Let the Fire Burn
This weekend is the anniversary of the Philadelphia police departments bombing of the MOVE organization where 11 people died, adults and children. The story is the topic of a new film Let the Fire Burn, dir. Jason Osder. Osder uses archival footage to retell a story too few know about the events of May 13, 1985 (Mother's Day weekend) where under the orders of then Mayor Goode, a bomb was dropped on a house in a residential neighborhood on Osage Street, the resulting fire allowed to burn down an entire community. I saw the film last night at Pacific Film Archive as a part of the 56th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival.
The only survivors were one adult and one child, Ramona Africa and Birdie Africa. Both were alive, though injured. Everyone else was killed. Though I knew the story, seeing it on the screen, hearing the inquiry held to evaluate the call to "let it burn," coupled with antagonism against MOVE members by Philadelphia police and municipality which had already been charged with excessive use of force when arresting nine members in a previous altercation, made the atrocity and the callousness of the perpetrators, more horrific. It was worse than Rwanda. Men charged with saving life, let a building with living people inside burn to the ground with no apparent regret or remorse when queried later at the hearing.
Only one officer, after seeing the child, Birdie Africa come out of the basement through the flames, decided to rescue him when he sees Ramona unable to get to him. This officer later quits the force because of PTSD. At the hearing, his testimony was the only one that conveyed sincere regret over what happened. From the police chief to the fire marshal, to individual officers involved in altercations with MOVE members, no one cared enough to put the fire out or at least protest the tactics used to stop this "terrorist group"
As one resident said as she watched her home burn to the ground, "It was war."
We remember these fallen comrades 28 years later, the MOVE 9 who are still being denied bail, and Mumia Abu Jamal whose sentence to death was commuted to life behind bars. He was one of the journalists covering the unfolding story 28 years ago.
There was supposed to be this huge arsenal of automatic weapons, and even after the search did not yield any such weapons in the MOVE house, the police chief would not admit that his men were the one's responsible for shooting other officers, not MOVE members whose cache consisted primarily of props: inoperable guns.
The hearing found the police and fire department guilty of wrong doing, but no one was imprisoned or fined or even lost their jobs while innocent lives were permanently disrupted, from little Birdie who is interviewed at length (in a separate query, in the judge's chambers) about MOVE that day and in general. He is quite an articulate little boy.
What emerges is a collective who cares about its children, believes in natural clean living and in the primacy of life and truth over darkness and deceit. There was a lot of love in this community which ate raw food, lived simply and didn't believe in hurting others.
Though young, Birdie understood the assault against his family and who the enemy was. After the officer(s) rescue him, he says to them, "Please don't shoot me."
The director said in a Q & A after the screening that his hope is to show the film in October to facilitate a healing conversation for the residents on Osage Street whom still have not recovered.