How well I remember the days leading up to what seemed like just another incident of conservative urban police officials not understanding evolving radical beliefs and ideologies of the time. I’d just finished grad school in West Philadelphia, but still got MOVE updates from friends I’d visited in the Powelton Village area in the 1970s.
MOVE isn’t an acronym. It’s just the name of a Panther-esque revolutionary group that was anti-govt, anti-corp, and anti-tech. Called ’emselves “anarcho-primitivists.”
The incident covered in the HBO documentary—being mostly live-streamed around the country— happened at a Powelton Village house at 311 N 33rd Street. This location isn’t far from 3411 Race Street where Ira Einhorn, the ‘Mayor” of Powelton and an acquaintance of mine, killed his girlfriend.
What was etched deeply in my mind – as a new criminology professor back then focusing on the study of police behavior – was not the eviction attempt featured in the HBO film. It was horrible. Somehow a cop died by a shot to the back of his neck. And 16 police officers and firefighters sustained injures from a shootout.
No, what’s even more indelible is the unconscionable bombing of the MOVE homes in the ’80s which grew out of the 1978 incident dealt with in the film.
Oddly, the bombing gets little attention in the movie. So, to remedy that, here’s a thumbnail of what happened in the bombing. The resulting apocalyptic firestorm forced Philly’s black mayor and black fire chief to resign. Officials are still apologizing after decades of angst over the botched tactics by public safety officials..
The 1985 MOVE bombing occurred May 13, 1985, when the Philly Police Dept bombed a residential home occupied by the black militant MOVE group, and the Philly Fire Dept let the subsequent fire burn out of control.
All this followed a standoff and firefight. In 1985, Mayor Wilson Goode and police commissioner Gregore J. Sambor had classified MOVE as a terrorist organization. Police obtained arrest warrants against MOVE members for various crimes. The standoff started after police evacuated nearby houses and attempted to serve eviction notices and execute arrest warrants.
Eleven people in the house, including 5 children, died in the fire, and 65 homes in the neighborhood were destroyed.
One of the 2 MOVE survivors from the fire, claimed police fired at people escaping the fire. The Philadelphia Commission found that Police and Fire were negligent, but no criminal charges were filed.
Review of film.
Carlos Aguilar wrote the following review recently. It’s titled: ‘40 Years a Prisoner’ reflects longstanding institutional racial injustice.
Tommy Oliver’s blistering documentary “40 Years a Prisoner” lands on home screens with the Black Lives Matter movement and demands to defund police still vivid in the zeitgeist following massive nationwide protests and confrontations fueled by the outgoing Trump administration’s “law and order” stance.
That’s not simply a matter of perfect timing, but rather a shameful reminder that works of art about racial injustice as it relates to law enforcement and, ironically, the justice system in this country have perennial relevance.
At the heart of this feature is a series of violent incidents that took place in 1978 West Philadelphia targeting the residence of John Africa’s revolutionary organization MOVE, which preached a return to a natural lifestyle and renounced imposed norms and values.
Members symbolically took the last name Africa to denote they were a family.
The city’s efforts to evict MOVE, after deeming them a dangerous cult, culminated in a shootout leaving one officer dead.
MOVE members in “40 Years a Prisoner.HBO
The official story claimed the bullet came from those inside the property, and while most evidence was destroyed, 9 Black men and women wound up charged with 3rd degree murder.
(In 1985, after another dramatic confrontation, police dropped a bomb on MOVE headquarters, killing 11 people and demolishing 2 square blocks of homes.)
Oliver handles the ire-inducing true story by intermingling a historical portion built from archival material, news coverage, and hindsight interviews with those who lived it first-hand; and Mike Africa Jr.’s zealous crusade to free his parents, both of whom have spent four decades behind bars for the MOVE case.
Ordinary but sufficiently effective in its execution, the film’s most resonant segments are those where the upstanding son reflects on his torn family and a rotten system in which paroling alleged offenders even after so much time is seen as an affront to the toxic institutional loyalty to police.
Saying the quiet part out loud, some of the white subjects interviewed reveal their biases as they express their present opinions on the past events and the Black people affected, calling them “vulgar” and using other pejorative adjectives.
Footage of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s mayor [around this…] —time and a predecessor to President Trump’s grotesque arrogance, proves that such racist ideology came, as it still does, from the top down.
What do you think, whether or not you’ve seen ’40 Years a Prisoner?’