MOVE Philadelphia Bombing History and Fallout

When Philadelphia was Called ‘The City that Bombed Itself’

Smoke Rising from Destroyed Homes in Philadelphia
Smoke Rising from Destroyed Homes in Philadelphia After MOVE Bombing.

Getty Images/Bettmann

On Monday, May 13, 1985, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter dropped two bombs on a Philadelphia house where members of the MOVE black liberation organization lived. The resulting fire grew out of control, resulting in the deaths of 11 people, including five children, and the destruction of 65 area homes. An independent investigation of the event heaped criticism on the city’s administration and at least for a time earned Philadelphia an unwanted reputation as “the city that bombed itself.” 

Fast Facts: MOVE Bombing

Short Description: Philadelphia police bomb the home of the MOVE black liberation organization, killing 11 and destroying dozens of homes.

Location: 6221 Osage Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Key Players/Participants:

  • John Africa (Vincent Leaphart), founder of MOVE
  • James J. Ramp, Philadelphia Police officer killed in a 1978 shootout with MOVE members
  • Wilson Goode, Mayor of Philadelphia at time of the bombing
  • Gregore Sambor, Philadelphia Police Commissioner
  • Ramona Africa, sole adult MOVE member to survive the bombing

Event Date: Monday, May 13, 1985

Other Significant Dates:

  • August 8, 1978: Shootout between police and MOVE members
  • March 6, 1986: Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission issues report finding Philadelphia officials at fault

About MOVE and John Africa

MOVE is a Philadelphia-based black liberation group founded in 1972 by John Africa, the assumed name of Vincent Leaphart. Not an acronym, the group’s name, MOVE, was chosen by John Africa to reflect the group’s true intentions. Living in a communal arrangement and often associated with the Black Power movement, MOVE mixes the beliefs of black nationalismPan-Africanism, and anarcho-primitivism in advocating for the return to a hunter-gatherer society devoid of modern technology and medicine. Originally called the Christian Movement for Life, MOVE, as it did in 1972, identifies itself as being deeply religious and devoted to a belief in the independence and ethical treatment of all living creatures. “Everything that's alive moves. If it didn't, it would be stagnant, dead,” states MOVE’s founding charter, “The Guidelines,” created by John Africa.

Like many of his contemporaries, the charismatic John Africa wore his hair in dreadlocks in keeping with the Caribbean Rastafari religion. In a show of loyalty to what they considered their true home, his followers also chose to change their last names to “Africa.”

In 1978, most of MOVE’s members had moved into a row house in the predominately African-American Powelton Village area of West Philadelphia. It was here that the group’s numerous loud public demonstrations for racial justice and animal rights angered their neighbors and ultimately led to violent confrontations with Philadelphia police.

The 1978 Shootout and the Move 9

In 1977, complaints from neighbors about MOVE’s lifestyle and bullhorn-amplified protests had led the police to obtain a court order requiring the group to vacate their Powelton Village compound. When informed of the order, MOVE members agreed to turn in their firearms and leave peacefully if their members arrested during the demonstrations were first released from jail. While the police complied with the demand, MOVE refused to vacate their house or give up their weapons. Nearly a year later, the standoff took a violent turn.

On August 8, 1978, when police arrived at the MOVE compound to execute the court order, a shootout erupted during which Philadelphia Police Officer James J. Ramp was fatally shot in the back of his neck. MOVE denied responsibility for Officer Ramp’s death, claiming that although he was shot in the back of the neck he had been facing their house at the time. During the nearly hour-long standoff, five firefighters, seven police officers, three MOVE members, and three bystanders were also injured.

Since known as the MOVE Nine, MOVE members Merle, Phil, Chuck, Michael, Debbie, Janet, Janine, Delbert, and Eddie Africa were convicted of third-degree murder in the death of Officer Ramp. Sentenced to up to 100 years in jail, they were all denied parole in 2008.

