30 Years Ago Today, Philadelphia Police Dropped a Bomb on a Black Liberation Group

Today is the 30th anniversary of the day American police units used an unprecedented tactic to ferret out a group it sought for arrest: an aerial bombing.


In 1981, the black liberation group MOVE had relocated itself into a row house in West Philadelphia. MOVE soon faced complaints from neighbors about its boisterous political activities, which included loudly airing political messages during all times of the day.

By 1985, a number of MOVE members faced arrest warrants for charges including parole violations and illegal possession of firearms, and Philadelphia police moved to evict the group from their building and arrest their members.

MOVE resisted the arrest, and refused to leave their row house. Police responded with tear gas, and some in MOVE retaliated by firing at police.

This was when Philadelphia police commissioner Gregore Sambor made a radical call: he ordered a helicopter to drop an explosive device on top of the building to blow open the bunker at the top.

The bomb set off a fire that quickly spread, eventually burning down 61 homes and leaving 250 people homeless. 11 people in the MOVE rowhouse died, including five children.

In the aftermath of the bombing, Mayor Wilson Goode tasked a commission with investigating the actions of the police; they produced a report condemning the bombing, although no one was ever charged for their actions. In 1996, a federal jury did order the city to pay $1.5 million to Romona Africa, the only adult survivor of the bombing, and relatives of two others who were killed in the attack.

A local Philadelphia news crew produced a documentary about the bombing, which would the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1988. Watch it:

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