Project: Visualization

Timeline: The Day Philly Police Bombed Their Own City

Cleanup crews take away debris and human remains from Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. May 15, 1985. George Widman/AP.

On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia Police dropped a bomb on a building in a residential neighborhood, killing eleven people and leaving over 200 people homeless. If this incident is discussed at all in modern times, that’s usually the extent of it. That was the extent of my own personal knowledge prior to this semester. My dad had told me about it a while ago, but in a very basic, matter-of-fact way.

It took me a little while to figure out a topic for this project. Initially, this was going to be a part of a broader examination of racial conflict in Philadelphia. But as I did more research into this event specifically, I found that there was far more to the story. This couldn’t just be a part of a larger narrative; it deserved its own detailed analysis. I had to know: How did this happen? What happened to the people involved afterwards? Is anybody in the right in this story?

To very briefly give some background, MOVE was an organization operating in West Philadelphia beginning in the 1970s. While not initially founded as a black liberation group, that’s essentially what they became (although with very contradictory politics). Violent clashes with police led to the city government leaving MOVE alone for several years until the situation became untenable. After fighting with MOVE for a full day, and neither side able to gain an inch, the police decided to drop a bomb on MOVE’s fortified compound on Osage Avenue. The resulting fire spread to surrounding row homes and burned out several blocks.

What I intended to do with this timeline was expand the scope of this story. While most studies of the bombing start around 1978 (MOVE’s first violent clash with police), I argue that the story really begins in the 1960s. And while some studies continued through the investigations into city officials, they usually end it there. This timeline allows me to prove that the neighborhood is still feeling the effects of that bombing almost 35 years later. Using a timeline also allowed me to easily connect one event to the next, which allows me to argue that neither MOVE nor the city are the “good guys”. Everyone made bad decisions, people died, and the residents of Osage Avenue are still paying the price for those decisions.

The difficult thing about researching this topic is that it has always been a touchy subject. Since this had political ramifications, many of the people involved have contradicted each other in public statements (in an attempt to make themselves look better and pass the blame on to someone else). Much of my information came from contemporary newspapers (particularly the New York Times and several Philadelphia-area papers) and from the reports of formal investigations launched in the immediate aftermath. Some more recent studies are quite well-done, such as NPR’s 2015 interview of longtime Osage Avenue resident Gerald Renfrow and Vox’s “The Day Philadelphia Bombed Its Own People”.

But as I gained a further understanding of what had happened, I found myself asking more questions. These questions don’t have simple answers, but they’re worth thinking about regardless. While MOVE certainly had a point about police brutality and racism in Philadelphia, did that justify killing police officers? While the decision to drop a bomb had horrifying repercussions, MOVE has never been an issue for the city since; did the ends justify the means from the city’s perspective? Why has this story faded from public memory outside of Philadelphia, and what can we learn from it today?

Omeka site can be found here.

Timeline: “It Was War”: The 1985 Philadelphia MOVE Bombing


Primary Sources

(NOTE: All New York Times, Washington Post, or Los Angeles Times articles were accessed through Appalachian State University library’s online database page)

Berson, Lenora E. “‘The Toughest Cop In America’ Campaigns For Mayor of Philadelphia”. New York Times, May 16, 1971.

Caparella, Kitty. “Cop’s Death In ’78 Clash Was A Spark”. Philadelphia Inquirer, May 10, 2010.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Ernest Edwards.

County Investigating Grand Jury, “Report of the County Investigating Grand Jury of May 15, 1986”. May 15, 1986.

“Excerpts From Commission’s Report On Bombing”. New York Times, March 6, 1986.

Gruson, Lindsey. “Criticism of Philadelphia Grows Over Bombing of Radicals’ Home”. New York Times, June 26, 1985.

Gruson, Lindsey. “Information Lack Cited in Bombing: Top Philadelphia Officials Say They Lost Touch in Assault on Radical Group Move”. New York Times, October 19, 1985.

Harry, Margot. “Attention, MOVE! This Is America”. Banner Press, First Edition, 1987.

Higham, Scott J. “‘I Was Expendable,’ Sambor Learned After Move Fiasco”. Morning Call, February 26, 1986.

Jaynes, Gregory. “Officer Killed As Philadelphia Radicals Are Evicted”. New York Times, August 9, 1978.

Mugge, Robert. “Opening of AMATEUR NIGHT AT CITY HALL: THE STORY OF FRANK L. RIZZO”. Vimeo, December 6, 2015.

“None Indicted in MOVE Bombing But Jury Calls Act ‘Reprehensible'”. Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1988.

Philadelphia Inquirer, “The 1985 Move bombing in Philadelphia – The Confrontation”. YouTube, June 20, 2018.

PhillyCAM, “PABJ: MOVE 30 Years Later: A Look At The People, Politics, and Policies Of A Disaster”. Vimeo, May 18, 2015.

Peterson, Bill. “Witness Assails Goode as ‘Mayor of Murder'”. Washington Post, October 9, 1985.

Richmond, William C. “The Cult, The Confrontation, The Chief and The Court”, in Firehouse Magazine. June 1, 1996.

Robbins, William. “‘Philadelphia Is On The Move,’ Mayor Says of His First Year”. New York Times, January 7, 1985.

Stevens,  William K. “6 Bodies in Ashes of Radicals’ Home; Assault Defended”. New York Times, May 14, 1985.

Stevens, William K. “Police Drop Bomb on Radicals’ Home in Philadelphia”. New York Times, May 14, 1985.

“The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal”. New York Times, August 17, 1995.

The Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, “The Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission’s Report”. March 6, 1986.

Secondary Sources

Arbuckle, Alex Q. “May 13, 1985: The Bombing of MOVE”. Mashable.

Dehuff, Jenny. “Senator to Honor Goode Sr. For Black History Month”.

DeLeon, Clark. “A Crime Unpunished and Largely Forgotten”. Philadelphia Inquirer, May 13, 2010.

Demby, Gene. “I’m From Philly. 30 Years Later, I’m Still Trying To Make Sense Of The MOVE Bombing”. NPR, May 13, 2015.

Demby, Gene. “What It’s Like Living On The Block Philadelphia Bombed 30 Years Ago”. NPR, May 13, 2015.

Democracy Now, “MOVE Bombing At 30: ‘Barbaric’ 1985 Philadelphia Police Attack Killed 11 & Burned A Neighborhood”

Fiorillo, Victor. “MOVE: An Oral History”. Philadelphia Magazine, March 26, 2010.

Fossett, Katelyn. “How A Brutal History Of Race And Policing Shaped Philadelphia And Cleveland”. Politico, July 14, 2016.

Norward, Lindsey. “The Day Philadelphia Bombed Its Own People”. Vox Media, updated August 15, 2019.

Pilkington, Ed. “A Siege. A Bomb. 48 Dogs. And The Black Commune That Would Not Surrender”. The Guardian, July 31, 2018.

West Philadelphia Collaborative History, “MOVE On Osage Avenue”.

WNYC Studios, “Who Remembers the MOVE Bombing?” May 22, 2015.

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