The City that Bombed Itself

Reflections on the 36th Anniversary of the MOVE Bombing

The MOVE house, seconds after the second one-pound bomb was dropped. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

How could ghosts gain a foothold in American cities? People move about like the tide, unable to form permanent ties with places, to say nothing of other people. ––Fei Xiaotong, The World Without Ghosts

America, like every other country, is pockmarked with the remnants of cemeteries. Historically, cemeteries demarcated the boundaries of one’s country––to be from a place meant to have ancestors who were buried there. As Louis Althusser notes, we enter a built, constructed world; even before we breathe our first breath, our parents mark out a nominal and physical space for us in their lives. Yet, this future-oriented ideology bears little resemblance to a globalized vision of the world. It is no longer certain what space the unborn (ünmensch) will take up in physical or virtual space. It may very well be true that there are 14 times more dead bodies in the ground than living, breathing humans, but we are socially conditioned to forget that fact: the living serve only themselves.

As Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong intones, America may be a land of the dead, but it is a land which also lacks ghosts (in the sense of living monuments to our ancestry and culture). Our ghosts are stories we use to scare children at night or comic book tales of Bizarro Superman, rather than the very real bodies that surround us everyday. 

Perhaps no one knows this better than the family of John Africa.

In the 1970s, Africa founded MOVE (which is not an acronym but a command) as a radical and militant outcropping of his Black liberatory politics and natural law theology. Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Africa and his followers advocated against the military industrial complex, the new Jim Crow, and animal cruelty indiscriminately. In 1978, Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo had had enough of MOVE’s political tactics and beliefs, and forcibly attempted to incarcerate or remove members from their household. Through a series of tactics including outright violence which left an infant dead and a series of blockades designed to cut off MOVE’s access to food and water, the police were largely unsuccessful. In August, the stalemate erupted into violence as police flooded into the MOVE house’s basement with firehoses, tear gas, and bullets, resulting in the death of PPD Officer James J. Ramp 

In the aftermath of that deadly skirmish (rendered in exquisite detail by Tommy Oliver’s 2020 documentary, 40 Years a Prisoner), MOVE members relocated to a Cobbs Creek Village home by 1986. While living there, MOVE members accrued a series of noise complaints, outstanding arrest warrants, and terroristic threats—members would often take a megaphone into the streets, indiscriminately shouting their political messages at neighbors.

On May 13, 1986, 500 members of the PPD, under the direction of Mayor Wilson Goode, descended on the property in an attempt to force all 13 occupants (six children, seven adults) to vacate the premises. In so doing, the PPD employed a variety of tactics, including shutting off all water and power, firing 10,000 bullets, and recourse to American law: “Attention MOVE: This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States.” To no avail.

Seeing the ineffectual nature of all previous tactics, Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor decided to increase the intensity of the PPD’s efforts. Ordering all surrounding neighbors to evacuate, with the instructions that they would be allowed to return within 24 hours, Sambor prepared for an aerial assault. From a helicopter, Police Lt. Frank Powell dropped two one-pound bombs, targeting the roof of the MOVE house. The explosives, for which the FBI supplied the reactive agent, did what they had been designed to do. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

The 65 houses surrounding the MOVE headquarters burned (firefighters were discouraged from fighting the blaze due to fear of being attacked by MOVE members), while 11 members of MOVE were killed. According to Ramona Africa, one of the two survivors, police shot at any members attempting to flee the house, earning the city the moniker of “The City that Bombed Itself.”

In the drawn-out legal aftermath of this fiasco, the city paid $1.5 million in damages to the survivors due to violations of constitutional rights (1996), and $12.83 million in damages to the residents whose houses burned down (2005). Just in 2020, the Philadelphia City Council established May 13 as a citywide holiday, remembering the tragic (illegal and avoidable) loss of life.

Even today, the embedded cultural memory of the MOVE bombings affects the lives and thinking of local residents.

But last month, the fear and anguish of the MOVE bombing explicitly resurfaced when journalist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad revealed that anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University had been using a burned femur and pelvis from the murdered MOVE children as teaching tools for the past 36 years. Unbeknownst to the Africa family, Professor Janet Monge had filmed a training video with the bones (referring to them as “juicy” and “greasy”) which was in use as recently as last year, and has been pulled in the aftermath of the recent controversy. As of this writing, the Museum has publicly apologized to the Africa family and opened up a private investigation into the matter “to help us ensure that nothing of this nature is repeated in the future.”

As Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier told the New York Times, “It’s just an unbelievable amount of disrespect for Black life and an unbelievable amount of disrespect for a child who suffered trauma, a child who was killed by her own government.”

While human remains are potentially an integral aspect of anthropological training, questions of whose bones can and should be used remain unclear, and dovetail with the colonial collection history of museums writ large. The Penn Museum itself, where the bones were stored, recently apologized for its possession of hundreds of human skulls collected by a nineteenth-century physician and used to justify scientific racist theories of racial fitness and white supremacy.

A skull from the Penn Museum’s now-repatriated Morton Collection. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

While at the Penn Museum, the bones were stored in a cardboard box on a shelf––a far cry from the temperature and environmental controls usually afforded to such bones––and have mysteriously disappeared in transit between the two universities. Rather than respecting the rights of the dead to be forgotten, the Africa children’s bones have been picked apart for decades, without any kind of oversight or responsibility towards the living. Other children’s bodies from the MOVE bombing were returned to relatives and given a proper burial in the 1980s. Yet, the treatment of these bones, while reprehensible, is hardly a surprising invention of a culture without ghosts, without a permanent history. 

The treatment of these bones is just one contemporary examples of the ongoing exploitation and misuse of Black bodies for academic research––practices which extend from J. Marion Sims’ gynecological experiments on enslaved women and the harvesting of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells to the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and administering contraceptives to Black teenagers in Baltimore. 

Are Americans so surprised to discover yet another instance of cultural erasure and harm?

America, the land without ghosts, is full of a constellation of cases of mistreated, mismarked, and desecrated remains. In Southampton, New York, the indigenous Shinnecock people are often refused repatriation of ancestors found to be buried on what is now private property. As Shinnecock Preservation Officer David Bunn Martine writes, “[the tribe] must not fool ourselves into thinking that since we no longer occupy all of our ancient territories, that we abdicate all connection with that territory.” Beyond such disputes over repatriation, residents in Southampton perpetually seek to impinge on the Shinnecock’s rights over its land, resulting in a 2020 standoff over a series of proposed billboards on indigenous land. For local billionaires, the billboards represent a perversion of the natural state of nature, a blemish on the undeveloped landscape, while for the Shinnecock, they represent financial solvency and a visible assertion of their existence.

Look no farther than Cheesman Park in Denver, Colorado for another egregious example. The former site of the Denver City Cemetery, Cheesman Park is now home to a lovely public park, paved over the graves of nineteenth-century residents. Purchased from the federal government, by way of the Arapaho tribe, for $200, the cemetery was the preferred burial ground for minorities including foreigners, Jews, outlaws, and other outcast members of society. 

By 1890, the federal government deemed the cemetery to be unsightly and gave families 90 days to claim and rebury their relatives, or they would be removed by undertaker E.P. McGovern. McGovern, in an effort to cut costs, purchased a series of children’s caskets and defaced or otherwise desecrated various corpses in order to fit them into the smaller spaces. 

As reported in the March 1893 issue of the Denver Republican, body parts and bones were strewn about the cemetery, leaving them open to looting by local souvenir hunters: “The line of desecrated graves at the southern boundary of the cemetery sickened and horrified everybody by the appearance they presented.” Due to McGovern’s shoddy incompetence, nearly 2,000 bodies still remain buried under the neat grass of Cheesman Park, while residents circulate tales of paranormal activity or offer ghost tours of the park.

While ghost stories may haunt American television screens, the true Gothic horrors of experimentation, mutilation, and postmemory linger under the surface, uncannily repressed until they burst under the weight of their own contradictions. Don’t forget that several of the original Black Panthers have been sitting in American prisons for four decades (and eight have died behind bars), despite the resurgent popularity of the movement and discoveries of Cointelpro’s role in dismantling the Panthers. Both familiar and shocking, such stories of forgotten history are never far from any American town, you just need to look.

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Editor’s note: On May 13, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley resigned after officials discovered that, in 2017, he had ordered the cremation of several of the MOVE children’s bodies without informing their family or any other government officials.