MOVE Bombing: The Story of How Philadelphia Became "The City That Bombed Itself"

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MOVE Bombing: The Story of How Philadelphia Became The City That Bombed ItselfIf we told you that the Philadelphia Police Department literally dropped a bomb on a house in the city in the 1980s, you’d probably think that we had lost our minds. But, in fact, this happened on May 13, 1985, at the MOVE townhouse at 6221 Osage Avenue. The whole event was captured on camera and can easily be watched on YouTube for anyone who doubts that this happened.

The case of MOVE is an unusual one, because they cannot simply be shoe-horned into the usual “they were just minding their own business and then the cops came in with overwhelming force” narrative that more or less applies at Ruby Ridge or at Waco. This is not to imply that the actions taken by the Philadelphia Police Department were appropriate – there were children inside the MOVE townhouse. However, it is important to note that MOVE had a history of violence.

If nothing else, the bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia is an excellent example of a complicated situation with no easy answer. This is precisely what makes it worth close examination by those interested in government overreach and Second Amendment rights.

What Was MOVE?

First, we should point out that MOVE is not an acronym. It doesn’t stand for anything. Founder John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) stated that it was simply a statement of intent for the organization. “Everything that's alive moves. If it didn't, it would be stagnant, dead." A standard greeting for members of the group was “On the MOVE.”

Founded in 1972, the original name of the group was Christian Movement for Life. John Africa was a functional illiterate and transmitted his beliefs to University of Pennsylvania social worker Donald Glassey. Known as “The Guidelines,” these became the basis of communal living, which would later guide the group that would become MOVE. Glassey was later arrested on weapons charges and snitched on the group.

Africa was a Philadelphia native whose mother died when she was in her 40s, something that he blamed on the hospital where she died. He dropped out of school at 16, and was later drafted into military service during the Korean War.

While MOVE is generally thought of as a black nationalist group, this is, strictly speaking, not true. The organization had white members from the start. Its politics included a racial analysis that might be termed “black liberation,” however, it was much more focused on “green” issues than racial ones. They advocated returning to paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies and stood in opposition to science, medicine and virtually all forms of post-paleolithic technology. They believed that “justice” meant “just for all living creatures” and held radical pro-life and vegan stances. All members changed their surnames to “Africa” to indicate that they considered Africa to be the wellspring of all life on earth.

The group quickly became known throughout Philadelphia for their bullhorn-driven, profanity-laden protests against everything from puppy mills and zoos to police brutality and industrial pollution. These actions, of course, caught the attention of Philly’s finest, especially when it was under the rule of Frank Rizzo, the long-time mayor of the city who was a former police commissioner with little tolerance for activist groups.

The 1978 MOVE/Police Gunfight

In the introduction, we mentioned that the case of MOVE is complicated because they were not simply a group of strange people with strange beliefs leading a strange lifestyle. The first significant example of this is the 1978 MOVE shootout.

As often happens when unusual people begin living communally, the neighbors were not a fan of the MOVE townhouse. A series of complaints were made to the Philly PD about the original MOVE house at 311 N 33rd Street. This led to the police department obtaining a court order requiring the inhabitants to vacate the premises. MOVE members agreed to both vacate the building and surrender their weapons to the police if their demand to release MOVE prisoners held in city jails was met. The city fulfilled their end of the deal, but MOVE refused to relinquish their weapons.

The police waited almost a full year before making any kind of move to clear the building, but eventually did as members defied the court order. Police entered the house and were met with gunfire. Officer James J. Ramp was shot in the back of the neck and killed. MOVE claimed that he was killed by friendly fire, a statement corroborated by some of the witnesses, including a journalist. Sims Africa and eight other MOVE members were charged with Officer Ramp’s murder. A cache of weapons was retrieved from the house. The District Attorney charged three officers in the beating of Delbert Africa.

The full standoff lasted an hour, with MOVE members eventually surrendering to the police.

All told, nine MOVE members were charged with the shooting. All of them had the surname “Africa” and they were known collectively as the MOVE Nine. They were convicted of third-degree murder and each was sentenced to the maximum penalty – 100 years in prison. Since then, two of them, Merle and Phil Africa, died in prison. Debbie Sims Africa was paroled and released on June 16, 2018. On October 23, 2018, her husband, Michael Davis Africa, was paroled and released. Eddie Goodman Africa was paroled and released on June 21, 2019. Delbert Orr Africa was released on parole on January 18, 2020. Chuck Sims Africa was the final member of MOVE to be released or deceased, being released on parole on February 7, 2020. He served over 41 years in prison.

Convicted police murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal was a supporter of MOVE and reported on their trial, but it is unclear if he ever became a member.

The gunfight between the Philadelphia Police Department and MOVE can largely be seen as a prelude to the bombing of the MOVE house in 1985.

The Bombing of the MOVE House

MOVE relocated to their new house at 6221 Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek, West Philadelphia, in 1981. They almost immediately began bothering their neighbors with trash, confrontations and often obscene bullhorn announcements. It was common for MOVE to respond to complaints from neighbors by taking a loudspeaker and taunting them. Indeed, city officials were surprised when they learned, at a community meeting, that most of the complaints were coming from black residents of the neighborhood rather than whites.

