15 May 2015

From the Archives of Workers Vanguard

13 May 1985 MOVE Massacre

“Philly Inferno: Racist Murder!”

May 13 marks 30 years since the Philadelphia police firebombed the MOVE organization’s Osage Avenue home. Eleven black people, including five children, were burned alive and an entire city block was incinerated. We reprint below excerpts from our article “Philly Inferno: Racist Murder!” (WV No. 380, 31 May 1985), published soon after this atrocity.

The bombing culminated a 12-hour siege by Philly police on the MOVE commune for being a supposed public nuisance. Police water cannons pumped 1,000 gallons of water per minute at the house. Cops then fired over 10,000 rounds of ammunition before dropping a satchel of explosives (provided by the Feds) on the roof, which ignited the firestorm. As they let the fire burn, the police shot at anyone who attempted to flee. The sole adult survivor, Ramona Africa, spent seven years in prison for managing to escape. (For more, see “Let the Fire Burn: A Powerful Documentary on the 1985 Bombing of MOVE,” WV No. 1034, 15 November 2013.)

From the day of the bombing, the Spartacist League has solidarized with MOVE. In contrast, our reformist opponents, while denouncing “excessive” force, rushed to the defense of Wilson Goode, Philly’s first black mayor, who ordered the assault. For example, Workers World Party insisted that Goode was “merely informed” of the massacre and “not a participant in the plans.” For its part, the Socialist Workers Party participated in a liberal coalition that debated whether to censor the “far out” MOVE members at a May 30 demonstration called to protest the bombing. The SL was prepared to commit considerable forces to this event, but when MOVE understandably pulled out, in solidarity we did so as well.

In July 1985, the SL held a public forum in New York City where MOVE supporters spoke and were able to express their outrage and pain. During discussion, a League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) member denounced us for not polemicizing against MOVE, which would have been obscene, to say the least. The LRP later blamed the MOVE victims for their own massacre, writing: “MOVE’s isolation opened it up for a police siege” (Proletarian Revolution, Summer 1985).

The Partisan Defense Committee—a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the SL—began providing monthly stipends for Ramona Africa and the MOVE 9, who were imprisoned on frame-up charges of killing a Philly cop during a 1978 cop siege of their Powelton Village home. The PDC continues to provide stipends to the seven MOVE 9 members who remain incarcerated today, two having died behind bars. Free all the MOVE prisoners!

Through the MOVE prisoners, in the late 1980s we learned of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and award-winning journalist known as the “voice of the voiceless” who exposed the racist cop vendetta against MOVE and was later framed up for the December 1981 killing of a Philly police officer. Mumia spent three decades on death row, and he remains condemned to life in prison without parole. He is now gravely ill (see box). Free Mumia Abu-Jamal now!

We will not forget the May 1985 massacre of MOVE and on this anniversary we continue our fight to sear it into the collective memory of the working class and oppressed.

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“Attention, MOVE. This is America.” With this ultimatum, delivered over a cop bullhorn at 5:40 a.m. on May 13, there began the hideous siege and mass murder by firebombing of a black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. At least four black children, seven black men and women burned alive and entire city blocks destroyed in a deliberate firestorm. For the alleged “crime” of being a social nuisance, and without a fig leaf of legality hiding the state’s racist terror, MOVE members were incinerated, hundreds were left homeless and without possessions. Watch your ass or you could be next!—this was the message to the black people of America, and not just the black people. Black Democrat Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode vowed, “I would do it again.” But this wasn’t simply the act of Goode, his city manager, retired two-star general Leo Brooks, and the notoriously racist Philadelphia police department. The bloody tracks of Ronald Reagan’s “anti-terrorist” war on blacks, labor and the left are all over West Philadelphia. The grisly Philly firebombing is the symbol of Reagan’s America.

“Reagan Bombs Black Babies,” we headlined last issue, as the cops turned the neat Osage Avenue neighborhood of black homeowners into a raging inferno. Now as the details of the sinister operation emerge, it is utterly clear that this heinous crime was approved right at the top. Philadelphia police met with the FBI and reviewed strategy and tactics two days before the operation against MOVE began. Daryl “Choke Hold” Gates, chief of the notoriously racist Los Angeles Police Department, hailed the Philadelphia firestorm on the national TV show, “Face the Nation,” May 19, saying Mayor Goode was on his short “heroes list.” And U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese, speaking before the “California Peace Officers’ Association” in San Francisco May 16, praised Wilson Goode’s actions as “a good example” to emulate! Meese’s praise wasn’t for “any particulars” in the case, a Justice Department spokesman later claimed. Oh, no?...

This state demands blood sacrifice, like some Aztec god. It’s enough to turn you into a raving anarchist. (In fact, when Lenin wrote State and Revolution at the height of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the staid social democrats did accuse him of anarchism.) But the state rules on behalf of one class, the capitalist class, and more than a century after the Civil War it’s capitalist wage slavery that must be smashed to free black America.

