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Philadelphia Marks 30th Anniversary Of MOVE Bombing


Thirty years ago today, Philadelphia police bombed the row home of a group of radical black activists called MOVE. It happened during a standoff with the group. The explosion caused a fire that killed 11 MOVE members inside the home, including five children. It destroyed 61 houses on the block and devastated the neighborhood.

There's still debate over what happened and why, but many see the bombing as part of a decades-long tradition of violent policing aimed at African-Americans. Jeanette Woods reports.


JEANETTE WOODS, BYLINE: Gerald Renfrow has lived on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia for most of his life. When MOVE came to his block, Renfrow says at first he was fine with his new neighbors - but not for long.

GERALD RENFROW: MOVE started boarding up their windows and doors. They erected a stage in front of the house where they could espouse their philosophy with loudspeakers using profanity all hours of the day and night.

WOODS: Renfrow’s home burned in the 1985 fire but was rebuilt. He still lives on the same spot, and he’s still upset about what happened to MOVE.

RENFROW: City Hall took the position that we'll exterminate them.

WOODS: Violent, overzealous policing against the black community had been a complaint across Philadelphia for decades. Throughout the 1970s, MOVE and police clashed as the group defied legal efforts to regulate their back-to-nature lifestyle. When a police officer died in a siege of another home occupied by MOVE members, it left intense anger on both sides.

DONALD TIBBS: That desire to live the way that they wanted to live then becomes the fuse (laughter) that lights the powder keg.

WOODS: Donald Tibbs, a law professor at Drexel University, says to understand what happened between police and MOVE, you need to look at the history of blacks being met with force when they challenged the white establishment - from slave revolts to the beating of civil rights protesters.

TIBBS: You see that the police have developed a framework for managing black self-determination, which really is any blackness that challenges this sort of white mainstream way of life.

WOODS: Despite years of efforts to reform the police, a recent investigation by the federal Justice Department recommended 91 changes to policies that govern the use of deadly force. Philadelphia police spokesperson, Lt. John Stanford, says that policing has evolved a lot in the last 30 years.

LT. JOHN STANFORD: We don't want those days of MOVE returning. We don't want the community to feel how members of the community felt during that incident.

WOODS: He says the department is reviewing the Justice Department’s recommended changes and revising officer training and policies on the use of force. Andrea Walls grew up two blocks away from the MOVE bombing. She was 21 when it happened.

ANDREA WALLS: It's so interesting when we think well, it couldn't happen again. It's happening again every day in the increments of what happens in Ferguson and what happens in Staten Island and what happens in Oakland.

WOODS: Thirty years after one of the country's most extreme incidents of police brutality, like other departments across the nation, Philadelphia still struggles to regain the public's trust. For NPR News, I'm Jeanette Woods in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeanette Woods