The City That Bombed Itself
by Marcus K. Dowling
In 1972, John Africa founded MOVE, a progressive-minded, nature-loving Black civil rights group in West Philadelphia. Africa, a former Army veteran born Vincent Leaphart, wanted to protect all living creatures and modeled MOVE after these ideals.
At MOVE’s compound, a house in the city’s Powelton Village neighborhood, the largely Black group of far-left, back-to-the-land activists and their families ate raw and unprocessed foods, home-schooled their children, and lived among a menagerie of stray animals. They protested animal cruelty and police brutality. With the civil rights movement just a few years in its rearview, MOVE advocated for radical self-sustenance and deplored prejudice in its various forms.
Over the years, MOVE members also grew increasingly vocal about corruption in Philadelphia, amassing 193 arrests and 93 court cases between 1972 and 1978. At the end of that period, in August of 1978, the Philadelphia Police Department descended on the commune-style compound. The resulting shootout left one police officer dead, and 16 officers and firefighters injured. Nine MOVE members were convicted of killing the officer.
Seven years later, in 1985, one of the most brutal acts of violence against Black people in U.S. history unfolded at MOVE’s new headquarters in yet another West Philadelphia townhouse. Philadelphia police lobbed tear canisters and unloaded thousands of rounds of ammunition before bombing the neighborhood by helicopter. This time, six MOVE members and five of their children died. In its wake, Philadelphia earned a new nickname: “The City That Bombed Itself.”
On that deadly day, and in its political aftermath, we can see an early shadow of the U.S.’s current racial turmoil.
The incendiary events in Philadelphia fueled a fiery 1987 mayoral race. The incumbent, Black Democrat W. Wilson Goode faced off with former Mayor Frank Rizzo in one of the most racially-motivated elections in living memory. Rizzo — much like Donald Trump in 2016 — switched political parties, from Democrat to Republican, prior to the election and reluctant to acknowledge his opponent’s eventual victory once the dust settled.
Thirty-three years later, the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden boiled over into racial tensions in a manner familiar to longtime residents of the City of Brotherly Love. In the summer of 2020, nationwide protests for racial equality and against police brutality echoed similar movements in Philadelphia decades earlier.
“Philadelphia is a microcosm of America itself,” says activist Mike Africa, Jr., whose parents were jailed — and, in 2019, finally paroled — for the 1978 MOVE shootout. In this America, racism remains unchallenged, police violence is mundane and incessant, and citizens align themselves with a political party rather than a moral rectitude.
Even after decades of quiet, the rest of the country continues to see Philadelphia as a racial powder keg, ready to explode. As Donald Trump declared when he took to the presidential debate stage in September: “Bad things happen in Philadelphia.” The city’s violent history — so frequently invoked, yet so poorly understood — reminds us of what hasn’t changed for Black Americans since the civil rights movement.
In the 1970s, Philadelphia was the fourth-largest city in the United States, and growing, thanks to a rapidly increasing Black population. White-collar, blue-collar, and working-class Black residents began surging into once-segregated white communities. Their presence, coupled with MOVE’s home-squatting and Black Power rhetoric, proved to be a step too far for some white residents and then-Mayor Frank Rizzo.
Whites employed in declining industrial sectors such as ship-building and textiles, unable to leave during the city’s “white flight” to surrounding suburbs, felt threatened by the infusion of Black residents. Rizzo was the embodiment of this attitude. He referred to MOVE members this way: “You are dealing with criminals, barbarians, you are safer in the jungle!” His first 12 years of public service — as the city’s police commissioner, then its mayor — were characterized by police brutality, intimidation, and anti-Black coercive measures, including one tear-gassed raid in 1970 of Black Panther offices in which police forced fleeing members to strip naked with guns to their heads in front of the media.
After the 1978 shootout, Rizzo referred to MOVE as “an uncivilized foe we were forced to deal with, with civilized rules.” He lauded the police force’s work during the standoff as “amazing.” He told reporters MOVE fired first, unprovoked, at police, and warned them against “glorifying criminals” and “putting the police on the defensive.”
“Rizzo used barely-coded racist dog-whistle language and was authentically racist,” says Jason Osder, a George Washington University media scholar and the maker of the award-winning documentary Let the Fire Burn, about the MOVE standoff. “But deep down [he] also empathetically cared — on some level — about the city of Philadelphia.”
Rizzo’s vision was to lead Philadelphia into a white-defined era of modernization: skyscrapers, underground mass transit, and a revitalized downtown district featuring The Gallery shopping mall. But for Black Philly residents, the combination of white suburban flight and downtown redevelopment typified — as it often does in urban centers on the edge of gentrification — the problem of essential city services and funds being focused on areas of economic impact. In other words: a concentration of municipal investment in the spaces occupied or frequented most often by white residents.
Unfortunately for him, Rizzo could not run for a third mayoral term due to the city’s two-term limit. He contested the rule, forcing a municipal election ballot poll in 1978 that, had he won, would have allowed him to run for a third consecutive term in 1979. Philadelphians voted overwhelmingly against the change — at a rate of two-to-one — blocking Rizzo from running in the 1980 race.
