Now Cough

Sunday, May 09, 2010

25 Years Later

Today is my birthday and it is also Mother's Day.

I had forgotten this week marks another anniversary: the 25th anniversary (not by date, but by day) of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in 1985. 

I was there, for some of it. Hundreds of people were and many more so much closer to the tragedy than me: not the least of which the MOVE members who I had met during a long trial in 1982, many of whom died in the subsequent fire.

For me that muggy morning began with the phone call that woke me from a deep sleep. And then sound: an anxious Morning Edition host telling me of the police confrontation; the sound of helicopters in the vicinity. And the instant wakefulness of realizing instantly how dangerous the day would be.

But I was completely unprepared for what was to come.

I had to decide in those first few moments who on my small staff would join me going into the story. My choice was selfish and quick: I would select someone who was not in a relationship, in case things turned very bad. I called Bob, a single African American member of my staff and I asked him to pick me up right away. 

We parked blocks from the police barricades. 

To this day I remember the last normal thing I saw, the last images before my life changed forever: an old black man sweeping his walk, a morning routine for him, and the patient swish-swish of the broom as Bob and I ran past, our tape recorder bags thumping on our hips. 

It was humid. There were green trees. 

And then we turned a corner and there were hundreds of people outside much too early in the day, talking and pushing and trying to see beyond the police lines. Over all the row homes and one block beyond was 6221 Osage Avenue where the police had tried to compel members of MOVE to leave their barricaded, rotten house.

It had all gone to hell: a botched police raid that would, in the hours ahead, go from bungled operation to a horrible cauldron of destruction. 

I banged on the door of a house and pushed my way in, begging to use the phone to file a story. There was a threadbare living room, a worn sofa, a deep freezer in the living room, and a small child watching TV with a live broadcast of the scene just outside. I grabbed the phone and tried to file a story, but the engineer at the station had no idea how to get me on live. It was incredibly frustrating: the noise of the crowd outside; the TV images; the child toddling around; and a woman upstairs yelling at me and asking what I was doing. I recorded a story and left.

On the street, hundreds of police, police vans, weapons, walkie talkies, hundreds of people on stoops yelling and pointing. I found Bob and a reporter from one of the urban format stations. Barbara and I often saw each other at City Hall; we made chit chat and then the loudest machine gun I have ever heard went off. It spat violence, its echo reverberating  -- was it shooting at us? At others? Without even thinking Barbara and I dropped and I remember hugging the tire of a car. I was holding it so tightly I got tire filth on my hands and my shirt. I looked around: people in the neighborhood were just standing there as if nothing had happened. Those sorts of sounds must have been part of their familiar; it was not mine. 

Bob and I walked half a block and I tried to get into a phone booth to file another story, but the phone was dead. I walk to another booth and a plain clothes officer with a shiny, round security button on his lapel waved me away. He wore aviator sunglasses and had a curly wire from his ear. I realized then that the police had cut the phone service.

As Bob and I were taking, watching the scene police surged and pushed us and others back and police cruiser raced into a side street, its trunk lid popping open before the vehicle came to a halt. The trunk was packed full of boxes of ammunition.

For 25 years that image comes back again and again: the moving the car, the popping trunk, the open boxes of ammo and large arms reaching in and pulling them out. Portending death. The scene plays in a loop: car, trunk lid, opening,, trunk lid, opening, ammo...

I looked at Bob and said 'Follow me and stay low...' and we ran for two blocks, ducking down at the sound of gunfire. We headed directly west to Cobbs Creek Parkway, the western edge of this scene: a wider boulevard that bordered a park by the same name. We then walked south, by houses and such until I saw a number of people including a reporter I knew - Mike -- crouched behind a hedge. Police vehicles were everywhere. Mike had reported from Lebanon and he whispered to me "This is much more dangerous than Beirut."

As he spoke, we watched a tall, young man with dredlocks slowly walking toward us, down the middle of the street. He had on a grimy long trenchcoat like a duster; it was fully buttoned, despite the morning heat and humidity. Everything went quiet: we all stopped talking and watched his every step. Police officers stopped talking. All eyes were on this guy and we all thought the same thing: there is a gun under that coat. How long til he shoots or one of these cops gets trigger happy?

Step, step, step. Slowly, slowly. I really thought this is where it could end.

He passed us without incident and we exhaled and looked at each other: 'Was that guy NUTS?' 

The rest of what happened is a blur: I gave Bob some instructions, my tape recorder, some batteries, made sure he was as safe as could be and just told him to gather tape, keep his head and witness everything he could and take good notes. I also told him to find a way to check in.

