The MOVE Organization vs. The Philadelphia Police pt 1

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This is how I know I’m lame: I first heard about the MOVE conflict with Philadelphia police while reading the lyrics to Atom and His Package’s song “Philadelphia” which has the tossed-off line: “…and we only bombed our own city once, one time”.

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I still remember May 13, 1985, my dad was driving me to little league when the news on KYW came out that the police bombed Osage Avenue. The troubled history and racism of Philly’s police is without a doubt. However, I caution making martyrs of MOVE, they were more than just political radicals, they were a quasi-religious cult who preached a rejection of science and medicine in favor of a return to a hunter-gatherer society. They built an armed compound (despite what the comic says, they were stockpiling working guns and bombs). They were more akin to the Branch Davidians (with John Africa at their core) than they were the Black Panthers.

The shootout spurred a bunch of riots at the time, too. Philadelphia was really conflicted about MOVE. Neighbors in Powelton Village hated them (they piled garbage and human waste in the yard) but community activists rallied to them. They had a lot of support from Penn students, particularly a guy named Don Glassey, who worked with John Africa when Africa was more of a classic Left radical and not so much of a cult leader.

You can still read the Philadelphia Inquirer’s MOVE archives:

There is also an amazing documentary on YouTube about 1978, that captures a lot of the spirit of the times:

So, are we drawing a link between the MOVE fire and “The Roof is on Fire,” because the song predated the bombing by at least year. If you aren’t drawing the link, isn’t that a tad distasteful?


Love that song. Atom riffs off an old Philly tourist slogan: Philadelphia: Get to Know Us! Coincidentally, also from 1985, the year of the Osage bombing.

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I don’t know much about them, but I don’t know if its fair to say that their rejection of science and medicine makes them “more than just political radicals”. It sounds like standard anarcho-primitivism to me. I tend to favor scientific thinking myself, but the notion that what most people refer to as “progress” is something of an illusion - and that ways of living which have worked for humans for millions of years re perfectly valid choices - I think is a legitimate position. What frustrates people about it, I suspect, is that politics traditionally imposes the same kind of lifestyle on “everyone”.


Agreed, and beyond glamorizing MOVE from a modern perspective, I think the cartoon overstates the extent of public sympathy for them, at least prior to the bombing. While they may have been supported by community activists, Penn students, and others predisposed to distrust the police, I think the first blockade and confrontation painted them as “armed nuts” rather than victims in the eyes of most of the city – like an urban black version of the 90s Waco Branch Davidians.

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It went a little beyond anarcho-primitivism. It had all the hallmarks of a religious cult with John Africa at the center. Most folks would have been tolerant of them, even in the 70s but they were also dancing on the public menace side of provocative. Not just the loudspeakers 24/7, but the mounds and mounds of (quite literal) shit and threats of violent reprisals against neighbors who spoke up.

There are no heroes in the MOVE story just plenty of victims.


I remember watching the Frontline report as a small child in the late 80s and even then I found the city of Philadelphia’s actions reprehensible.

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There is a superb 2013 documentary entitled “Let the Fire Burn” that really breaks down how the whole MOVE mess started and tragically ended. I haven’t read the entire Hip Hop Family Tree comic book, but I find it hard to believe such a complex story could be accurately told in one comic book. (Other than that, I have been really enjoying the snippets of Hip Hop history that BB has been posting).

I’m somewhat puzzled why “Hip Hop Family Tree” would tackle this subject. I thought this series was focusing on folks such as Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, and what not.

Looks like they cast the cops from “Sabotage”

I always considered using the screen name “Sir Stewart Wallace as Himself”

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There are still a lot of weird little black cults, and I’m not clear how closely they resemble white supremacist Christian identity churches. There are a surprising number of them listed as hate groups on the SPLC web site. The cops seem to give them a wide berth, possibly because of the MOVE fiasco. However, they do pop up in the news now and then when a group murders one of their own members.

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I have some trust in our narrator, and am willing to wait and see what the connection is. Which, from being important enough to have an entire episode devoted to it, I expect will be considerable and fascinating.

One thing that just struck me as fucked up reading about MOVE a few months back was the fact that the cops were even able to get their hands on dynamite (actually it was liquid blasting agent, dissolved ANFO) and who the fuck signed off on letting a few city pigs drop it from a helicopter?

It’s just a sickening level of corruption from the city.

If they really felt that terrorized by MOVE, there’s a whole administration for handling that kind of thing that doesn’t involve the police. Basically it was the cops wanting to play army, without wanting the justification it takes to call in, for instance, the state or national guards. The ones actually qualified to do militarized operations.

Which isn’t to say I have any judgements on the issue with regard to MOVE other than the comic itself makes them seem like assholes, and if they were on the bullhorn 24/7 I’d probably call the cops on them too. It’s a tragedy for many, I didn’t experience it, and I don’t know enough of the history to be of much opinion. But it’s clear to me that cops don’t need dynamite. Ever. That’s not a weapon you can justify putting in police hands. It’s clearly a weapon of war, and is beyond the scope of need even for SWAT teams.

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Philly has a great history of Black religious movements/cults. Some benign, even positive and others not so much, like MOVE (which began as a Christian group) or Faith Tabernacle, whose anti-vax stance managed to cause a measles outbreak in the early 90s (girding the loins of a young Paul Offit with righteous infectious disease anger). You see a great big sign of it on Broad Street with the old Divine Lorraine hotel.

Philly has a great history with religious cults from its inception–beginning with Kelpius and the hermits of the Wissahickon soon after the city’s founding. Heck, Quakerism was something of a benign cult movement at the time.

Here’s another good MOVE overview. MOVE 101: Why, 30 years ago, Philadelphia dropped a bomb on itself

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