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'Let The Fire Burn' Playing At Real Art Ways

Here's one small, disgusting detail from the aftermath of one of the most horrific incidents of government-instigated urban violence in modern American history:

In May 1985, a little African-American boy runs from a building in flames in Philadelphia. The fire was started by city officials, who literally bombed their own citizens, triggering a conflagration that would kill 11 people and destroy 61 houses. A white cop runs out and rescues the kid, who is covered in severe burns but survives.

Following the disaster, the rescuing officer returns to his police station to find the words "Nigger Lover" scrawled on his locker door.

Those sorts of mind-searing embers of information and images are scattered throughout the acclaimed documentary Let The Fire Burn.

The feature film about the deadly confrontation between the radical group MOVE and the city of Philadelphia is being shown for the first time in Connecticut at Hartford's Real Art Ways beginning this Friday (Nov. 1).

The timing is particularly poignant because that little boy, called Birdie Africa by the members of MOVE and Michael Moses Ward by his real father, died on Sept. 20 during a Caribbean vacation. He was 41 years old and apparently drowned while on a vacation cruise with his family.

The cop who rescued Ward, retired Officer James Berghaier, told reporters, "It's a shame, and he is at peace now."

Ward was one of only two survivors of the 1985 tragedy.

The film's title comes from a comment by Wilson Goode, who was in 1985 serving as Philadelphia's first black mayor. He was speaking before a special commission created to investigate what led up to that horrible day and how city officials' plans could have gone so incredibly wrong.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the film's director, Jason Osder, is providing the background that led up to the city's decision to evict MOVE from its headquarters in a working-class neighborhood.

MOVE (the name isn't an acronym for anything) was an organization started in the early 1970s by Vincent Leaphart, who named himself John Africa. It was, in the words of its members, dedicated to "exposing the lie of the system" and rejecting the values and beliefs of the American establishment. John Africa was one of those killed in the fire of May 1985.

Most of its members were black. Its leader urged them to return to nature, to eat raw food (although many adult members were allowed to eat cooked meals apparently), to live communally and to protest against injustice. They denied they were a cult and insisted they were being persecuted for believing in a different religion.

Their children, including Ward, were kept naked all year, were not allowed toys or bicycles or television, although the adults were permitted to drive cars and use other technology. Ward later recalled that both he and his mother wanted to leave but were afraid MOVE members would retaliate with beatings or worse.

MOVE staged demonstrations, which resulted in numerous arrests and court appearances. They irritated their neighbors with noisy, vulgar proclamations over loudspeakers and did things like tearing up the sidewalk in front of their headquarters houses.

In 1976, a confrontation with Philadelphia cops resulted in injuries to six policemen and MOVE members charged that an infant died as a result of the police raid. By 1978, MOVE members were openly carrying rifles and shotguns to guard their property.

More disputes led to orders from then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, a notorious hard-ass conservative, to evict MOVE. The effort led to a shootout (both sides claim the first shot was fired by the other), and the death of a policeman.

When one MOVE member surrendered, he was savagely beaten and kicked in the head by police. Although the brutal incident was captured on film and the police involved were brought to trial, a jury refused to convict them.

Several MOVE members were convicted for the policeman's death and their prison sentences ranged from 30 to 100 years.

The group set up a new headquarters in the West Philadelphia section. The cycle of protests, conflicts with their mostly black neighbors, and confrontations with city officials resumed and escalated. This time, in addition to barricading the house, MOVE built a "blockhouse" on the building's roof.

The scene was set for disaster. Some cops clearly wanted revenge for the 1978 killing of one of their own. Goode repeatedly tried to negotiate a solution, but finally gave the order to evict the group. Police evacuated the neighborhood and city officials later testified they knew there would be violence.

Shooting erupted. Police claimed they were under attack by automatic weapons (even though only four guns were later found, none of them automatic firearms) and fired an estimated 10,000 rounds at the MOVE house. The fire department sought to knock down the rooftop blockhouse with water cannon but failed.

It was then that city officials decided to deliver a bomb, made from four pounds of military grade plastic explosive, via helicopter. The massive explosion failed to destroy the blockhouse but did start a fire.

"There was a decision to let the fire burn," Goode later explained to the investigatory commission. He claimed he gave orders to extinguish the flames, but the city fire chief denied he ever got that order.

There were six children and seven adults in the house. Some tried to escape, and at least one was allegedly forced back into the burning building by police. Ward and Ramona Africa were the only ones to make it out alive.

Ramona was convicted of rioting. She and some remaining members of MOVE are still attempting to get their fellow members released from prison.

According to the Inquirer's obituary story on Ward, the city administration settled a civil lawsuit in 1991 that paid Ward and his father $840,000, plus $1,000 a month each for life.

The fire ignited by the explosion went out of control and burned an entire neighborhood. (In another of those chilling aftermath revelations, the documentary notes that the city rebuilt those destroyed houses and all were condemned in 2000 because of shoddy construction.)

The film uses extensive and extraordinary footage from TV news video about MOVE, the two confrontations with police that turned fatal, and testimony at the investigatory commission's public hearings.

The commission eventually found city officials and police negligent.

No criminal charges were ever filed against any city employee.

Let It Burn makes certain that those responsible for this tragedy won't be forgotten.


Let The Fire Burn

Starting Fri., Nov. 1 at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org

 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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