WORLD

‘Attention, MOVE. This is America’

Marci McDonald May 27 1985
WORLD

‘Attention, MOVE. This is America’

Marci McDonald May 27 1985

‘Attention, MOVE. This is America’

WORLD

Marci McDonald

By any standard, the residents of the red-brick rowhouse at 6221 Osage Ave. in West Philadelphia were troublesome neighbors. Spouting a doctrine of anarchy, they sported dreadlocks, kept their children naked and left human feces and garbage rotting in their yard, where rats and wild dogs roamed amid the stench. All night a rooftop loudspeaker broadcast their harangues, peppered with threats and profanities. By day they transformed the narrow two-storey house into an armed fortress. For more than two years Earl Watkins, a retired airport custodian, and other homeowners on the neat, black working-class block had begged city officials to take action against the group which called itself Move—a name that apparently stood for nothing. But when that action finally came last week, it swiftly turned a neighborhood nuisance into a bizarre American tragedy.

In a predawn strike, hundreds of policemen surrounded the evacuated city

block as city Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor warned over a bullhorn: “Attention, Move. This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States.” Then, after an 80-minute morning gun battle and a three-hour pummelling by fire department water cannons had failed to rout the group, Sambor stepped up the attack.

From a state police traffic helicopter, his team dropped a canvas satchel containing two onepound charges of Tovex—a TNT-related blasting agent used in mining—on Move’s rooftop bunker.

As evacuated residents looked on in disbelief, the bomb triggered a sixalarm fire—the worst in the city’s history—that reduced most of two tree-lined blocks to smouldering rubble. The $5-million toll: 53 houses destroyed, 250 homeless and at least 11 Move members dead, four of them chil-

dren. Firemen were still unearthing their fragmented corpses from the ashes 48 hours later. “We wanted action but we never expected this,” said Watkins, 73, surveying the blackened skeleton of his home of 27 years. “All I’ve got left are the clothes on my back.” Beside him, his son, Alden, an unemployed photographer, broke down and wept.

Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode swiftly took responsibility for the tragedy, admitting police strategy “did not turn out as intended” and conceding that he would have vetoed the use of an explosive charge had he known that gasoline was stored inside the house. But as the Red Cross set up shelters for the homeless in a nearby church basement, the police tactics sparked questions about the miscalculations that had turned an eviction measure into a night-

mare of urban warfare.

The incident was the second violent confrontation between Philadelphia and Move, a local band of revolutionaries founded in 1972 by Vincent Leaphart, a handyman with a third-grade education. Spurning modern technology, bureaucracy and hygiene, Leaphart called himself John Africa and prompted his disciples to adopt the same surname. He urged them to renounce cooked food, schooling and even electricity, although Move’s Osage Avenue loudspeaker was electrically powered and the group had accumulated utility bills worth hundreds of dollars. In August, 1978, a prolonged attempt to evict the group from another house five kilometres away resulted in a shootout which killed Officer James Ramp and injured 12 other police and firemen. Nine Move members were later convicted of Ramp’s murder and sentenced to terms ranging from 30 to 100 years. Last week, in three days of fruitless negotiations with the city, Move leaders had demanded the release of their jailed colleagues as the condition for ending their siege. When the city refused, Move threatened to blow up the entire block. That risk, Goode maintained, justified

the police strike. Said the mayor: “We should not permit any one group to hold an entire city hostage.”

Move members still occupy two other houses not far from Osage Avenue. And one of their tenants, who calls himself Jerry Africa, warned, “This confrontation has not stopped just because the whole neighborhood burned down.” Indeed, some observers agreed that Move was already ahead. Said Carmen Davis, a bitter Osage Avenue resident: “The Move people won. They said they would take the whole block down with them and they did.”

The incident was a serious setback for Goode, Philadelphia’s first black mayor and a former administrator. A cautious conciliator, Goode, 46, had worked to restore % the reputation of the City § of Brotherly Love—the £ fifth-largest city in the g United States. He had also succeeded in curbing s the excesses of a whitedominated police department known for its corruption, racism and shoot-first policies. But last week, as mobs of black youths taunted police with cries of “murderer” and white journalists were escorted out of the area, critics compiled a series of probing questions about the city’s handling of

the Osage Avenue siege: why Goode waited so long to act against Move; why police had not used more conventional tactics, such as an armored personnel carrier to smash into the house instead of dropping a bomb on a site that intelligence could have revealed was stocked with gasoline; and why firemen—who emptied 640,000 gallons attempting to penetrate the rooftop bunker with water cannons—waited at least an hour before moving in to contain the blaze. Said Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the American Federation of Police: “They broke every rule in the book.” Other officials agreed, including New York’s voluble Mayor Ed Koch, who labelled Philadelphia’s police tactics “stupid.” Replied Goode in response: “Let him run his city. I’ll run mine.” But despite the criticisms, most Philadelphians supported their mayor. A local poll showed that 61 per cent of Philadelphians approved of his actions. In a series of pained press conferences, Goode blamed the fire on the fact that Move had doused the house with gasoline and noted that firemen were in danger from sniper fire. While the mayor announced a commission to investigate the entire incident and promised to rebuild the block by Christmas, the homeless filed a class-action suit against the city. Warned one victim: “The compensation had better come fast or things could turn