MOVE Recovers and Relocates

By 1981, MOVE had recovered from the 1978 shootout and relocated its growing membership into a house at 6221 Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek, a predominantly African American middle-class subdivision in West Philadelphia. After turning the home into a virtually bulletproof fortress, MOVE began blasting profanity-laced messages and demands through bullhorns 24 hours a day. The group further disrupted the neighborhood by keeping a menagerie of animals—from dogs and cats to wild rats—around the house, leading to complaints about sanitation and health risks. Neighbors complained to police that they had been verbally and physically assaulted by MOVE members, and police reported that children living in the house were not allowed to attend school.

The 1985 Bombing

On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode dispatched police to execute warrants for the arrest of all residents of the MOVE compound.

Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode at a press conference to discuss the aftermath of the bomb and fire that destroyed the MOVE house
Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode at a press conference to discuss the aftermath of the bomb. Getty Images/Leif Skoogfors

When the police arrived, MOVE members refused to respond to their demands to enter the home or to allow the children to come outside. Despite the presence of children, Mayor Goode and Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor decided the situation warranted the use of “military-grade weapons” and extreme physical force as required. “Attention MOVE: This is America!” police warned over loudspeakers.

After initial attacks with water barrages from fire hoses and tear gas explosions failed to drive MOVE members from the house, shooting broke out. At the height of the firefight, a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter flew over the house dropping two small “entry device” bombs made of FBI-supplied water gel explosive in an attempt to destroy MOVE’s rooftop bunker. Fed by gasoline stored in the house, a small fire caused by the bombs grew quickly. Rather than risk having firefighters caught in the ongoing crossfire, police officials decided to allow the fire to burn out. Instead of going out harmlessly, the fire spread throughout the neighborhood, destroying more than sixty homes and leaving at least 250 Philadelphians homeless.

Along with the destruction of a residential neighborhood, the MOVE bombing resulted in the deaths of six adults—including MOVE founder John Africa—and five children inside the home. Ramona Africa and 13-year-old Birdie Africa were the only two MOVE members to survive the incident. 

Select Commission Finds City at Fault

With most of the attack covered on live television, many people in Philadelphia and across the nation questioned the decisions made by Mayor Goode and police officials. On March 6, 1986, an independent Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission appointed by Goode issued a report finding that police had used “grossly negligent” tactics in committing an “unconscionable” act by “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house.” The report was highlighted by two telling findings:

“The city administration discounted negotiation as a method of resolving the problem. Any attempted negotiations were haphazard and uncoordinated.”

“The Mayor's failure to call a halt to the operation on May 12, when he knew that children were in the house, was grossly negligent and clearly risked the lives of those children.”

The commission further found that the police would have been unlikely to use similar tactics in a white neighborhood. Despite the commission’s request for a grand jury investigation, no prosecutions resulted and Mayor Goode was reelected in 1987.

The Aftermath of the Bombing

Ramona Africa, the only adult MOVE member to survive the bombing, was convicted of rioting and conspiracy and served seven years in prison. In 1996, a federal jury awarded Ramona Africa and the relatives of two people killed in the bombing a total of $1.5 million in damages in a civil suit judgment. The jury also found that Philadelphia officials had authorized the use of excessive force and had violated MOVE members’ 4th Amendment constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Ramona Africa (R), the lone survivor of the 1985 MOVE tragedy, hugs Denise Garner (L) during a commemorative march in 2005
Ramona Africa (R), the lone adult survivor of the 1985 MOVE tragedy, hugs Denise Garner (L) during a commemorative march in 2005. Getty Images/William Thomas Cain

The New York Times reported that the City of Philadelphia also paid over $27.3 million in legal fees and the cost of rebuilding the houses destroyed in the bombing. In addition, the MOVE group itself was paid $2.5 million to settle wrongful death suits brought on behalf of the five children who died.

In 2016, Ramona Africa, who continues to serve as spokesperson for MOVE, tied the group to the Black Lives Matter movement, asserting that cases of brutality in the police killings of black men throughout the U.S. are “happening today because it wasn’t stopped in ’85.”

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