On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police bombed a fortified home occupied by MOVE, a radical organization. The bombing and the fire that followed destroyed much of a city block and have haunted the neighborhood. When native Philadelphian and NPR correspondent Gene Demby reported on the 30th anniversary of the bombing, though, he got a reaction he wasn't expecting: much of his audience hadn't heard of it before.
Brooke: Before you can learn from the past you have to remember it. For instance the president was in Camden, New Jersey this week to unveil a plan to improve police community relations in part by limiting the use of military hardware.
CLIP- President Obama: You know we've seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling that there is an occupying force as oppose to a force that's part of the community that's protecting them and serving them.
Brooke: Now her's the part about remembering and learning. Just across the river from Camden is Philadelphia which offered a powerful object lesson 30 years ago this month that hardly anyone remembers.
Brooke: A radical group called move with a history of antagonizing neighbors and clashing with police, defied arrest warrant and the police went in.
CLIP- There's four gun fire right now, we're going to crouch down.
Police are unloading windcheater cartridge shells from the back of a highway patrol car.
Brooke: Move had fortified a row house and when a fire fight didn't displace them, police dropped an incendiary device on the bunker constructed in the roof.
CLIP- State police helicopter, there is the explosion. As you can see a very dramatic explosion that really rips into the move top-house.
Somebody's home start burning.
You're telling me that the homes on the other side of Osage avenue may be on fire?
That's right, there's this white smoke coming...
Brooke: 11 people died in that bombing, 5 of whom were children. The fire that spread destroyed 61 homes scarring the block to this day. NPR correspondent Gene Demby is a native philadelphian and he reported on the 30th anniversary of the bombing but the response to his reporting shocked him because many people said they've never even heard of it.
Gene Demby: Yea I assumed that a lot of people would just jump in and be like "oh yeah, I remember when this happened" but we got the opposite response like "wait this happened?"
Brooke: So the people who said "this happened?" were they all from out of town or what?
Gene: I mean it was hard to tell, some people were from philli and some people seemed to be from elsewhere but there was no obvious generational cue. It just seemed to b this broad based "when did this happen" and 'how did I not hear about this".
Brooke: It wasn't just white people who were telling you this.
Gene: No, I mean there were quite a dew people of color who said that they hadn't heard of it either, which surprised me. But as the days went on, I guess I stopped being surprised at how many people hadn't heard of it. I'm a Philadelphia native, I would've been 4 when this happened. And it wasn't something that was really discussed in Philadelphia in part because as extreme as it was there weren't a lot of ramifications for the city officials that were involved in it. And, you know, nothing changed all that much, no one went to jail, no one suffered any sort of long term consequences. It was a cataclysm almost without consequence.
Brooke: Do you know how it was covered at the time?
Gene: It was national news as it was happening, I mean the Times covered it. But it didn't seem to have a very long tail.
Brooke: how was move characterized?
Gene: The Times called them a black radical group. Other people called them a black nationalist group. Ramon Africa, who is the only surviving member of move, told me that she did not agree with the black nationalist label. One they weren't nationalist and two they were actually founded by John Africa who was black but a Penn student who was white...
Brooke: Was a co-founder?
Gene: Yeah, he helped germinate the early mighty tenants of move.But she did say they were revolutionaries.
Brooke: I'm wondering what your prevailing theory is for why this didn't stick in the public mind. The long tail consequences obviously is one point, but I know that you reckon it was the nature of the group, of move, that created a notable lack of alliances to keep this story alive. Is that fair?
Gene: Yeah, I mean, in the neighborhood that move settled in the early 80's it was a pretty middle class black neighborhood. Move actively antagonized the people on that block, I mean, they put megaphones on their compounds, which was really just a fortified roadhouse. And they just really really got under the skin of their neighbors. They just cursed at the residents as they walked back. One daily news reporter, who was covering move at the Time, said that move very vocally broke up a very hard one gang truce. There was a meeting between two rival gangs in West Philadelphia and move sort of came in and started yelling.
Brooke: What did they want?
Gene: Uh, it is really hard to figure out what their specific aims were. But this is what move wanted on this block: in 1978, in another neighborhood in West Philadelphia they had this really ugly standoff with the police and a police officer named Jim Ramp died in that standoff. Several move members, nine of them in fact, were convicted in that shooting. So move relocated to 62nd and Osage which is where this climactic confrontation happened. And what they wanted is not very linear. I mean they wanted to lean on the residents of 62nd and Osage. They wanted to make life so unbearable that the residents would then presumably lea on the city officials who would then presumably lean on state officials to have the move 9 released from state prison. It's a very long view kind of strategy. And so there was this big sense even among black community groups and black radical groups that move was a problem and a nuisance.
Brooke: For instance, Bobby Seal a prominent black panther was not a fan of move.
Gene: Yeah, Lynn Washington who was the daily news reporter that I talked to, told me about a conversation he's had with Bobby Seal and he told him how can you be a black revolutionary group if you're planning a revolution against black people.
Brooke: Now part of the reason why move doesn't stink in the mind the way, that say, Ruby Ridge or Raccio does, is because this wasn't a standoff between the fed and radical groups. This was a standoff between local police and radical groups.
Gene: Yeah, that's right, Ruby Ridge and Racio, and the Montana freeman standoffs. Those could be folded into a larger conversation about gun right and federal overreach. We forget that in big cities, the police makes up their own political class, they are conciseness onto themselves and so it makes it harder for local officials to sort of drills down or to wag their fingers. To pointedly at the police especially then when there were a lot of concerns about urban violence because the police tended to enjoy widespread respect, at least outside the communities of color. And, you know, as we see now, when there are big controversies over aggressive policing in black communities there often aren't consequences in part because of the politics of it.
Brooke: Do you think it's even possible, Gene, to take a story that didn't fit into an established narrative when it happened and transport it 30 years into the future in a sense, and fit it into the current narrative, you know what I mean?
Gene: You know that's actually kind of what we were trying to do I think. We were trying to sort of tease out all the residencies you can see in the move story to this story this meda story to policing and black folks that we've been covering over the last year. Like, what happened in Baltimore last month or what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson and it's not neat because the move sort of resists comprehensions right? I mean it's the same story but the volume is turned all the way up.
Brooke: Yeah, he burning of any entire neighborhood and the death of 11 juxtaposed against the death of a singles man. Not that one if worthless but they would tend to generate different coverage.
Gene: Absolutely. If this happened today there would be people with their cellphones out,
watching the houses burn. There would be people nearby watching the police shoot up these homes. You would see a critical mass of outcry as this was happening. It is so confusing, this story is frankly insane, right. I mean, the more you learn about the details, the less sense it makes. Yeah, it would obviously set off some understandable outrage in 2013 or 2014 or 2015. But it is still sort of incomparable that it did not set off outrage in 1985, even if the media apparatus looked entirely different. I mean, is the kind of thing that would have changed something, you would hope anyway but nothing changed at all.
Brooke: Gene, thank you so much.
Gene: Thank you for having me Brooke.
Brooke: Gene Demby is a correspondent for NPR's code switch.