May 13, 1985: the Day Philadelphia Dropped a Bomb on 61 Families

Let the Fire Burn

Directed by Jason Osder (2013)

Film Review

Let the Fire Burn is a documentary about the decision by the Philadelphia police to drop a bomb on the home of a radical African American group called MOVE. The resulting fire (which the police chose not to extinguish) killed eleven people (including five children) and destroyed 61 homes.

The film is drawn entirely from archival footage. About half is TV footage of the day-long police effort to forcibly evict the group and half testimony from the Special Philadelphia Investigation Commission. The latter found city officials and Philadelphia police guilty of “negligence,” though no criminal charges were filed.

Formed in 1972 as a Christian “back to nature” commune by John Africa, MOVE members took the same surname in honor of their ancestral homeland, wore their hair in dreadlocks, shunned technology, and promoted a diet of raw food.

Living together in a home in West Philadelphia, MOVE’s unorthodox lifestyle lead to conflicts with neighbors and clashes with the police. After a 1978 police raid resulted in the death of a MOVE infant, group members armed themselves as protection against further police violence. Later that year, officer James Ramp was killed in a shootout between police and MOVE members. Nine MOVE members were later convicted for this murder, although group members maintain Ramp was actually killed by friendly police fire.

In 1984, MOVE members set up in a new home on Osage Street in West Philadelphia. The following year after many complaints about loudspeaker broadcasts, as well as worries over health hazards, the city took action to evict the group by force.

After a daylong battle in which the police used teargas, water cannons and ultimately 10,000 rounds of ammunition in their efforts to evict MOVE members, authorities ordered military-grade explosives to be dropped on the house from a helicopter.

The most compelling scenes consist of testimony given by 13-year-old Birdie Africa, one of only two people to escape from the fire.

In the two days since I watched it, Let It Burn has been taken down from YouTube, but it can be rented from Amazon (for $3.99) or Netflix. See Zeitgeist Films for details.