Instead, W. Wilson Goode, a mild-mannered community activist and son of a North Carolina sharecropper, became the first Black mayor of Philadelphia in 1984. His election was part of a wave of Black local leadership that decade. In the wake of Shirley Chisholm’s unsuccessful 1972 campaign for the Democratic presidential nominee, almost 30 American cities — including Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — elected Black mayors.
While Ronald Reagan was in the White House, these mayors changed the course of Black aspiration. From their seats of local influence and power, progressive-minded Black politicians entrenched the country’s Black middle-class as a socioeconomic force to be reckoned with. What’s more, they widened acceptance of Black power by cloaking it in a less radical aesthetic.
MOVE, in this respect, represented the tail end of a 15-year era during which the movement for Black civil rights splintered into diametrically opposed movements — with “Power to the People” protests and anti-establishment gunplay on one side, and a class of college-educated Blacks thriving within the nation’s long-established white socioeconomic class establishment on the other.
In Philadelphia, this fissure redrew the battle lines between vitriolic white racism and Black liberation.
For a century, working-class German, Dutch, and Polish immigrants made up Philadelphia’s central core. But beginning in the 1940s, Black and Hispanic immigrants began to join them — leading the already-established residents to believe their livelihoods were being infringed upon by non-white interlopers.
During the 1970s, then-Mayor Rizzo’s “law and order” stance served to maintain a sense of control in the city, where these tensions had been rising for decades. In 1977, Rizzo — and a court order — instructed the Philadelphia police to forcibly remove MOVE members from their compound. MOVE members had initially agreed to vacate the space after City Hall fielded complaints about the vocal Black naturalists’ residence. MOVE also promised to surrender their weapons if police released group members already held in city jails.
By the summer of 1978, tense negotiations between MOVE and the City of Philadelphia had ended in an agreement. The city honored the deal, but MOVE, after agreeing to leave the house within 90 days, changed their minds. At the time, MOVE spokesman Chuck Africa explained the about-face this way: “We only signed that agreement to crystallize what Rizzo is.” The implication was that the activists had wanted to publicly demonstrate the Mayor was more a racist bigot than a local politician. (Rizzo’s response? “There will be no more bargaining, no more conversations, meetings or agreements. These people represent nobody but themselves; they're complete idiots.”)
When police attempted to enter the house later that year, Officer James J. Ramp was shot and killed. Following the shootout, Black political activism surged in the city. In refusing him a third mayoral term, Philadelphia’s residents made their feelings known: Rizzo had overstayed his welcome.
The New York Times’ coverage of Rizzo’s failed referendum — just four months after the MOVE shootout — describes the former mayor’s exit from the seat of power. “[Rizzo] rode home past the gargoyled stone City Hall that sits on four and a half acres in the middle of town, passing a jubilant crowd that was singing ‘Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead.’”
“Rizzo was a crazy, racist dude,” says Mike Africa, Jr. With Rizzo out of City Hall, he added, “Goode was elected, and though he wasn’t crazy or racist, he did worse than Rizzo did!”
When W. Wilson Goode took office in January 1985, he represented Black Americans enraged by 15 years of violence, anger, and the overwhelming feeling that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 's dreams of emancipation might never be truly realized. However, Goode was well aware that MOVE’s new compound continued to embody the city’s unresolved racial tensions.
The property, per a 1985 Time Magazine article, “had become notorious for its abundant litter of garbage and human waste and its scurrying rats and dozens of dogs. Bullhorns blared forth obscene tirades and harangues at all times of day and night.” Youth truancy, rumors of child abandonment, and reports of physical assaults of neighborhood residents ran rampant.
In a 2015 NPR Code Switch report, Gene Demby — a Black Philadelphia native who lived in the city at the time of the bombing — paints a retrospective picture of the compound without the stain of racial stereotyping. The area surrounding 6221 Osage Avenue, Demby said, was “a nice block” and “a safe, close-knit community where folks barbecued together while their kids played in the street.” Though tensions between MOVE and their neighbors had escalated for years, local residents had no desire to see the angst turn their neighborhood into a warzone “like Vietnam.”
Demby also highlighted the work of Linn Washington, a journalism professor at Temple University who covered the story for the Philadelphia Daily News. It captured a respectful synergy between MOVE and Black Philadelphians at large. "There was this deference,” Washington told Demby. “[Other groups] were saying, we may not like them, but if it's MOVE today, it's us tomorrow."
Instead of resolving the tensions through mediation and conciliation, what transpired next highlighted Goode’s “incredible stupidity,” in the words of Ed Rendell, who succeeded Goode as Philadelphia’s mayor.
Goode initially tried to use the law to reprimand MOVE. In 1985, the police obtained arrest warrants for MOVE members guilty of parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and terrorist threats. This last claim allowed the City of Philadelphia to classify MOVE as a terrorist organization, and shut off water and electricity to force members out of the house. When his squad arrived at the commune, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor declared to MOVE members: "This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States."
