Models Monday: Bitter Reminiscence

1985 Philadelphia police bombing destroyed over 60 homes, displaced at least 250 people, killed 6 adults and 5 children.

Michael Ward, one of two survivors of the 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE residence recently passed away. His is such a sad story. The extremist philosophy that shaped his life for at least eleven years and his bearing witness to the mass murder of MOVE members would make for difficult, troubled memories. In light of the recent events commemorating the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, the deadly bomb dropped on the MOVE residence underscores the vulnerability of black American children in sacred spaces across time.

MOVE was founded as a black liberation group that had taken up residence in a working-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Black residents of Osage avenue complained to city officials about the reluctance of MOVE members to maintain their property. Law enforcement was well-aware of the organization. MOVE firmly and publicly critiqued the American criminal justice system as well as the influence of major U.S. corporations operating in the culture. After several attempts to evict MOVE from their home, law enforcement violently forced them out by dropping a C-4 bomb on the house. Failing to contain the fire destroyed at least 60 homes in the community. Tragically, 11 people were killed. Michael Africa was only 13 when the bomb dropped.

Michael Africa, who became Michael Ward after his father, who had spent years searching for his son, reclaimed him in the aftermath of the bombing. Sadly, Michael Ward accidentally drowned while in a hot tub on the cruise ship Carnival Dream. He was 41.

The obituary about Ward featured in The New York Times notes that a new documentary film, Let the Fire Burn, recounting the May 13, 1985 tragedy superbly makes use of video footage from young Ward’s public testimony to city officials regarding his experiences as a member of MOVE and as a victim of the bombing. The film’s been getting great reviews. What I find interesting, however, is that many of these reviews ignore Louis Massiah’s masterful documentary, The Bombing of Osage Avenue (1987).

Massiah, who won an MacArthur “Genius” Grant, deserves to have his work in conversation with this latest documentary film focusing on MOVE. Discounting the work of this master documentarian raises interesting questions about the consequences of marginalizing violence against black Americans. To that end, how might the devastation in Waco, Texas between law enforcement and a pariah group read in light of the 1985 MOVE tragedy? How do those fires compare?

Whenever you get a chance, I highly recommend Massiah’s film. Toni Cade Bambara narrates the film, and the story that folk tell of their community and of their experiences with MOVE are absorbing; definitely worthwhile viewing.

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