Philadelphia loves to brag about it’s ‘Firsts,’ citing such notable things as the nation’s first capital (1774), America’s first zoo (1874) and the birthplace of the world’s first digital computer ENIAC (1946).
There is one ‘First’ that will never appear in slick tourist handouts from the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau though, and that’s the city’s first air raid on May 13, 1985, when the city deliberately bombed an occupied house containing children, sparking a deadly firestorm.
A bomb dropped on an American city by that city’s own police force?
Yes, a bomb made with hi-explosive military C-4 and powerful Tovex dropped by Philadelphia police from a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter onto the roof of 6221 Osage Ave., located in West Philadelphia just blocks from the University of Pennsylvania – considered America’s ‘First’ university.
That 5:27PM bombing ignited a small fire that grew steadily because of an unconscionable decision by Philadelphia’s then Police Commissioner, Greg Sambor.
The commissioner ordered arriving firefighters not to fight the spreading blaze, telling them to “let the fire burn” because he wanted to use the flames as a “tactical weapon” to drive out persons barricaded inside the bombed house.
Over three hours later, when firefighters finally received permission to attack this blaze with hoses, it had become a raging inferno that gutted 61 homes – including the entire 6200 block of Osage Ave. – leaving 250 homeless and killing 11 people in the original bombed house, five of them children ranging in ages from 7-to-14-years-old.
All of the fatalities – adults and children – were members of MOVE, a radical organization that had waged a series of often violent confrontations with Philadelphia city officials for over a decade.
During the 1970s and early 1980s MOVE was an offensively confrontational group.
The group had fortified 6221 Osage Ave. as part of their strategy to win release of nine imprisoned members they felt authorities had unjustly convicted for a fatal 1978 shootout with police.
The March 1986 report from the MOVE Commission established by Philadelphia’s then mayor to probe the 5/13/85 bombing declared that MOVE had “held Osage Avenue “hostage” for nearly two years [through a] deliberate use of terror…violent acts against their own neighbors.”
The flash point for that series of confrontations, however, was rampant brutality by Philadelphia police.
In 1973, months after MOVE first surfaced publicly, a federal judge issued a ruling in a class-action lawsuit on brutality, unrelated to MOVE, where he stated that violence by Philadelphia police – from physical assaults to fatal shootings – occurred with such frequency it could not “be dismissed as rare, isolated incidents.”
Typically though, Philadelphia’s body politic dismissed the televised police brutality on May 13th as an isolated incident precipitated by MOVE’s intransigence.
Historically, Philadelphia has treated its police brutality problem as isolated and unfortunate incidents instead of as an endemic scourge of officers indiscriminately pummeling lawbreakers and the law-abiding alike.
During the 1970s, under the infamous reign of police commissioner-turned-Mayor Frank Rizzo, police brutality reached such outlandish levels that the U.S. Justice Department filed an unprecedented lawsuit in 1979 charging Rizzo and other top city officials with sanctioing police abuse.
That federal lawsuit was another disturbing ‘First’ for Philadelphia…and a ‘First’ for any other city in America.
Police brutality directed at MOVE during the 1970s culminated in an August 8, 1978 shootout where a policeman was slain, quite possibly by fire from other officers.
On May 13, 1985, several hours before the late fatal bombing, Philadelphia police engaged in a lopsided 90-minute shootout with barricaded MOVE members after trying to serve arrest warrants. Police fired an astonishing 10,000 rounds of ammunition into that house while enforcing warrants that named only three MOVE members for misdemeanor charges.
Police Commissioner Sambor launched that early morning assault by bellowing into a bullhorn: “Attention MOVE. This is America. You must obey the laws of the United States.”
During the firefight Philadelphia police recorded another ‘First’: the extensive use of an array of military weapons, including two M-60 machine guns, on a house known to contain small children.
Commissioner Sambor considered the children “combatants” – terminology hauntingly similar to President Bush’s Terror War term of “enemy combatants,” and its application in Iraq and Afghanistan to youths as young as 11 and 12.
Also during that morning firefight, police used hi-explosive charges on the street level of 6221 Osage to rescue officers who, ironically, were trapped by a hail of gunfire from fellow policemen. Those morning blasts virtually blew off the front of 6221.
Incredibly, Sambor later justified dropping the bomb by claiming it would enable police to safely access the roof of 6221 to pump tear gas into the house to flush out the barricaded occupants.
But those morning blasts heavily damaging 6221 had already provided plenty of openings where police could have easily fired tear gas grenades in the afternoon, thus rendering the bombing tactically unnecessary – a salient detail ignored by grand juries and mainstream journalists.
“May 13th is much more than a day of infamy. The city committed a massacre and did it with impunity,” stated Mumia Abu-Jamal, in a taped commentary specially prepared for a remembrance of the bombing staged by MOVE on May 12, 2009. Abu-Jamal is the internationally celebrated Philadelphia death-row journalist who is a longtime MOVE supporter.
At the 25-year mark of this ugly historic ‘First’ many in Philadelphian and beyond still cannot (or will not) bring themselves to see 5/13/85 for what it actually was: an act of lawlessness by law enforcers – both police and civilian city officials.
This blindness is obvious in the verbiage still used today.
