The Bombing of Philadelphia

On May 13, 1985 state police dropped a bomb on 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. Eleven people, including five children, were killed. The resulting fire spread to neighborhing houses, destroying 61 homes and leaving nearly 250 people homeless.

This was the day that Philadelphia bombed itself.

In a New York Times article which ran a few days later, area resident Steve Harmon commented ”Drop a bomb on a residential area? I never in my life heard of that. It’s like Vietnam.”

Of course, there’s a dark irony in this shock. Killing civilians? That’s what we’re supposed to do overseas, not to our own people.

The Times similarly reported that onlookers “were shocked by the devastation of an area whose residents –teachers, nurses, civil servants, factory workers — were known for their flower gardens and congenial block parties. Ronald Merriweather, whose home escaped damage, looked at the smouldering ruins of other houses and said, ‘It looks just like a war zone. The neighborhood was here and now it’s gone.’ Families that had evacuated supposedly for a day found themselves refugees…”

The bombing targeted the MOVE, a black liberation group who’d had numerous problems with police and neighbors.  In 1978, police officer James Ramp was killed in a shootout between police and MOVE members. The nine MOVE members later convicted for this murder maintained that Ramp was killed by friendly fire.

Police made the decision to drop a bomb on the residential building following a 90-minute shootout which came after “a week of growing tension between the city and the group, known as Move. Residents in the western Philadelphia neighborhood had complained about the group for years.”

The extent of the devastation came largely because once the fire broke out, officials waited 30 minutes before dispatching fire control teams to respond. They’d been hoping the fire would create an opening in the roof of the MOVE building, through which police planned to drop more tear gas.

In an NPR piece, Sociologist Robin Wagner-Pacifici argued that the bombing of Philadelphia has largely been forgotten for ideological reasons: “MOVE’s quasi-Rastafarian, anti-technology, pro-animal-rights worldview doesn’t neatly fit on any part of the political spectrum, while other militant groups she has studied had some degree of overlap. And you can’t lump MOVE in with other black power movements of the time, either; black radical groups often bristled at their tactics.”

That is, people remember incidents in Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho because those movements fit into a broader narrative – a sort of mainstream extremism.

Of course, the people killed there were also white.

But more broadly, it seems that we quickly forget our own trespasses – abroad and domestically. In 1894, thirty-four people were killed in Chicago when the National Guard was called in to quelled the Pullman Strike. So as appalling as it may sound, it is somehow not surprising that state police in Philadelphia decided to bomb a residential neighborhood some 100 years later.

How little we learn.

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