I don't know how I got back to the radio station. I remember thinking how chaotic everything felt; how this was far from over and how the hell to structure the story with so many possible angles and so many hours left before our broadcast at 6:30PM. 

All of what I had seen might be worth nothing by then: the whole story could change in an instant. And I was faced with trying to arrange to keep stories flowing to NPR. Plus, deciding who next on my staff would have to go into that terrible mess.


The day was insane. Everyday producing a news show has that element, but this was unusual. Mentally, I felt very fragile: I had at least one reporter our there, and a story rolling and changing every hour. How, how, how to make this coherent?

The phone rang: it was an FBI agent. He wanted some information from the scene and oddly---expected we would help. To this day I don't recall what, but I remember thinking it was so peculiar and out of line. But it worried me then; why were the feds involved in a local police action? Was there a role they were playing that no one else knew?


One hour to air: I am typing and editing and racing back and forth as the production engineer is taking in audio from the field. The small TV is on in my office: and at 5:30, the CBS affiliate shows a bomb being dropped on the top of the MOVE house: a helicopter, a sack with a fuse and then a sharp BANG. And then, slowly, faintly...smoke starts swirling from the roof of the house.

The phone rings: Dave calls from City Hall. "Did you see that?" 

Somehow, the show is coming together. And with 30 minutes to air, the fire has begun: the fire that started on the top of the MOVE house is now spreading.

Dave does a masterful job of rolling with audio from a just-concluded press conference; the entire staff pulls off a miracle. After I get off the air from hosting this monster, I walk to office and collapse for a moment in my chair. My head is spinning.  " Now, what?" We have another disaster on our hands. And an exhausted and anxious staff. I get up and turn to Pat; she and I will go back out there. For as long as it takes.

Pat and I jump in a car and head west. The sun will be setting soon. We get as close as we can, park and start to walk. It is an echo of the morning, but now the area blocks away from the shooting and now the blazing fire of packed with thousands of people, sweating, pushing, yelling.

It is the Lord of the Flies with white, angry kids from this racially-divided city now chanting 'Burn Baby Burn' and laughing and yelling.  Will this mess erupt now into a race war? The police are outnumbered and occupied with the fire, not this crowd.

This is dangerous. I look at Pat who is next to me and she looks stunned into a trance: her eyes are glazed. I start yelling at her "Pat, PAT! Snap out of it.' It is like a scene from Nathaniel West: civilization fraying in a frenzy.

I push through the crowd to get closer to the origin of the fire. The heat, even two blocks or so away, is blistering. It is like walking toward an open furnace.  My face feels sunburnt looking in the direction of the flames. The police and firemen hold us all back. I move west again, parallel to Osage, toward Cobbs Creek Parkway again.

It is now night. There are dozens of fire trucks. Some idle. And working ones. Thick, serpent like hoses run for entire blocks, water is everywhere. Red lights throbbing, the noise of pumpers and the roar of the flames. Smoke and ash float down. Futility.

I see a church and a open door and go down into the basement. I think 'This looks like a scene from a world war.' Inside, there are a few cots and people crying as they sit on metal folding chairs. Family members try to comfort each other. I hear people talk about losing everything. I am embarrassed to even be there. The whole neighborhood is burning down.

The fire is consuming everything. Unstoppable. 

It hits me then: it is all out of control. The whole day has been out of control. Almost everyone inside the MOVE house: dead. All but two: the boy Birdie Africa and Ramona Africa -- a threatening, manipulative, bright, polemicist cult member, who I have known for years -- escape. 

Out of control. The mayor, the police, the fire department...everyone you thought might have an ounce of responsibility and ability have lost control. 

Somehow I get back to the station. I lose Pat in the night. I sit in my office and realize we need to file for NPR, and we need to get ready for more...tomorrow.

An NPR editor and I get into a yelling argument during an edit. 

Pat returns. We sit in my office and we try to chat. I lose the ability to speak and then I just weep and weep. 

That night I assign another reporter to what I know is a crime scene. My instructions are simple: get to the alley behind the MOVE house or what is left of it. And watch for bodies, count the bodies and see what the cops do.

At least for me this is one day that has never ended. 

All sorts of triggers: foggy days, muggy summer days, helicopters overhead, any reference to the MOVE shootout. It all comes back. Smells, sounds, sensations, the images. The trunk pops, the boxes of ammunition, the fire, the heat, the smelly car tire, the old man, the broom going swish, swish: snapshots of memory.



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