Twenty Years on...
There have been news reports this week (NPR had a pretty good story
) about the 20 years that have passed since Philadelphia police attempted to evict the group MOVE from a rowhouse in a neighborhood called Cobb's Creek. [NOTE: MOVE is often described as a 'back to nature' group or a 'radical group.' Having spent a lot of time with some of its members, it had all the attributes of a cult built around the beliefs of a barely literate man named John Africa who preached a bizarre, polyglot stew of beliefs, rules, leftist anti-establishment mumbo jumbo and other stuff. The leaders of the group could be alternatively charming, persuasive and threatening to outsiders (I received calls at home a few times). By some accounts, being an insider was even more challenging.]
Instead, the police action turned into a monumental disaster: 11 people, including children, were killed in the MOVE house, 61 homes in the middle class neighborhood were burned in a roaring inferno, and the scars have yet to heal. Photos and coverage (reg. required) at The Philadelphia Inquirer
I was there and have endured years of memories, nightmares and all sorts of trauamtic maladies. But my issues are the least of what happened that day.
Based on what I saw and what transpired, I believe that the police came to Osage Avenue that week prepared to kill everyone in the house if that's what it took to finally put an end to MOVE. Mayor Wilson Goode and his managing director Leo Brooks (who had, ironically, played a role in the secret bombing of Cambodia) were weak leaders and managers and the Commission that investigated the tragedy concluded that Goode "abdicated his responsibility' as a leader in failing to oversee what the police were doing.
The planning, command and control and tactics were woefully poor. And that's why, after week's of surveillance, when the plan fell apart, the city resorted to dropping an improvised C4 bomb
on the roof of the rowhouse to remove one of two bunkers there. (The bombing involved government at a number of levels: the city police, a state police helicopter and crew, and the use of a military explosive available to the National Guard and the US Army and, based on a couple calls I got, from the FBI.) The bomb failed to do it.
But the fire it started spelled 'opportunity' to the police. The order was given to 'Let the Fire Burn;' fire trucks in the area were kept at bay with their hoses off for 45 minutes. Too late did officials realize that once one rowhouse catches fire--they all will. And they did.
That night, you could feel the heat like a blast furnace from two blocks away. On that hot, humid evening the red flames blazed red and yellow hot against the sky as home after home was consumed. By then, around 9 PM, the fire trucks were lamely pumping streams of water.
The scene of the disaster was still smoking two days afterward. Two people made it out alive: Ramona Africa and a young boy named Birdie Africa.
Given what has happened in subsequent years at Ruby Ridge, Waco with the Davidians, I still don't think we know what to do with people and groups that are committed to dying in the name of their beliefs.