Twenty-eight years after being at the center of a deadly encounter with the city of Philadelphia, Ramona Africa still bears the scars of the horrific tragedy.
She says it is not just her physical injuries but fury over what she describes as an orchestrated military-style attack that killed 11 members of her “family” in their home.
“I feel anger and bitterness,” says Africa. “They tried to burn me alive and shoot me to death.”
Africa, now 58, is referring to the hours-long standoff between a small radical collective called MOVE and armed police at a row house in a middle-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia.
She was one of several MOVE members inside the group’s communal headquarters on Osage Avenue as the shootout spiraled out of control.
The events leading up to the bloody encounter, the horrific consequences and aftermath have blighted the community ever since. Still, for the most part the tragedy remains a marginal memory for those that lived in that era.
So much so that a coming documentary, Let the Fire Burn, by up-and-coming director Jason Osder, who is white, seeks to put the events of that fateful day back in the public realm.
The film, which opens October 2nd in theaters, has received widespread praise. Africa says she was interviewed by Osder but was not featured in the film, which only used archive footage.
Accounts of what happened vary but Africa paints a grim picture of a relentless siege by authorities using tear gas, water cannons and semiautomatic firearms, after they were refused entry to serve arrest warrants on four members of the group.
“By the time they had finished, the explosives had blown off the front porch,” says Africa.
In fact, the conflict was simmering on Mother’s Day (May 12th) when authorities evacuated the block, telling residents there would be a police action the next day.
The next day, the massive police operation culminated in a helicopter dropping two pounds of military explosives on 6221 Osage Avenue.
“Without any announcement, warning or anything, a helicopter flew over our home and dropped two bombs on the roof of our house and it ignited a fire,” says Africa.
Chillingly, she says when the bomb hit and they tried to flee, police opened fire to prevent them from escaping the blazing inferno. Her account was later confirmed by the PSIC or MOVE commission.
The bomb attack resulted in the unthinkable becoming a reality. Authorities in the United States had dropped a bomb on U.S citizens.
Eleven MOVE members, including 5 children, died.
The fire was so ferocious it swept across the terraced properties and destroyed 61 homes in the entire block leaving 250 people – mainly African-Americans – homeless in what had been a desirable, sought-after area.
Much like the Tulsa Race Riots in 1921, where a bloody confrontation completely destroyed a thriving black community, the neighborhood was burned to the ground.
A decision was also taken by heads of the police and fire departments to let the let the fire burn despite firefighters with water cannons standing next to the house.
Linn Washington Jr., 62, a journalist and associate professor of journalism at Temple University, was a rookie reporter in Philadelphia during the late 1970s and early ’80s.
He was one of a handful of journalists on the scene during a major incident between police and MOVE in 1978. He was also on the ground “dodging bullets” outside Osage Avenue from Sunday through May 13.
“They sat there and watched the fire go from an insipid blaze to a full-blown fire,” says Washington. “Then when they saw the fire leaping from the roofs and they watched. It was a predominately black neighborhood. They didn’t care about the property.”
He was one of the few eyewitnesses to watch Africa, then 29, and 13-year-old Birdie escape before they were whisked off in police cars. Africa, the sole adult survivor of the violent confrontation, survived with major burns by crawling through a basement window with Birdie, the only child to make it out alive.
Africa was taken into custody and hospitalized for a month for severe degree burns. Then she was served a seven-year sentence for inciting a riot, which she describes as “trumped up charges.”