Making an American Tragedy: MOVE, the Philadelphia Police, and the Politics of Urban Law Enforcement

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:40 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Timothy J. Lombardo, University of South Alabama
On May 13, 1985 the Philadelphia police dropped 3.5 pounds of high-grade military explosives on the row-house compound of the black radical, back-to-nature collective known as MOVE. The resultant fires killed eleven MOVE members, destroyed fifty-three adjacent homes, and left two-hundred people homeless. The so-called MOVE bombing was an almost unparalleled tragedy in modern American urban history. Yet the organization has received scant attention from historians and the events leading up the 1985 bombing remain only a footnote in the history of black radical encounters with urban police forces. This paper explores the longer history of the MOVE organization and their ultimate confrontation with the Philadelphia police. It traces the roots of the tragedy by examining Philadelphia police encounters with the black radicals in the post-World War II era in conjunction with the concurrent and constitutive development of the MOVE organization. When MOVE emerged in the 1970s, they became unrelenting critics of a police force that had earned a national reputation for police brutality. But MOVE’s unconventional lifestyles and confrontational protest tactics won them few allies, even among fellow African American activists and other critics of the police. Sympathy for the organization only rose after a series of violent clashes with the police in the late 1970s. Contextualizing MOVE in the history of black radicalism, countercultural movements, and modern urban law enforcement, my work argues that MOVE garnered both sympathy and disdain that they otherwise would not have achieved because of the reputation and tactics employed by the Philadelphia police. It further argues that decades of polarization over the police department and the politics of law enforcement created the environment that made the MOVE bombing possible.
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