Black working people must take the lead to break with the Democrats and fight for a freedom-labor party based on a class-struggle program to place the organized power of the unions firmly behind the just demands of the ghetto masses for liberation. And Philadelphia has a combative labor movement with a proven capacity to fight: transit workers and school employee unions have repeatedly gone on strike in recent years. The unions, particularly those with large black memberships, should have shut down Philly over this racist atrocity. After all, they’re high on the government’s hit list.

Wilson Goode and the firebombing of West Philadelphia are the ultimate proof that the black Democratic mayors are the front men for Reagan’s war on black people. In the 1960s as the ghettos burned with black rage and frustration, black mayors were installed in many of America’s big cities to put out the fires. But LBJ’s firemen are now Reagan’s arsonists. It is left to the communists to give organized expression to the felt outrage of the black people in the face of this bloody cop massacre and to fight for the elementary right of black self-defense against the racist terrorists.

Murder and Lies

In the aftermath of the West Philly massacre, Goode held thrice-daily press conferences, piling lie upon lie in hopes that the enormity of his crime would be buried under an avalanche of hysteria about MOVE. “We cannot permit any terrorist group or any revolutionary group...to hold a whole neighborhood or a whole city hostage,” he said. Some “terrorists”! MOVE grew out of a local commune, whose murky politics, variously described as “back-to-nature” and “anarchist,” are nothing but an inchoate cry of despair for the future of black people in racist America. They attacked no one, and just sat in their ramshackle commune waiting for the holocaust to hit. They even offered to surrender days earlier, if the mayor would guarantee no arrests. But a surrender wasn’t wanted. The rulers just burned them alive...for using a loudspeaker at 3 a.m. and violating the city sanitary code.

Goode said MOVE was an “urban guerrilla group bent on absolute destruction.” The “evidence”? The mayor could only cite housing code violations and unpaid utility bills. If you don’t pay your rent, they blow you away like Bronx black grandmother Eleanor Bumpurs. If you don’t pay the gas bill, they blow your house away—and the rest of the neighborhood for good measure. The only known survivors are Birdie Africa, 13, hospitalized with second-degree burns, and Ramona Johnson Africa, 30, imprisoned in lieu of $3.2 million
bail. The charges? “Conspiracy to riot” (by sitting in her house?) and “disorderly conduct.” Drop the charges against Ramona Johnson Africa and all the MOVE prisoners!

In the hours and days after the firebombing, Goode and police commissioner Sambor claimed MOVE had a massive arsenal in the house, including machine guns and semiautomatic weapons. What the press luridly called their “cache” of weapons turned out to be one rifle, two shotguns and three pistols—millions of American homes have as much. Explaining why police held back firefighters as the blaze spread, city manager Brooks said they feared sniper fire from people hiding in the “labyrinth of tunnels” around the house. No tunnels were found in the rubble....

The cops wanted to burn MOVE alive and they sat and watched for 90 minutes while Osage Avenue was in flames. Firemen were ordered to cease the use of water cannon, which were (safely) positioned in the next street. Jerry Africa, a spokesman for MOVE, reported that commune members tried to surrender after the bombing and ensuing fire, but “panicked and ran back into their burning building when police fired shots over their heads” (Chicago Tribune, 22 May). As cars melted from the heat blocks away, and the fire spread through 60 homes, Goode waited until every last man, woman and child in the MOVE house was burned alive, most apparently huddled in the basement....

Reagan’s “Anti-Terrorism” Means War on Blacks

The eviction operation was “perfect, except for the fire,” said Goode. The mayor says that approximately 20 minutes before the cops dropped it, they told him they were going to use a “percussion explosive” to blow a hole in the bunker on the roof. Still, Goode insists he takes “full responsibility” for the bombing; that is, he’d rather be seen as a mass murderer than a chump. What emerges is a picture of a conscious, planned operation designed to make sure that nobody got out of that house alive. Here America’s racist rulers take a page from their terrorist murder manuals for the CIA “contras” in Nicaragua, who as guard dogs of the Somoza dictatorship mercilessly bombed their own cities. From the crazed anti-Soviet crusaders in the White House bunker, the message is: West Philly was perfect. It was their program for black America. And their black flunkeys in City Hall do the dirty work.

From Goode’s diatribes against “urban guerrillas” to Meese’s congratulations, what happened on Osage Avenue has all the earmarks of a COINTELPRO-type operation straight out of Washington. Last issue we asked, “Where is the hand of Edwin Meese...in this affair?” Turns out he was pulling the strings. As the New York Times (19 May) reported, “Mr. Sambor said he and his aides met on Saturday, May 11, with local agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review the strategy and tactics to be used. ‘The F.B.I. found the plan sound,’ Mr. Sambor said.” And City Council member Lucien Blackwell commented:

“I think the mayor sat down with all the responsible parties, the district councilman, the district senator, the district state representative, the district attorney, FBI agents, the secret service, the managing director, the city solicitor, to make out a plan pursuing this very serious city problem.... I believe a lot of planning went into that decision.”

