By Emily Bazelon
Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder's powerful debut documentary, opens with period footage of a soft-spoken boy with two names: Michael Moses Ward and Birdie Africa. Michael was known as Birdie as a child — he was one of several kids raised by a small black-liberation group that occupied a Philadelphia row house on Osage Avenue. They called themselves MOVE, and they wanted to live without technology and without government interference. But the group and the city were constantly at odds.
On May 13, 1985, the enmity between MOVE and city officials erupted into one of the worst days in Philadelphia history. Years of demonstrations, clashes and arrests culminated in a mass eviction order and an hours-long shootout. When the shooting ended in a stalemate, the city made the unthinkable decision to drop a bomb on the house. It ignited a raging fire. Michael and one other MOVE member escaped, but 11 others were killed, and 61 homes burned down — a working-class black neighborhood turned to ash.
I was a year older than Michael Ward, who died last month at age 41. I also grew up in Philadelphia. I remember watching that terrible fire burn, though I was seeing it on TV, safe in my house in a different part of the city. I remember feeling sad, scared and confused. My father had campaigned hard for Wilson Goode, elected as the first black mayor a year and a half earlier. How could Goode have stood by while the police dropped that bomb, and as that fire burned?
It's to the credit of Osder's film that it answers these questions. Let the Fire Burn offers an even-handed depiction of the racial conflict that led to the conflagration. A 1976 re-election ad for Frank Rizzo, the previous mayor, who had built his reputation by raiding the Black Panthers, called Philadelphia "tortured" and complained that "abandoned homes pockmark the ghetto."
MOVE's extremist views are fully aired in the film, too. In one piece of old tape from the 1970s, a group of small MOVE children, naked and dreadlocked, chant mantras like "Our religion is non-compromising to the conception of insane speculation."
During Rizzo's tenure, the police department made nearly 200 arrests of MOVE members, often for small street demonstrations. In 1976, six cops were injured in a scuffle with the group that somehow — the details are hazy — caused the death of a three-week-old baby. After that, it was war. Rizzo promised in 1978 that the police would drag MOVE members out of their compound "by the back of their necks." The city turned a huge hoselike weapon on the house. The confrontation spun out of control, shots were fired on both sides, and a police officer was mortally wounded. Nine MOVE members went to prison for killing him.
But when three cops were prosecuted for viciously kicking and beating MOVE member Delbert Africa on the sidewalk — an assault caught on camera — they were found not guilty.
This may sound like a typical-of-the-period case of black extremists versus white city establishment, but it wasn't that simple. Osder shows that the people complaining the most about MOVE were the group's neighbors, Late at night, loudspeakers blasted curse-laden diatribes from the house. MOVE men walked the sidewalk carrying rifles. They built a fortified rooftop bunker with slits for weapons.
Goode, a former managing director of the city and a leader of its black middle class, 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 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.
The cops blasted water and tear gas. 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. 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 disaster, Goode said that 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.
At the time of the MOVE fire, my father, Richard Bazelon, was chair of the Redevelopment Authority of Philadelphia. He reminded me that the aftermath of that awful night was also sad. Goode wanted a black developer to do the reconstruction. The city chose Ernest Edwards, who had not undertaken a project this big before. The $6.5 million budgeted for rebuilding swelled to $31 million, yet the new houses were poorly constructed and riddled with defects. In May 1987 a grand jury blamed some of the cost overrun on the mismanagement of city officials. Edwards was convicted of stealing $138,000 and served about seven years in prison.
The Osage blocks never recovered; many houses are boarded up or just abandoned. Osder's movie reminds 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.