In the hours leading up to this police action, Rizzo had tried to warn Goode that Sambor was “not right in the head,” says Osder, the George Washington University scholar. Sambor had spent 35 years as a rifle-toting marksman in the U.S. military, including a stint in the Vietnam War. “Rizzo felt like if a guy like Sambor was in charge of the actions against MOVE, things could go really wrong,” Osder said. “Unfortunately, Rizzo couldn’t reach Goode.”
Sambor summoned 500 police officers to the Ossage Avenue townhouse. Police shot tear gas canisters, water cannons, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the two-story building. They hit its rooftop bunker with an ammonium-and-water-gel Tovex bomb. Ultimately, the attack killed 11, and the resulting fire destroyed 61 surrounding buildings.
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it, and I grieve deeply for the lives lost and the houses destroyed,” Goode told the Philadelphia Tribune in 2015. “Everybody on that site worked for me; therefore, I’m accountable for whatever happened.”
By 1987, Frank Rizzo was eligible to run for mayor again — and he did. The result was one of the most racially-motivated campaigns in American history. “Vote white,” proclaimed Rizzo, who now ran as a Republican, further polarizing the city’s electorate. Rizzo referred to Goode as a “killer.” As a November 1986 New York Times piece notes, Rizzo “almost chortles with glee at the prospect of skewering Mr. Goode for approving the dropping of a bomb on the headquarters of the radical group.” When a reporter asked him if he was champing at the bit, Rizzo replied: “I am, really.”
On the other side, incumbent Goode labeled Rizzo a “liar” outright, and called his opponent’s eight years as mayor ''a disaster of high taxes, cronyism, the loss of respect by the city.'' Both campaigns accused the other of corruption and pulled everyone into the mud: the city’s unions, religious leaders, social justice advocates, and real estate developers. In its reporting on the local election, The Washington Post called it a “street fight.”
In the end, Goode bested Rizzo by a mere 14,000 votes. The victory proved Pyrrhic – not just for Philadelphia, but for the nation.
Upon losing, Rizzo initially refused to concede. He admitted to losing according to the unofficial returns, but remained confident that the final tally would ultimately prove him the election’s winner. “Nobody could have done better than I did. Nobody could have come so close to an incumbent mayor,” he told The Associated Press at the time. “They’ve counted me out a lot of times in my life. They’d better not be too sure.″
Eventually, roughly 20 days after the vote was officially certified, Rizzo conceded. He brazenly told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Goode will have to deliver or I’m going to be right on him,” warning in a Trumpian manner, that if he was disappointed by his replacement’s performance, he’d just run again.
The election reified archetypes — of both politicians and voters — we still see today.
Like Rizzo, Osder says, “Trump comes off as an inauthentic and childish bully who lacks empathy.” Rizzo’s racist strategy for attracting votes also casts a long shadow on the outgoing president’s following. “His supporters, like so many others before them, believe things like Black folks in Democratically-governed cities live in socialized, corrupt, and criminalized communities.”
Like Biden, Goode seemed like a good-hearted lawmaker stuck trying to make the most out of a difficult situation. But Goode had to deal with MOVE. Biden, once inaugurated on Jan. 20, will have to deal with how to manage the crisis left in Trump’s wake.
When Goode bombed Black radicals, he became, somehow, both anti-Black and anti-white. Biden, by cautiously censuring Trump’s racist and seditious rhetoric, similarly risks losing the support of Black and white liberals alike. Three decades separate the politicians, but their equivocation on divisive racial issues is a familiar and untenable position for Black people — and one with potentially harrowing consequences.
In 2019, Mike Africa, Jr., was reunited with his parents, without whom he’d lived nearly every day of his entire life. The moment, captured on screen in Tommy Oliver’s documentary 40 Years a Prisoner, shows the human cost of the fight for Black liberation — and white America’s simultaneously violent and apathetic response to it.
“It’s a horrible atrocity from which both the victims and perpetrators have never recovered,” Africa, Jr., told me. After spending his whole life devoted to freeing his parents, recovery comes in bursts. “The first big moment was when I was driving them home from prison. Every day after that, I have moments where I’m reminded — and stunned — that they are home. I see my mother sitting at the island in the kitchen, and I wonder what she’s doing sitting there. I forget that she’s free.” (No MOVE members convicted for their involvement in the shootout remain in prison.)
In 2020, the City of Philadelphia, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, removed a ten-foot statue of Rizzo from the steps of a municipal building, after crowds first attempted to remove it themselves, then set it ablaze. The performative move came with words of atonement from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who is white. "This is the beginning of the healing process in our city. This is not the end of the process. Taking that statue down is not the be-all and end-all of where we need to go,” he told residents in a June 2 speech. “We have a long way to go. That statue was representative of that era and had to go away in order for us to understand where we need to go going forward.”
Looking back, Osder says, “people seem surprised that a race thing happened in 1985” — just as they were in 2008, 2016 and 2020. “Racism is allowed to fester in America because we lack the tools to root it out. To even begin to sustainably do that would be unprecedented in our nation’s history.”
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