MOVE: The tragedy that did not change Philly

I am preparing myself for the orgy of guilt and finger-pointing that will lead up to the 35th anniversary of the MOVE tragedy in which 11 people, including five children, died and more than 60 homes were destroyed on West Philadelphia’s Osage Avenue.

A Philadelphia neighborhood goes up in flame. (Photo: AP)

To better understand May 13, 1985, turn back to Aug. 8, 1978, when Police Officer James Ramp was killed when police moved in to evict MOVE from a building it had occupied. MOVE described itself as a back-to-nature group that was Marxist in political orientation, and moving toward violence. It was both black liberation and animal liberation. 

“Only 15 months earlier during a nine-hour standoff with police, 18 MOVE members, in tan fatigues and black berets, brandished rifles and handguns on the parapet at the MOVE compound, a twin house illegally taken over at 33rd and Pearl streets,” Kitty Caparella reported for the Daily News

In 1978, MOVE was moved and several members went to jail for Ramp’s death.

MOVE relocated to Osage Avenue and almost immediately began bothering the hell out of neighbors with political harangues and obscenities blared over loudspeakers day and night. The property was trash-filled, unsanitary, rats were encouraged, and ultimately a bunker was constructed on the roof, without the proper permits.

What followed was a tragedy, perhaps avoidable, perhaps not.

In some accounts I have read some blarney about how the destruction “changed the fabric of Philadelphia forever.”

No it didn’t. 

The man who called the shots, or neglected to, Mayor W. Wilson Goode was re-elected three years later, even winning the division that contained Osage Avenue.

I’ll bet no more of you would recognize May 13, than you would April 19, 1995, in which 168 Americans died. That was the Oklahoma City bombing by native-born terrorists. In Philly, the terrorists were the city government.

Goode accepted blame for what happened. He should, because he was the mayor and he did not come to the scene. He allowed the lawless situation on Osage to fester.

Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor deserves blame for a busted scheme that was supposed to blow a hole in the bunker to allow tear gas to be inserted. Residents of the block were evacuated the night before.

Fire Commissioner William Richmond is to blame for not following his instincts and putting the fire out. He faced two problems — gunfire from the house, and Sambor thought the fire would flush out those inside.

Finally, the MOVE radicals themselves. They wanted the confrontation. After months of inertia, and being deluged by complaints from neighbors, Goode finally ordered MOVE to be removed. 

”There was no way to avoid it. No way to extract ourselves from that situation except by armed confrontation,” Goode said. Maybe yes, maybe no. 

Sambor had arrest warrants for four MOVE members, and ordered them to come out. 

“The MOVE people refused all overtures of family, friends and clergy to mediate and to attempt to talk them into coming out,” Sambor said.

“This is America,” he told them over a bullhorn. “You have to abide by the laws of the United States.”

Not them, and gunfire erupted.

Do I hear some of you saying I am blaming the victim?

No, I am blaming the instigators, and then the city’s bungled response.

Am I missing something?

How can I write about the MOVE tragedy without mentioning race, the savage dividing line of American society?

OK — MOVE was African-American. The mayor who gave the orders was African-American. The city managing director who saw that the orders were carried out, Leo Brooks, was African-American. The fire and police commissioners were white.

The operation, which included 500 cops who fired 10,000 bullets during the siege, was conducted in the open, in the view of the media.

Could anything like that happen to white people? 

Another date: Aug. 21, 1992. The U.S. Marshals Service attacked a compound in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, to serve warrants for failure to appear on gun charges. A marshal, a woman and a teenage boy were killed. Those in the compound were white.

In Philadelphia, City Council is working on some sort of proclamation to mark the sad 35th anniversary. 

An expression of regret ought to do it. The shorter the better. 

22 thoughts on “MOVE: The tragedy that did not change Philly”

    “Designed Incompetence”; every body ignored this problem till it festered.
    more ignorance and stupidity: after the fire, the biggest fiasco was about to unfold.

  2. I felt sorry for the children who died and the neighbors who lost their homes. I hated MOVE and the city’s response to the standoff, and like thousands of other Philadelphians, I thanked God it didn’t happen under Rizzo’s watch.

  3. Stu, your article should be required reading for everyone wanting to know the true story of what happened. Many people blame either Philadelphia, or Move, for the issue instead of blaming both

    It was a very sad situation for Philadelphia, especially for those involved who just happened to live in that neighborhood.

  4. Here’s a little more fuel for the fire.
    Move never should have been permitted to exist in their format. No schooling for the kids. Pretty much no nothing for the members. For the neighbors, nothing but grief. Because of the times ( place yourself back there ), nobody did anything until it was too late. The Rizzo brothers crushed the movement when they decided to burn the house, then kill the cop. Commissioner Rizzo hit them hard. Look it up. 60 minutes, Mike Wallace, National News.
    Part two was worst, if that’s possible. Living ( existing ) in a ghetto, rented homes, everything negative. Years of filth, trash talking obscenities on loud speakers. Everything was illegal about MOVE, but they were aloud to exist and create a situation that you only see in war. BANG ! There goes the neighborhood.

