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'Let The Fire Burn': A Philadelphia Community Forever Changed

Throughout the '70s and '80s, the radical African-American MOVE organization had several dramatic encounters with police.
Courtesy of Amigo Media
Throughout the '70s and '80s, the radical African-American MOVE organization had several dramatic encounters with police.

On May 13, 1985, after a long standoff, Philadelphia municipal authorities dropped a bomb on a residential row house. The Osage Avenue home was the headquarters of the African-American radical group MOVE, which had confronted police on many occasions since the group's founding in 1972.

The resulting fire killed 11 people — including five children and the group's leader, John Africa — destroyed 61 homes, and tore apart a community.

In Let the Fire Burn, a new film showing at the AFI Docs festival, director Jason Osder chronicles the years of tension between police, MOVE and neighbors that ended in tragedy.

The title of the film refers to local authorities' decision to let the fire engulf the compound without intervention.

Osder, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, grew up in Philadelphia and was roughly the same age as the children who were killed in the fire.

"Those of us that are lucky to have, sort of, traditional childhoods, we grow up sheltered in a certain way. And for most people, there's a moment where that shelter is broken," Osder tells NPR's Neal Conan.

"My parents' generation will always remember where they were when JFK died, but for me, it was the MOVE fire."

The catalyst for the incident came eight years before, in 1978, when a confrontation between the police and MOVE resulted in the death of a police officer. Nine members of the organization were imprisoned for the shooting; MOVE said the death was a result of friendly fire.

After that incident, MOVE regrouped and riled up the neighborhood to attract the attention of the authorities. The group moved to a compound on Osage Avenue. In the months before the fire, group members constructed a very intimidating, bunkerlike structure on their roof.

The MOVE fire of 1985 killed 11, including five children, and destroyed 61 homes.
/ AP
The MOVE fire of 1985 killed 11, including five children, and destroyed 61 homes.

"It has holes to shoot out of, and they have high ground on the block," says Osder. "And the police come to believe that they are in real danger. "

The police launched a massive operation aimed at removing the group from its compound. After a days-long confrontation, with thousands of rounds of ammunition fired, the police dropped explosives on the Osage house from a helicopter.

"I think that there's a certain point of view that says, in fact, they wanted to provoke the action of the police and show the true nature of the system as they came over the top.

"Did they expect them to come over the top just that violently? Did they intend to die in the house? I don't know the answer to that. It's not impossible that, in fact, they did."

The MOVE organization was sometimes characterized as a cult, as a back-to-nature group — it was known for requiring a vegan diet — and sometimes as a spinoff of the Black Panthers.

Osder says that in his research he found that the true nature of the group was far more complex.

"Back-to-nature seemed a fairly apt description in the early '70s, when they started, but things became gradually more militant," says Osder. "And in fact, pretty much all of those descriptions, the group would reject. They would reject back-to-nature as well as black liberation."

"They were all the things we talked about, but they're also a family."

The film exclusively uses archival footage from local television coverage and court hearings to piece together the story, without commentary or interviews. Osder did talk to Michael Ward, the only child to survive the fire; to Ramona Africa, the surviving adult; and to one of the police officers. He ultimately decided not to use the footage.

"There was a combination of realizing that in those hearings, we had tremendous potential to do something different and unique," Osder says. "And that, in fact, the things that you want to do with the documentary interview were not that strong in the interviews we'd shot. They weren't that revealing. People hadn't learned a whole lot. They hadn't changed a whole lot."

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