John Africa started the MOVE group in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1972, and it is still active today. As a way of greeting one another, members would use the phrase “on the MOVE.”
On street corners throughout Philadelphia, members of the MOVE group shouted out against racial and environmental injustice, and they demonstrated in front of a number of different organizations. Members of the group were frequently arrested and imprisoned during these demonstrations.
In March of 1976, while seven MOVE members were returning home from imprisonment, the police were summoned to their home on the pretense that they were responding to a complaint of disruption of the peace. Following the altercation, as MOVE member Janine was attempting to defend her husband Phil from being attacked by police, she was dragged to the ground while cradling her three-week-old baby, Life Africa, in her arms and tossed to the ground. Janine was trampled on by police until she was nearly unconscious, and baby Life was crushed to death as a result of the beating. No officer was ever indicted or prosecuted for any offense.
MOVE members regrouped in 1981 and relocated to 6221 Osage Avenue in Kansas City. There were bunkers both within and on top of the home, making it look like a fortress. They continued to hold rallies and broadcast their thoughts by bullhorn from the rooftop bunker, which was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Neighbors and government agencies have filed several complaints against MOVE, accusing the organization of disrupting the peace, providing unhealthy housing conditions, and endangering children. MOVE members have responded violently to several past attempts to remove them from their positions. As a result, the city shut off the family’s water and electricity, as well as their trash collection, further escalating tensions with the group.
On May 13, 1985, city leaders dispatched police officers to serve arrest warrants, with instructions to use lethal force whenever necessary. Residents in the surrounding area were instructed to evacuate, but that they might return to their homes the following day. The block was surrounded by about 500 cops in SWAT gear, who were backed up by heavy artillery and an anti-tank machine gun. A shot fired from within the MOVE residence was met by a volley of more than 10,000 rounds fired in 90 minutes, all of which were fired into the residence.
Firefighters from five different fire trucks sprayed thousands of gallons of water through the basement, while tear gas was thrown into the home’s windows. SWAT forces attempted to gain entrance into the residence by blasting holes in the walls of neighboring homes. Members of MOVE took refuge in the basement of the house, holding children aloft to keep them from drowning in the rising waters below.
After an all-day stalemate, the city decided to use a C-4 bomb to detonate on the roof of the residence. Although the bunker did not collapse, the roof of the house was completely enveloped in flames. Sixty-five neighborhood homes were demolished, and more than two hundred residents were displaced.
There were eleven deaths, including John Africa and five children, among the MOVE members. Two people survived the bombing but were severely burned: one adult, Ramona, and one kid, Birdie (13 years old). Ramona was found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to seven years in prison. She eventually filed a lawsuit against the city, and in 1996, she was given a $1.5 million compensation.
The incident has been the subject of numerous articles, books, and two documentaries, The Bombing of Osage Avenue (1986) and Let the Fire Burn (2013), both of which have been created. By the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, a historical marker was built at the intersection of Osage and Cobbs Creek Parkway in 2017. Planning efforts by local officials and private corporations to rebuild the area have been unsuccessful, and the boarded-up residences have remained vacant.