A New Documentary About the Time Philadelphia Dropped a Bomb—Yes, a Bomb—on a House Full of Black Radicals

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Oct. 4 2013 8:08 AM

Let the Fire Burn

A powerful new documentary about a confrontation between Philadelphia and black radicals that claimed an entire neighborhood.

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Goode, a former managing director of the city and a leader of its black middle class, identified with the decent folk being woken by the loudspeakers and spooked by the guns. The mayor promised to seize control of the MOVE house “by any means necessary,” the irony of invoking Malcolm X apparently lost on him. The city drew up eviction warrants. Then-District Attorney Ed Rendell (later Pennsylvania’s governor) piled on indictments for disorderly conduct, parole violations, and criminal conspiracy. On May 13, 1985, the police prepared to execute the warrants, telling the residents of the block to evacuate for 24 hours. “Attention MOVE, this is America,” Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor called into his bullhorn as the police lined up outside the row house.

Still from Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn.
Still from Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn.

Screenshot courtesy of Zeitgeist Films/George Washington University

The cops blasted water and tear gas to roust the MOVE activists. They fired 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The house and bunker stood, and no one came out. Late in the day, Sambor sent a Pennsylvania state helicopter to drop onto the roof two 1-pound bombs made from a mixture of explosives. The TV cameras were there for all of it, and the clips Osder includes seem as crazy now as they did then. The bombs land. Smoke rises. Flames spread. TV anchors say they can’t believe what they’re seeing. Five children were among the 11 MOVE members killed. The people of Osage Avenue watched their homes go up in smoke.

Testifying before the commission that later investigated the MOVE disaster, Goode said that at 6 p.m., half an hour after the bombs were dropped, he called Sambor and ordered him to put the fire out. The fire commissioner testified he never received that order. I believed Goode, though maybe that’s because I wanted to. I could accept that the city was dysfunctional, but didn’t want to think Goode would let a whole neighborhood burn.

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At the time of the MOVE fire, my father, Richard Bazelon, was chair of the Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia (a volunteer position he got as a lawyer who represented Goode’s campaign on voter registration and Election Day issues and did other community work). I called my father to talk about Osder’s film, and he reminded me that the aftermath of that awful night was also sad, though in a different way.

Mayor Goode wanted a black developer to do the reconstruction. The absence of minority developers on city projects was stark, and accomplishing the rebuilding in a way that addressed that problem offered the promise of making some good come out of the tragedy. The city chose Ernest Edwards, who appeared to be a promising minority developer, but one who had not undertaken a project this big before. The mayor “turned down offers from developer Willard Rouse III and the Philadelphia Building Trades Council to do the job at cost,” according to John F. Morrison in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The $6.5 million budgeted for rebuilding swelled to $31 million, yet, despite the high cost, it soon became clear that the new houses were poorly constructed and riddled with defects—plumbing leaked and wiring failed. In May 1987 a grand jury blamed some of the cost overrun on the negligence and mismanagement of city officials. Edwards was convicted of stealing $138,000 and served about seven years in prison.

The Osage blocks never recovered from this double blow. In 2010 Morrison reported that 17 houses were boarded up and 18 more were abandoned.*

That’s one sorrowful coda to Osder’s film, though he doesn’t explore it.  Here’s another, which happened too recently to make it into the movie: Last week, Michael Ward died at the age of 41, after being found unconscious in a hot tub on a cruise ship vacation. He’d gone to live with his father after the fire, recovered damages from the city, served in the Army, and worked as a truck driver.

Though Osder’s movie doesn’t include these final chapters, it does enough—more than enough—to remind us both of how hard it is to live next to armed radicals, how disastrous it is when the government lets itself be baited into unleashing all of its might against them, and how racially charged the city was so recently. It was a relief, when the movie ended, to think of how much better Philadelphia is faring these days as a city than it was then. I’m not sure it’s found urban peace or racial harmony. But it’s closer.

*Correction, June 13, 2014: This article originally misstated that John F. Morrison is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. (Return.)

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