In 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a house occupied by a black group living communally called MOVE. Sixty-one homes were destroyed in the resulting fire, which gutted a city block.
Although many writers have recounted the standoff that resulted in the death of 11 MOVE members, five of whom were children, it remains a faded memory in America’s recent history.
Let The Fire Burn, a coming documentary by director Jason Osder, paints a new portrait of this tragic occurrence using only archival footage.
The history of MOVE
MOVE occupied a row house on a residential street, but often disturbed residents with loud messages projected at all hours of the day, espousing philosophies many considered radical.
It has been called both a cult whose practices resulted in child endangerment, and a peace-loving organization with an endearing love for nature.
By the time of the 1985 incident, the group had built a bunker on the roof of the house.
In addition, authorities believed MOVE was stockpiling weapons. In 1977, its sole white member, co-founder Donald Glassey, became an FBI informant on the group after being arrested on weapons charges, leading these agents to confiscate large amounts of MOVE munitions.
Seeking to raid MOVE in response to complaints by neighbors, after years of ongoing tensions with authorities, on May 13, 1985, police confronted the group.
When the raid failed, authorities dropped the bomb.
They said, “…let the fire burn”
Even though the house was surrounded with fire trucks at the time, the order was given to “…let the fire burn,” according to documentary filmmakers, who took this chilling phrase as the film’s title.
It is said that authorities believed MOVE members would flee the engulfing fire.
“Let The Fire Burn is historical documentary as epic tragedy,” Osder said in his director’s statement.
“I was growing up outside Philadelphia in 1985 when the fire happened,” his statement also notes. “I remember being truly scared. I was struck that the children killed in the house (burned alive) were my own age, living in my own town. Their parents and the police had utterly failed to protect them. Regardless of politics or race or whether MOVE was a cult, I knew even as a child that the children were not to blame for what happened to them and that a fundamental injustice had occurred.”
Two survivors, unforgettable wounds
Only two members of MOVE survived, a boy who was 13 at the time, and a woman named Ramona Africa. (The surname “Africa” was taken by all MOVE members.)
In 2013, 28 years after the bombing of MOVE, Ramona Africa still bears the brunt of the physical and emotional scars inflicted that day.
“A lot of people have told me that these burn scars could be removed,” she told a local CBS station, “but why would I do that? I want to remember, and I don’t want others to forget.”
Conflicting stories on a tragedy
Using only found footage covering a ten-year period — rather than seeking fresh interviews with survivors and witnesses — Let The Fire Burn contains various perspectives.
To some, MOVE was a cult that harassed a community. Ramona Africa says the 1985 bombing was in retaliation for efforts by MOVE to secure the release of members convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer.
The racial, political and other undertones of MOVE’s annihilation underscore how subjectively people saw — and still see — what happened in 1985. Let The Fire Burn explores these varying windows on truth by letting the characters of the time speak from their own vantages.
The aftermath of destruction
Eventually, 11 years after the bomb was dropped, a court ruled that “the city, former Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor and former Fire Commissioner William Richmond used excessive force and violated the MOVE members’ constitutional protections,” CNN reported in 1996.
These entities were ordered to pay $1.5 million to one survivor and two family members of deceased MOVE members.
For a community that still hurts from the numerous wounds inflicted on that day, money, even if it were offered to all impacted, is not enough compensation.
Let The Fire Burn seeks to create some measure of restitution.
“A film cannot bring justice to the deaths of eleven people,” Osder stated, “but an additional injustice is done when this history goes unremembered. This is too powerful and important a story to be forgotten.”
Let The Fire Burn opens October 2 in New York City at the Film Forum, and on October 18 in Los Angeles at the Landmark Nuart Theater. A national film release will follow.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter on @lexisb