starlady: (agent of chaos)
[personal profile] starlady
Let the Fire Burn. Dir. Jason Osder, 2013.

I went to see this documentary, about the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, because I'm from the Philadelphia area (I went to high school in the city, in point of fact) and because the MOVE bombing is undeservedly forgotten--so much so, in fact, that when I was explaining the incident to someone while explaining the documentary ("the city police bombed a house where a radical group was holed up"), they said, "What do you mean, 'bombed'?" There's only one definition of that word that applies here. As someone from the area, it was somewhat interesting to see figures I can remember from childhood, such as the Channel 6 newsheads and Ed Rendell, who became mayor in 1992, in their younger days. From the documentary you can see why Rendell in particular had such a successful political career (in 2003 he became governor of Pennsylvania)--even as you know his hands aren't clean, you watch him say the right things in a charming and mollifying way, and you don't think as badly of him as you do of other players in the tragedy.

I knew about the MOVE bombing because the only novel I know of about it, John Edgar Wideman's Philadelphia Fire, was the summer reading book my freshman year of high school. (If you've read that book, its assignment will tell you a lot about my high school.) The book focuses on the child survivor, Michael Moses Ward alias Birdie Africa, but it also focuses on the person who allegedly, rather than try to escape the house to safety, turned and went back into the fire.

The documentary mostly takes a cinema verite approach, meaning that it's largely constructed out of archival footage, principally news video, photographs, the deposition of Michael Moses Ward, one of the only two survivors of the bombing, and the public commission hearings held in October 1985, five months after the bombing, that attempted to investigate what happened.

What happened is largely predictable. Though postwar Los Angeles and other cities get most of the fame for its police force being hugely racist, Philadelphia wasn't much better, and still isn't; the documentary, for instance, contains footage of police members beating Delbert Africa in 1978 during the first MOVE confrontation. None of the three officers charged in that case were found guilty.

The shocking thing isn't even that the cops made the decision to bomb the house on Osage Street in which the MOVE members had fortified themselves but that they made the decision to let the fire burn. From the documentary, it appears that the then-Police Commissioner willfully refused to relay the mayor's order to extinguish the fire caused by the bombing; it eventually killed 11 people and destroyed 60 homes. The other controversy is whether the cops shot people trying to escape the fire in the alley behind the house. This is where the story of the person turning back into the fire comes from--the cops, two of whom were among the men charged in the beating of Delbert Africa seven years earlier, claimed that this happened, while Michael Ward's deposition makes it sound like at least one of the six children in the house was dead of police fire, and as one of the commission members observed, it's hard to imagine a situation in which a person would knowingly turn back into an inferno rather than surrender. Whether the MOVE members possessed any weapons capable of automatic fire is another controversy; cops said they heard it coming from the house, but none of the weapons that were recovered from the burned-out wreckage were capable of more than single shots. The cops, on the other hand, fired 10,000 rounds on that day in May 1985; the documentary actually includes rather grimly hilarious footage of reporters from Channel 10, while crouched behind their car to avoid bullets, witnessing a Highway Patrol cruiser pull up with cases of ammunition in the trunk.

Two of the most forceful presences in the film are the former MOVE members whose choice to become confidential informers gave the city some of the evidence it used to secure the eviction warrants, Louise James and LaVerne Sims. The two women are passionately committed to speaking the unvarnished truth about the hypocrisy in the system, and to speaking for justice, a position that leaves them alone in between both MOVE and the city. Though the documentary doesn't go as far into this as it could have, it does more than touch on some of the radical practices of MOVE, such as keeping the children naked until the age of 6, utterly unschooled, and fed on a diet of raw food while the adults ate cooked meals, and their conflicts with the neighbors whose complaints led the city to act over things like MOVE broadcasting obscenities via loudspeaker and its members standing on the roof overlooking the neighborhood holding shotguns. It wasn't MOVE's beliefs per se that set them on a collision course with the city, though; it was of course their radicalism and their refusal to conform, the challenge they presented as a mostly black group to established, mostly white authorities. (The MOVE bombing actually occurred on the watch of Philadelphia's first black mayor.)

The one decent man in the entire proceedings, who risked his life to help Michael Moses Ward escape when he'd fallen, had "nigger lover" written on his police locker and retired from the force in 1987 with PTSD. Michael Moses Ward died on September 20 of this year, of accidental drowning aboard a cruise ship. The only person charged in connection with the bombing, Ramona Africa, the house's other survivor, served seven years of a sentence for "conspiracy to riot" and was released in 1992. Nine MOVE members are still serving time for the death of a police officer in the 1978 shootout. The documentary, which is as gripping as any thriller movie, invites the audience to draw their own conclusions.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-08 22:47 (UTC)
wordweaverlynn: (baseball)
From: [personal profile] wordweaverlynn
I'll have to see that. I wasn't living in Philadelphia then -- I'd moved to Connecticut the year before -- but I was and am still profoundly attached to Philadelphia.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-09 00:08 (UTC)
sasha_feather: Retro-style poster of skier on pluto.   (Default)
From: [personal profile] sasha_feather
Oh my god. Thanks for writing about this.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-09 00:09 (UTC)
qem_chibati: Coloured picture of Killua from hunter x hunter, with the symbol of Qem in the corner. (A cat made from Q, E, M) (Default)
From: [personal profile] qem_chibati
That first tag seems particularly apt to go with the description of the documentary and concequences. o___O

(no subject)

Date: 2013-11-09 05:30 (UTC)
rilina: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rilina
Thanks for posting this. I wasn't old enough to understand much of the news when this happened (1st grade) but I remember how it used to pop back up in the news during my childhood and how I never really got the references to it.

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