In 1985, the city obtained warrants for four members of MOVE for the following charges: parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms and making terrorist threats. Residents were evacuated from their homes for a 24-hour period in advance of the police serving the warrants on the house.

The Philadelphia Police Department did not use half measures to serve the warrants against MOVE. They sent almost 500 police officers to the house. City Manager Leo Brooks arrived as part of the detachment. Water and power to the house were cut. The police commissioner read a lengthy speech addressed to the members of MOVE that began with "Attention MOVE: This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States."

MOVE members responded by threatening to kill the officers and making thinly-veiled rape threats about the officers’ wives.

The residents of the house were told that they had 15 minutes to vacate the premises. When no one responded, police decided to remove 13 individuals from the house by force. This included five children.

The police began by lobbing tear gas into the house in a shadow of what was to come at Mt. Carmel in Waco, Texas, a few years later. There was a 90-minute gunfight, which led to an officer’s back being bruised by gunfire. It was MOVE members who fired first according to most sources. The police went through a whopping 10,000 rounds of ammunition before they were ordered to begin using bombs. In fact, the police requested more bullets from the police academy and attempted to punch holes in the building using adjoining row homes.

Media on the scene were ducking for cover to deliver their on-the-scene reports. One of these reporters said "Drop a bomb on a residential area? I never in my life heard of that.”

Two one-pound bombs were dropped from a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter. Police referred to these as "entry devices.” They were provided by the FBI and made out of Tovex, a substitute for dynamite. The target was a bunker-like structure on the roof of the building. The explosions from the bombing ignited a fire, which caused the gas-powered generator on the rooftop to catch fire as well. This killed 11 inhabitants, including all but one of the children who were aged 7 to 13.

The fire spread, destroying 65 houses in the immediate vicinity. Firefighters drenched the building in advance of the bombing, but police held them back after the fire began, fearful that MOVE members would shoot at the police. All told, 250 people were left homeless because the Philadelphia Police Department decided to drop a bomb on a residential home in the middle of the city.

One of the two survivors, Ramona Africa, later testified that police fired at people trying to escape from the house. This would square with one theory about the bombing: Some have speculated that the excessive force used by the police was an attempt at revenge for the 1978 shooting of Officer Ramp. At least one bit of chatter on the radio corroborates this story: While the building was burning someone said, “they won’t call the police commissioner a motherf***er anymore.”

Officer James Berghaier was instrumental in saving the life of Birdie Africa. He later had racial slurs written on his locker and retired from the force in 1987 due to PTSD.

After the Bombing

Mayor Wilson Goode convened a commission to investigate what happened at the MOVE house, called the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (PSIC), commonly known as the MOVE Commission. Former EEOC Chairman William H. Brown III chaired the committee.

A report issued on March 6, 1986 was highly critical of the police department, stating that "Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable." No city employees were charged, however, Ramona Africa was charged with conspiracy and rioting, later convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. In 1996, a federal civil jury ordered the city to pay her and the families of two of the survivors $1.5 million in damages on the grounds that the government violated their right to protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

All city officials were cleared of criminal charges.

Philadelphia is referred to by those who know about the MOVE bombing as “The City That Bombed Itself.” Residents who lost their houses in the ensuing fire were awarded $12.83 million in damages by a federal jury in 2005.

Ramona Africa is currently the primary spokesperson of the group, which still exists and even maintains a web presence. Michael Moses Ward, known in MOVE as Birdie Africa, was the only child survivor of the bombing. He did not remain a member, and died in an accidental drowning in 2013. Both survivors were badly burned in the attack on the house. The neighborhood was rebuilt somewhat, but is largely vacant. Two-thirds of the area was bought by the city in the early 2000s.

The mayor at the time of the bombing, Virgil Goode, penned an article in May 2020, urging the city to apologize for the bombing.

The assault on the MOVE house is a nuanced situation. There seems to be no justification for dropping a bomb on any house, let alone one with five children inside. However, the warrants being served against the MOVE member were legitimate – as were the complaints of the other residents of the neighborhood.

The lack of accountability of the police department is noteworthy, however. No one deserves to be beaten by the police for noise complaints, as effectively happened to Delbert Africa. All nine members of the MOVE organization who were prosecuted for the shooting of a Philadelphia Police Department officer were convicted. No one was ever convicted for the beating of Delbert Africa, nor for the bombing of the house. Indeed, despite a finding of negligence, no one was even charged. The commission never called Ramona Africa to testify, despite the fact that she was the lone surviving adult from the MOVE house.

The MOVE house bombing remains an iconic vision of a power-drunk government run amok. It is an early example of city governments leveraging tools given to them by the federal government that were tested in war zones thousands of miles away. As such, it is a cautionary tale for those living unconventional lifestyles outside the bounds of society’s norms.

Sam Jacobs
Written by
Sam Jacobs