When the police bombed Philly: Why do people write articles like this?

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

I’ve never heard of the “MOVE bombing,” but on May 13th and in the days that followed some people on Facebook posted about it. I didn’t have time to read these articles initially but my interest was piqued. So when I saw NPR’s ‘Why have so many people never heard of the MOVE bombing,’ I was ready to click and read.

Juicy details up front “Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a residential neighborhood, leaving 11 dead — including five children.” The author continues in another sentence to note that “so many people had never heard about the time American law enforcement bombed U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.” He continues, “The details are so extreme, so over-the-top. How have we forgotten this?” An answer is  provided by an interviewee, “She thinks the reason was ideological: MOVE’s quasi-Rastafarian, anti-technology, pro-animal-rights worldview doesn’t neatly fit on any part of the political spectrum.” There are some more generalized descriptions, MOVE is related to “violent fringe movements that ended in deadly mayhem.” And some details, “They clashed with local Philly cops and some state police.” Then the conclusion, “The MOVE story faded into relative obscurity partly because no one connects with their cause today.”

And that’s the end. Wait, so where are the details about the “MOVE bombing.” The police dropped a bomb on people, killing kids, ok. But what, when, where, why, how? Well, we know when, it was May 13, 1985. The details are “so extreme,” writes the author. But where are these extreme details in the text? Read it again.  The only thing we learn is about some “violent fringe” movement of “quasi Rastafarians” and then there is some clash with police and then a bombing. What does “MOVE” even stand for? Why would police drop a bomb on something? How. What happened after? How and why did the clashes start? What’s the context?

Ironically, the author’s question can be answered by the article itself. So many people have never heard of the MOVE bombing because of articles like this. Because people who write about it don’t provide any information. I’ve already forgotten about the bombing after reading the article because the author didn’t tell us anything about it. Nothing compelling. Nothing human. No facts. There are some generalized key words, that make you think there are juicy details, but then no details. What is “violent fringe”? What is “quasi rastafarian”? No explanation, no context. Nothing.

So I looked and saw the same author had written another article about how “30 years later I’m still trying to make sense of the MOVE bombing.” Tempting. Let’s read it. It happened at “62nd and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.” I’m not from Philly, so what is West Philly like? Is that an African-American part of town? Is it poor, ghetto-like? Or what?

In this article the author found a woman who was in the house and “was battered by police bullets and deluge guns and, eventually, brought down by a makeshift bomb dropped from a police helicopter.” Ok. Then we get, “The MOVE bombing was a cataclysm for my hometown.” Now some context, the bombing is part of “the mutual distrust between the police and black communities, the militarization of local law enforcement agencies.” The author interviews his mother who recalls, “all of the local stations were reporting from a standoff in West Philly between the police and MOVE, a radical group that had turned a row house at 6221 Osage Ave. into a fortified compound.” Then we learn more about the siege and standoff, including the “Deluge guns.” What are deluge guns?

Towards the end of the story we actually get the beginning of the siege, “someone from the MOVE house began shooting at the police.” The author tells us 500 police fired 10,000 bullets at the compound, it is unclear how many were fired back. “It was chaos, and it went on like that all day — gunshots and explosions and well-tended homes nearby being shot up and blown apart.” We learn that the police dropped a bomb on the compound. How the bomb was made is unclear. “In the end, 11 people died in the fire. Five of them were children. It took weeks before the police were able to identify their remains.” Were any police wounded? Unclear.

Of interest now is that the author tells the story of MOVE, and a photo shows the members in their compound with guns. One suspects if the members were members of a white militia this story might be narrated differently, not just details about “constitutional rights.” Instead we learn, “Indeed, their antics and outspokenness often put them on the wrong side of many local and community groups they were lumped in with.”  Yes, parading around a city with guns is “antics.” There was even a deal with the city in 1978, “they would turn over their weapons and leave their building if the city would release several MOVE members from city jails.” And wait…here’s something interesting. During an attempt to remove a MOVE member in 1978, “an officer named James Ramp fell to the ground and died. Sixteen other police officers and firefighters were injured.” In some ways the confrontation reminds us of Waco in the 1990s. “Over the years, Africa [a MOVE member] has maintained that when MOVE members tried to escape the burning building to surrender, the police opened fire on them and they were forced back inside.”

The Wikipedia page on the bombing has more information. “police obtained arrest warrants charging four occupants with crimes including parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terrorist threats.” And we learn “proceeded to drop two one-pound bombs” which were made from “FBI-supplied water gel explosive.” So not a barrel bomb like Assad uses. Something else as well: “The MOVE Commission issued its report on March 6, 1986. The report denounced the actions of the city government, stating that ‘Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.'”

So how is it that one can read two articles on something and learn so little and read a Wikipedia page and fill in all the obvious gaps. For instance what does MOVE stand for? It’s apparently a name gleaned from an earlier name for the group that has to do with “Christian Movement for Life.”

The obvious problem with the articles was the attempt to obfuscate about why the police came to the compound in the first place and to downplay as “antics” things that are much more serious. To try to mislead readers with stories about “fringe” without explaining what happened. But the deeper problem is simply lack of basic information. Articles should have basic information and definitions. They should explain things rather than confuse them.

Unfortunately here you have a fascinating story that was ill-told.

 

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