse in an urban neighborhood.”
“The story is a parable of sorts; it’s a parable of how the unthinkable comes to happen,” said Jason Osder, the director of the documentary Let the Fire Burn. “It’s a tragedy. In my opinion everyone who was an adult in the city failed that day. Move failed, the police failed, the neighbors failed those children in some ways. Collectively, the whole city failed.”
Osder noted that police still remembered an officer killed in an altercation with Move seven years earlier, and that leadership was unwilling to risk any officer’s life. “Fear is real regardless of how illegitimate it is, and police felt that they are the wounded party.
“And on the other side people have been beaten and arrested, who fear that the justice system is rigged – not an unreasonable thing to think in 1985 or 2015.”
Eventually police tried to break the siege by bombing the bunker, which they feared would allow Move to fire on them with impunity.
“There was a real opportunity there for cooler heads to prevail,” Osder said. “But they decided it needed to be over.”
The bomb missed and started a fire. Africa and Ward – then called Birdie Africa – only fled the cellar an hour or so later when the fire had spread downstairs.
“That’s when we tried to get our children, ourselves, our animals out of that inferno,” she said, “but every time we tried to come out and we were hollering to come out the police opened fire.”
Much of what happened during the assault is disputed, including whether police shot at people who were trying to flee the house, despite the review commission that later investigated the disaster.
Officers have since described the scene as one of surreal chaos. “There’s so much fire and smoke,” former officer Jim Berghaier told Philadelphia Magazine. “We can’t tell what’s gunshots and what’s windows popping.
“It was like fantasy. Like he came out of fire,” Berghaier said, referring to Ward stepping out through the flames barefoot.
Firefighters refrained from dousing the blaze even as it spread to neighbors’ homes, a point that outrages Africa still: “How is it they could pour 40,000lbs of water per minute on us when there was no fire, but when there is fire all of a sudden they can’t use it?”
Since 1985 it’s changed, absolutely. But progress? I don’t know. Keep on it
Taking responsibility for the episode but declining to dole out specific blame, Goode only said “there was a decision to let the fire burn”.
The commission’s final report denounced the city from top to bottom. Police tactics were “grossly negligent” at best, the report found, and outrageous at worst: “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.” Police would not have done so, the commission noted with only one dissenter, “had the Move house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood.”
Africa was convicted on riot charges and served seven years in prison; in 1996 she and other plaintiffs won a total $1.5m settlement from the city. Ward was placed to his father’s custody and died in 2013 after years of therapy for the bombing and his experiences with Move.
The commission recommended grand jury investigations, but no one was ever prosecuted. Goode was re-elected in 1987 and Rendell eventually became mayor. Berghaier quit the force shortly after the raid.
Race, class and the status of police and officials all came into play, Osder said, noting the relatively high proportion of black officers in the force and that Move’s black neighbors despised the group. “It’s absolutely about race every single day of the week,” he said. “But there are other dynamics too. The details matter, and you have to get into them.
“We have echoes of Ferguson and Baltimore and haven’t solved these problems, but every incident is unique. This country is very complicated. It’s certainly better than it was 200 years ago, and than it was 100 years ago. Since 1985 it’s changed, absolutely. But progress? I don’t know. Keep on it.”
A recent Justice Department review of Philadelphia’s use of force – requested by current police commissioner Charles Ramsey in 2013 – found systemic, unresolved deficiencies similar to those analyzed by the Move commission in 1986, said Greg McDonald, the attorney who was deputy director and legal counsel for the commission.
“I was struck how many DoJ recommendations were right out of the assessments from the commission, and not just the police but the city government and services,” McDonald said, listing some shared findings: “Federal authorities supplying military equipment to urban police departments, the lack of preparation and training.
“We’ve got a lot of real tinderboxes in large cities now. Move was certainly not a normal neighborhood problem, but the police reaction to it was so overdone that it reminded me of the way that police actions taking place at a much smaller scale are also overreactions.”