'40 Years a Prisoner': The true story behind MOVE bombing that killed 11 and destroyed a street in Philadelphia

The members were huddled in a basement with access to a back alley, the alley was under police gunfire. No criminal charges were filed against any of the perpetrators


                            '40 Years a Prisoner': The true story behind MOVE bombing that killed 11 and destroyed a street in Philadelphia
Members of MOVE (Getty Images)

In HBO's latest documentary, '40 Years a Prisoner' we learn about the MOVE Nine -- the nine people, who were members of the Black anarcho-primitivist group, MOVE, who were arrested after a shootout between MOVE and the Philadelphia police resulted in the death of one officer in 1978. Each was sentenced to a maximum of 100 years in prison. They were Chuck, Delbert, Eddie, Janet, Janine, Merle, Michael, Phil, and Debbie Africa. However, eyewitness accounts stated that the officer may have been accidentally shot by another police officer.

In fact, there were many confrontations between the Philadelphia police, with the group advocating against police brutality. However, it all came to a head in 1985. The 1978 standoff between police and MOVE came because MOVE members -- who lived in a house on Pearl Street -- were being forced to move. After the shootout and the arrests, the MOVE members moved to a new location on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. Again, the Philadelphia Police Department obtained permission from the Mayor's office to evict members of MOVE due to neighborhood complaints of obscenity and arrest warrants. In May 1985, the police attempted to evict MOVE and execute arrest warrants. MOVE refused to comply and this developed into an armed standoff once again, when the police fired over 10,000 rounds at the MOVE compound.

This time, the confrontation led to the police doing something more unbelievable. The police dropped a satchel bomb containing Tovex and C4-Explosive on the roof of the home occupied by members of MOVE and 5 children without a warning -- a device typically used in combat. As the bomb went off, police and firefighters were observed plugging their ears while the 45-second fuse burnt. However, local reporters were not aware that an explosive was dropped from a helicopter until the bomb went off. The resulting explosion ignited a clearly visible can of gasoline on the roof and started a fire that resulted in the destruction of 65 homes in the neighborhood. 

The news only becomes more horrifying from here. Even though the fire department hosed the building with high-power water cannons from a distance that morning, the Fire Chief then agreed to abide by the Chief Commissioner's suggestion to let the fire burn with the intention of letting a rooftop lookout cabin (a fortified bunker) burn. The mayor allegedly ordered someone to put out the fire and the Chief Commissioner confirmed receiving the message. However, the latter did not confirm that he passed the message to the Fire Chief.

The incident led to the death of 11 MOVE members, including its founder, John Africa and five children. While the members were huddled in a basement with access to a back alley, the alley was under police gunfire. One woman survived the ordeal and described bullets flying all around her during the first escape attempt. The lone surviving child described hearing the sound of automatic gunfire as they tried to flee the fire. However, officers who were present denied that the claim was correct.  Despite the fact that the Philadelphia Police Department and Fire Department were found guilty of negligence by the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (MOVE) no criminal charges were filed against any of the perpetrators of the bombing, arson, and murders.

'40 Years a Prisoner' premieres on HBO on Tuesday, December 8, at 9/8c.

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