    1. Tony, I agree with what you said. The administration in place during the second confrontation should have learned lessons from the Rizzo administration. Mayor Rizzo took too long in deciding what to do and in the end it might have contributed to Officer Ramp being killed by Move. The delay allowed Move to “dig in” making it more difficult to remove them. Mayor Goode should have acted much quicker. His delay also allowed Move, learning from what the city did previously, to dig in even deeper than in 1978.

      1. politics is a (sic) beautiful thing ! they WILL make money off of your back one way or another. Ghettos are a big money maker

          1. most of those people were collecting every dime that they could. even if they worked, they collected. ghettos is a two edged sword

  5. I believe Philadelphia is where the circular firing squad was created.
    Let us not forget that the City dropped a BOMB on the house. Unbelievable.

  6. Vince, Gregore Sambor, our then Police Commissioner was the person who decided to drop the bomb in order to destroy a bunker on top of the house and Mayor Goode apparently okayed it.

    1. Sometimes you have to say, “No.” Someone should have said ‘no’ to dropping a BOMB, for goodness sake!

      1. Vince, I wonder why our Governor, Dick Thornburgh, did not question it, or put the kibosh on it since it was our State Police who did the fly-over and dropped the bomb. I am sure they would have to have received permission from someone higher up than the Mayor.

  7. It is difficult sometimes to read comments from those who were not there, who state a position on hearsay, a newspaper clipping, and a visual replay of a tragic event. I respect people who make a choice to die just don’t force children and uniformed city employees to be involved. The police in both move incidents were acting under direct orders to perform their professional duties. Officer Jim Ramp was killed, while officer Tom Hesson was shot going to Ramps assistance. Both with families waiting for their arrival home from a dangerous profession. In move two the knowledge of the first was of little value when a city ignores any group and allows them the time to reinforce the front of a house with tree trunks and railroad lumber and build a bunker on the roof they failed the entire city. Again the police were forced to make a decision that may be an earlier intervention could have solved. We will never know but what we do know is once again move to choose confrontation and death by fire over being part of the human race. At move two police actually had to pull a child from the hands of her family who wanted her to burn to death with them. One final fact rarely mentioned was the spreading of kerosene on the roofs of Osage thus adding to the catastrophe. Having lost two friends who just wanted to return home safely I will find it difficult to seriously consider a proclamation written by politicians to fully pay homage, or even comprehend the two tragedies.

  8. I as understand it, ( cops in the family ), in addition to all of the above mentioned by Tom, much remains to be said. I certainly don’t remember all of the details leading up to either “Move Massacre” . One reason for the conflagration on #2 was the two 55 gallon drums of gasoline on the second floor.
    For the city to proclaim anything at this point is quite useless and unnecessary. If council goes forward with this proclamation, will they point the blame where it truly belongs ? Both sides, but Philly gets the lion’s share. Will they further proclaim the cost of graft and corruption of rebuilding Osage Ave. ? Minority contractors were given the work – not bid – given. It cost three times as much to rebuild a house. The huge sums of money that were just given out to every person on the street. Most were renters not home owners. All were placed in temporary housing, as they should. But carte blanche ? All were reimbursed for their belongings. If you sat there and listed half of Sears catalog, you got the money – no questions asked !
    Be it ever proclaimed that the City of Philadelphia, ripe with graft, greed coercion, revulsion ……………………

  9. I had to weigh in on this nonsense. I am curious if any Move members ever apologized to their neighbors. Oridinary citizens living in a city that failed them in every aspect, Allowing a group of terrorists to infiltrate their neighborhood and turn it into a living hell. These people are the only victims here, while they may have been compensated monetarily, their lives were changed forever.

    No matter how much they attempt to rewrite history, our leaders need to set the record straight, Move was a terrorist organization that demanded to be confronted. A former Mayor and his chosen officials made terrible choices, resulting in horrific devastation to a neighborhood. Feeble and corrupt attempts to rebuild were made and paid for by the taxpayers of Philadelphia which continued for decades.

    Now we have a progressive, freshman coincilperson pushing an apologetic proclamation to this terrorist group. I can only pray that the Mayor and Council act like leaders and refuse this attempt to rewrite this horrific event. A true leader would apologize to the neighbors and clearly omit any reference to Move.

    1. I was on duty, but our company did not respond. Other than being grateful for not having to be there and thankful that no FF’s were shot or killed, though there were a few injuries, my opinion would concur with Phillyborn’s. And I would add that my boss Bill Richmond, at the televised hearings clearly stated, paraphrasing, “…..plenty of blame to go around…..”
      In June of 2018 we lost a good man, beloved by all who worked under him, a ‘through the ranks’ Fire Comissioner.
      May he rest in peace.

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