Daily Pennsylvanian, 17 May

The Osage Avenue massacre was no aberration. From the Los Angeles Police Department’s “Blue Thunder” attack helicopters and battering-ram tanks to New York’s stun-gun “torture precincts,” the rulers justify the growing paramilitarization of the cops in the
name of “war on terrorism.” To regiment the American people for nuclear Armageddon with the Soviet Union, Reagan and Meese have created a “terrorism” scare in order to institute real “state-supported terrorism” at
home. This includes sweeping police state measures like the new FBI Security/Terrorism Guidelines which label all opponents of the government outlaws to be shot down in the dead of night; and the “shoot first” National Security Directive 138 which unleashes U.S. military and intelligence forces to carry out unprovoked “strikes” against “terrorist” targets. There are also the police state military “exercises,” such as the martial law atmosphere surrounding last year’s Democratic National Convention in San Francisco and the “free world” Olympics in Los Angeles.

As for Wilson Goode, one high-schooler remarked, “What kind of mayor would do something that would kill children and burn down the houses of people that voted for him?” LaVerne Africa knows what kind: “You know, he is worse than [former police chief and then mayor Frank] Rizzo? Rizzo hated MOVE and never tried to pretend he didn’t.... We knew Rizzo wouldn’t dare to bomb MOVE. We didn’t know Wilson Goode.... You know, people defend him—because he’s black.... Had that been a white mayor they would’ve been outraged.” That’s right, Wilson Goode is in there to do what notorious racist Rizzo never could. (His 1978 assault on MOVE where 600 cops moved in, again without any legal pretext of criminal charges, evoked widespread sympathy for the group—nine MOVE members are still in jail for defending themselves against the cops.) Now with hundreds of people burned out of their homes, the mayor is talking in penny-ante terms about money to rebuild, while Pennsylvania Republican governor Thornburgh refuses to declare the fire-ravaged blocks a disaster area. Homes it took a lifetime to pay for have been wiped out—the government should give each displaced family a million bucks just for openers!

Before he allowed his own city to be bombed, Mayor Wilson Goode was touted as one of the premier black Democrats of the 1980s. He even rated a meeting with Walter Mondale last year, as a possible vice presidential candidate. From ex-cop “Uncle” Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, to ex-SNCC leader Marion Barry in Washington, D.C., black Democratic mayors preside over the misery and oppression that is the reality of life in black America. The poverty program pork barrels are long gone—today the black mayors campaign for Reagan’s program of a sub-minimum wage for teenagers. And where there are strikes to be broken, protests over killer cops to be quashed, or the KKK wants its “right” to do some provocative nightriding in the heart of the black inner cities, it’s these black front men for Reagan racism who get the job.

We communists say black Democrat Wilson Goode is as guilty as Republican Ronald Reagan and the racist cops for the murder of eleven blacks, women and children alike. The liberals now apologize for this calculated obliteration of a black neighborhood—to do otherwise requires a break from the whole myth of the “new black power” at the voting booth, organized through the Democratic Party of George Wallace and Jesse Jackson. That is why we are now witnessing the obscene spectacle of the black establishment supporting Goode amid the screams of black babies. Harlem’s Amsterdam News (25 May) headlined, “MOVE was White Man’s Idea,” talking of MOVE’s “confrontations...with the law” (a hunger strike!); and the City Sun (22-28 May) calls Goode “The Man in the Middle.”

It’s not only cynical Democratic Party vote hustlers like Jesse Jackson who have maintained a deafening silence or rallied to the side of Wilson Goode. The groveling reformists of the Communist Party call for “a federal investigation” into the firebombing—that is, for the criminal Edwin Meese to investigate the crime! Demanding the resignations of police chief Sambor, city manager Brooks, and fire chief Richmond, they let Mayor Wilson “I’d do it again” Goode off the hook. Progressive Labor was one of the few groups not blinded by loyalty to black Democrats. But while calling a protest against Goode’s massacre May 18, these stupid sectarians kept it a private affair, refusing a united front offer from the Spartacist League. The SL initiated and led the Labor/Black Mobilization which brought out 5,000 people and stopped the KKK from marching in the nation’s capital on 27 November 1982, an anti-racist victory which stands in sharp contrast to the defeats and sellouts which black people have endured in recent years. As in Washington, PL prefers waving flags on the sidelines to leading genuine mass struggle in this country.

The Osage Avenue massacre was supposed to be a message to anybody who gets “out of line” in Reagan’s America—blacks will get the Philly treatment, labor will get the PATCO treatment, and everyone, not least the Marxists, will get the “terrorist” treatment. But you can fight the terrorists in City Hall and the White House and win. Black people do have social power: they are concentrated in some of the key sections of the American proletariat, constituting its most militant layer. But to unlock this power means breaking the capitalist two-party stranglehold, fighting for a workers party to mobilize labor and oppressed blacks in revolutionary struggle against this racist, capitalist system. Avenge the Philly inferno—For black freedom through socialist revolution!

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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1068, 15 May 2015)

Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.