Thirty years ago today, on May 13, 1985, a part of West Philadelphia became a war zone. A group of radical residents called MOVE – who advocated a return to nature and strongly identified with their African roots – were holed up in their home on Osage Avenue in an armed bunker they’d built on the roof. Years of animosity had led up to this day. In a 1978 raid on their home, a police officer was killed (possibly by friendly fire) and several of their members were beaten by police and given long prison sentences. Since then, MOVE had been stockpiling weapons, terrifying their neighbors, and preparing for the next confrontation with police.
Before the raid that day, neighbors evacuated from their homes, many of them looking forward to finally being rid of this nuisance. But things would go a bit off the rails. Unable to raid the house or flush out the residents with normal tactics, Philadelphia police decided to do something a little more drastic.
They flew a helicopter low over the house and dropped a small bomb on the roof.
Even as the bomb slowly ignited a fire inside the building, city and police officials initially held off on having the fire department put it out. When they finally decided to start, an entire city block was burning to the ground. By the next morning, over 60 homes were destroyed, dozens were left homeless. 11 MOVE members were dead.
A documentary called “Let the Fire Burn” provides a great recounting of news footage and historical context from the decade leading up to this disaster. Most remarkable to me was footage of the testimony given to a special commission set up to investigate just how and why this happened, which makes up a significant part of the film.
There were two aspects of the documentary that stood out to me. The first is how much it reminded me of Waco. The MOVE organization was clearly a cult, and the children who were in their care were clearly being abused. The surviving adult members who testified to the commission afterwards gave winding and delusional answers to questions when it was obvious they’d been caught in lies.
The other aspect is how hard it was for the police to hide how their antagonism towards MOVE had become personal and how this led to a conclusion that was more emotional catharsis than proper crisis resolution. The deeper question that the film leads to is determining how much of the growing antagonism was perpetuated by police actions over the years, and how much was the natural result of a cult with a history of irrational behavior. The two things appeared to feed off each other; the inclination of the police towards unchecked aggression and the inclination of MOVE towards unhinged paranoia.
In my last civil liberties roundup, I talked about the lack of transparency in our drone strike program. It was on my mind as the footage from the October 1985 commission showed city and police officials struggling to answer questions about the decisions made that day. It reinforced that the secrecy of these programs comes first and foremost from a desire to avoid this type of scrutiny over the decisions being made. It’s easier to accept the possibility of collateral damage if no one is looking over your shoulder asking if there was a better course of action.
And that’s only part of the problem. It’s also easier to accept the possibility of collateral damage if you think of those being affected only as faceless, nameless “others”, and especially if the general public shares that broad sentiment. Ed Rendell, who was the District Attorney at the time, comes off as a complete madman in some of his testimony, and yet he went on to become both Mayor and Governor. There really wasn’t much of a public penalty for treating an entire neighborhood of West Philadelphia as expendable. As bad as this problem was in 1980s Philadelphia, it’s significantly worse when it happens clear on the other side of the world. Hardly anyone in this country blinks when innocent civilians in Pakistan or Yemen are killed or have their lives destroyed.
Recently, the New York Times put together an important statistical analysis showing that there are roughly 1.5 million “missing” black men in the United States. The best way to understand these figures is to see it as collateral damage from the drug war. And not just the drug war directly, but also indirectly – from the various ways that drug war-inspired legislation and judicial decisions have greatly skewed towards giving police and prosecutors greater power to search people’s homes, to take their possessions, to arrest them in greater numbers, and to send them to prison for longer periods of time.
This is the most glaring, inexcusable, civil liberties crisis in modern America. Just as Philadelphia city officials never would’ve dropped a bomb in a middle-class, white neighborhood, the drug war is only fought in areas where collateral damage carries little political risk. Thirty years after the MOVE fire, that collateral damage is in the form of overcrowded prisons and broken minority communities in nearly every major U.S. city.
A great example of this collateral damage happened right at the half-way point between then and now. In Tulia, Texas in 2000, a crooked drug cop very nearly put half the town’s population of young black men in prison. It’s as vivid an illustration as one can find for how our mass incarceration crisis unfolded. Even as it started to become clear that the entire set of drug cases were based on fabrications, the natural inclination of the city officials, prosecutors, and judges was to ignore it and keep sending people to jail. It’s sobering to imagine how many similar situations played out silently all across America, putting untold numbers of innocent people behind bars. There’s no question that this makes up a significant part of the 1.5 million missing black men.
I was 9 and living in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia when the MOVE fire happened. Absolutely none of this made any fucking sense at the time. The idea of the police carelessly burning down your house was well beyond what I could understand at that age. My parents, who both grew up in urban areas and met at college in West Philadelphia, understood it quite well. They were very content to now live in semi-rural Chester County, away from the high crime rates, police corruption, and general dysfunction of Philadelphia in the 70s and 80s.
Like many progressives in my parents’ generation, they were strong supporters of civil rights in their younger years, but over time paid little attention to the growing mass incarceration crisis – which grew with some huge assists from progressive politicians afraid of being seen as weak on crime. This is finally starting to change. In fact, one of the heroes of the Tulia story, ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, has been appointed by the Obama Administration to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
But not everyone is keeping up with the times. Last week, Radley Balko wrote this tremendous piece in response to several op-eds warning Hillary Clinton against addressing this crisis, as if nothing has changed in public perception in the last several decades. Thirty years ago, it wasn’t hard to look at the situation in our cities and sympathize with extreme responses to the crime rate. Today, with significantly lower crime rates, militarized police forces using weapons of war, near-daily occurrences of questionable police shootings, and a complete inability to hold police accountable for bad behavior, it’s obvious that the bigger concern should be the amount of crime happening in the other direction.
As Hillary Clinton sets out to return to the White House, she knows she can’t rally young voters without acknowledging the collateral damage from the drug war and demonstrating a real willingness to go in a new direction. One advantage she has is that just about every other Democrat of her generation supported the same slew of terrible ideas that came out of the crime politics of the 80s and have left us with overflowing prisons across the U.S. Martin O’Malley, as mayor of Baltimore, was atrocious. Senator Joe Biden was one of the primary architects of the modern drug war machine. A notable exception is Jim Webb, who despite some other notable flaws as a candidate, has understood the mass incarceration crisis a lot longer than most other politicians.
A lot has changed in the thirty years since the MOVE fire. Social media – and the work of many dedicated journalists – deserve a lot of credit for starting to bridge the humanity gap that widened in the 70s and 80s with respect to America’s neglected minority communities. Uprisings against police unaccountability in various cities are presented with much more context today. Even many conservatives recognize the subtle race-based tyranny of Ferguson’s court system, the shame of having the highest rates of incarceration in the world, the injustice of asset forfeiture, or the affront to liberty of SWAT teams breaking into people’s homes for weed. A generation of giving police more and more power is finally being called to account for the collateral damage it’s caused. And it’s a good bet that over the next thirty years, as our shrinking world bridges the humanity gap across borders and oceans, a similar reckoning will happen on a global scale.