35 Years After Philadelphia Police Dropped a Bomb on the MOVE Headquarters, Killing 11, City Councilmembers Issue an Apology

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Thirty-five years ago, Philadelphia Police dropped a bomb on a row house that destroyed dozens of homes and killed 11 people, children included. Now several members of the Philadelphia City Council have issued an apology for the fatal decision.

On May 13, 1985, members of the Black-liberation and environmental group MOVE barricaded themselves in their headquarters in west Philadelphia. Authorities’ attempts to forcibly evict the group led to a standoff between MOVE and police.

In an unprecedented decision, Philadelphia Police dropped explosives on the house from a helicopter. The bomb killed 11 people, including five children. MOVE member, Janine Phillips Africa, was in prison at the time of the bombing. Her 12-year-old son Phil was one of the victims. The bomb also razed two city blocks and destroyed 61 homes.

Wilson Goode, who was mayor of the city at the time of the bombing, issued a fresh apology on the 35th anniversary and called on the city’s current officials to formally apologize. In an op-ed written for The Guardian, Goode said the event will “remain on my conscience for the rest of my life.”

Goode claimed he was not involved in the decisions that led to the bombing, but took responsibility nonetheless. “I accept that responsibility and I apologize for their reckless actions that brought about this horrific outcome, even though I knew nothing about their specific plan of action,” he said.

Several city councilmembers appeared to heed Goode’s call. Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, Kendra Brooks, Helen Gym, Allan Domb, Isaiah Thomas, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Mark Squilla, Curtis Jones, Jr., Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Kenyatta Johnson, Cindy Bass and Cherelle Parker issued an apology and called on the city to declare a day of reflection and observation.

“As public officials, we have a responsibility to address this trauma, and to make a good-faith effort to right the wrongs of the past,” the councilmembers wrote. They noted that there were “echoes of the MOVE Bombing that persist in Philadelphia’s police-community relations.”

“We apologize for the decisions leading to the devastation of that day, and acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of the MOVE Bombing,” the statement continued. “As members of Council, we acknowledge the significant failures in communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution leading up to and following these tragic events.”

Workers using a large crane search the rubble at the former location of the radical group MOVE compound, at lower right, in Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 15, 1985. Eleven bodies have been removed from the scene since police bombed the MOVE compound on Monday. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

MOVE vs Philadelphia Police

The 1985 MOVE bombing was hardly the first violent encounter between the group and law enforcement. In a 1976 incident, police arrived at the MOVE headquarters and it prompted a fight. Phillips Africa was knocked down as she held her newborn baby, named Life, in her arms. Baby Life’s skull was shattered during the confrontation and died that day.

Two years later, on August 8, 1978, another police siege on the house led to the death of a police officer. In the chaos of the siege, Officer James Ramp was fatally shot by a single bullet. MOVE members maintained that they were unarmed, but nine members were still convicted and sentenced to 30 years to life.

Phillips Africa and fellow MOVE member Janet Holloway Africa were released from SCI Cambridge Springs in 2019 after spending more than 40 years after the police siege. Fellow members Eddie Goodman Africa, Debbie Sims Africa and Mike Africa Sr. have also been released.

As of June 2019, two members of the MOVE 9 remain incarcerated: Chuck Sims Africa and Delbert Orr Africa. Two other members, Merle Austin Africa and Phil Africa died while in custody.

Members of MOVE took on the last name Africa as a symbol of their relationship as a family.

Is an Apology Enough?

For some, including members of the MOVE 9, officials’ apology rings hollow if there is no action to back up the apology. “Show us. What good is an apology without the action behind it. Show us that you are sorry and that never want something like this to happen again,” Phillips Africa told WPVI.

Members of the Philadelphia City Council said they called to make May 13 an annual day of reflection. They plan to formalize the apology with a council resolution later in 2020.

Despite the formal mayor and current city councilmembers issuing apologies, Philadelphia’s current mayor has no plans for the city to apologize for the event. Mayor Jim Kenney’s spokesperson Mike Dunn told The Philadelphia Inquirer that there were no plans for Kenney to support efforts to acknowledge the city’s role in the tragic event.

"What is more important than an apology, in the Mayor's view, are the action of the City to rebuild and help the homeowners who still reside on these blocks," a spokesperson for the mayor said an a statement to The North Star. "While efforts to rebuild the homes had well-documented missteps in 1986, the City and the Redevelopment Authority have done tremendous work under this administration."

The statement continued: "These efforts will greatly improve the quality of life for the residents who call these blocks home, and help heal the wounds of the past."

Phillips Africa said the group simply wants the city to acknowledge that MOVE was not responsible for the crimes it was accused of. “We don’t want money or museums or anything like that. We want to be left alone and for this city to acknowledge that MOVE is not guilty of any crimes,” she told WPVI.

This article has been updated to include a statement sent to The North Star by Mayor Jim Kenney's office.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.