Echoing Commissioner Sambor’s defiant rhetorical spin in 1985 calling that bomb an “entry device” instead of the bomb it was, today’s journalists, for example, refer to that deliberate and fatal mayhem by government officials as a “tragedy” and/or a “disaster.”
Yet as Philadelphia-area media critic and founder of the This Can’t Be Happening blog Dave Lindorff perceptively notes: the media’s misuse of language about this incident deserves criticism.
“It’s a tragedy or a disaster when a fire or a tornado destroys a home and children die,” Lindorff observed. “But when police bomb that building and killed children they knew were in it, it’s not a tragedy. It’s an atrocity.”
This failure of politicians, police and the media to use accurate language parallels failures of accountability, failures to enforce laws equitably, and failures that precipitated the clashes between MOVE and city officials. Meanwhile, a general lack of accountability and equitable enforcement of laws, remain pervasive in Philadelphia and indeed across America.
A driving force behind the years-long confrontations between MOVE and Philadelphia’ city officials was the organization’s belief that authorities consistently subjected its members to double standards of justice that quickly penalized them for any infraction but failed to punish law enforcement personnel for acts of brutality.
In fact, not a single city official or police officer has ever faced any criminal charges for their outrageous actions on May 13, 1985 despite the MOVE Commission, formally known as the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, calling the deaths of those five children “unjustified homicides.”
A federal grand jury, controlled by Reagan Administration prosecutors, found no civil rights law violations in the violent deaths of those children, despite the PSIC report including the finding that “Police gunfire prevented some occupants of 6221 Osage Ave. from escaping from the burning house to the rear alley.”
Even two police officers caught lying to a Philadelphia grand jury about their May 13th roles were not charged with perjury. The FBI agent who surreptitiously supplied the C4 explosive to Philadelphia police months before the bombing also escaped any penalty.
The local grand jury weaseled its way around having to file charges.
For example, the grand jury cleared the bomb-authorizing/let-it-burn police commissioner by claiming he lacked “any criminal intent,” despite prosecutors knowing that laws like recklessly endangering another person and risking a catastrophe require no showing of criminal intent.
It takes gross intellectual dishonesty to contend that destroying the homes and life possessions of 250 hard-working people with an avoidable firestorm does not meet the definition of catastrophe.
That failure of local and federal prosecutors to enforce accountability is the “impunity” to which Abu-Jamal refers.
While Philadelphia prosecutors would not hold city personnel accountable, they quickly arrested, tried and imprisoned the only MOVE adult to escape that inferno. Ramona Africa served every single day of her seven-year sentence for riot, spurning early release conditioned on her renouncing all affiliations with MOVE.
The Philly DA’s Office continues fighting parole for the eight MOVE members still imprisoned for that 1978 shooting despite their eligibility for release after serving more than 30-years in prison for third-degree murder sentences. Pennsylvania’s Parole Board includes that Philadelphia DA who has consistently opposed parole release for the MOVE members, including the imprisoned women.
The Board’s denial includes other perverse rationales like “Your refusal to accept responsibility for the offenses” and “Your lack of remorse for the offenses.”
The four imprisoned MOVE women did not participate in the 1978 firefight, according to police testimony during their trial. Yet the Parole Board still demands that they accept responsibility for something they didn’t do…other than being there, which authorities bootstrapped into conspiracy charges.
The Parole Board’s roadblocks to release, Ramona Africa charges, represent yet more repression against MOVE.
Police brutality – enabled by prosecutors and judges – is a systemic problem in Philadelphia.
In February 1981 a Philadelphia judge acquitted three policemen charged with brutally kicking and stomping an unarmed, surrendering MOVE member during that fatal 1978 shootout.
While that judge conceded those officers “did use excessive force” in their assault, which was also captured by TV news cameras – in another Philly ‘First’ – the judge nonetheless ruled that unlawful force was justified, asserting, ludicrously, that the three armed officers were protecting themselves.
And as recently as last summer a Philadelphia grand jury refused to bring charges against policemen captured by a TV news helicopter brutally beating three black men in May 2008. The jury’s report, written by Philadelphia prosecutors, claimed in part that the unarmed trio “…posed a serious danger, at least in the minds of the officers…”
Prosecutors portrayed the victimized trio as resisting arrest because they used their hands to shield their faces from police kicks. If that trio had only ceased their “stubborn and sustained resistance,” the grand jury report laughably asserted, then police wouldn’t have had to use any force.
Weeks after that 2008 televised beating, a federal jury awarded $10-million to three (white) former Philadelphia policemen driven from the Police Department for criticizing racism directed at black officers and citizens.
Philadelphia Police officials played pivotal roles in the vicious pulic campaign against that trio for their opposing racial bigotry, and City Hall continues efforts to reverse that 2008 jury award.
Police officials also played pivotal roles in the vicious campaigns that drove two policemen from the Department following the 1985 bombing with orchestrated harassment: a detective whose investigation confirmed police shooting at MOVE members fleeing the fire and the officer who saved a MOVE child fleeing the fire.
PSIC member attorney Charles Bowser observed in his concurrence to the Commission’s 1986 report: “Our social order was profoundly tested on May 13, 1985, and I must conclude that we did not pass the test.”
Twenty-five years after the 5/13/85 debacle, the continued casual acceptance of police brutality and lack of accountability among governmental officials only amplifies Bowser’s observations about society failing the test of fairness.