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Saying Her Name

The police bombing of 6221 Osage Avenue, in Philadelphia, caused a level of trauma that is difficult to exaggerate. On May 13, 1985, while many of the city’s residents were still basking in the glow of the previous afternoon’s Mother’s Day gatherings, hundreds of heavily armed police officers surrounded a row house in a Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. After firing thousands of rounds of ammunition and cannisters of noxious tear gas into the home, they flew a helicopter over the roof and dropped a package of military-grade explosives. What followed was unimaginable.

This event—which Philadelphia’s mayor later said began with the intention of serving warrants to the residents, members of a largely Black group called MOVE—left around two city blocks of a formerly vibrant neighborhood in ashes, and more than sixty mostly working- and middle-class families homeless. That would have been bad enough. But what made this a trauma from which the city could not heal was that the bodies of the six Black men and women and five Black children lay under the smoldering embers of that row house—eleven human beings whom police had known were inside when they had dropped incendiary devices. Worse? No one was ever held meaningfully accountable for these many deaths.

So, in late April, when news outlets revealed that human remains from that event had been kept at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, at the University of Pennsylvania, and even used as a case study for an online class at Princeton University, the outpouring of disbelief and outrage from across the country was immediate and fierce. Indeed, the idea that the museum was holding the bones of a Black Philadelphian who was alive as recently as 1985 in the same way that it has held the skulls of enslaved people, procured by grave-robbers, was beyond comprehension.

This week, Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, released the additionally distressing piece of news that the city had other remains from the MOVE bombing. At first, Kenney reported that the city’s health commissioner had the remains cremated and disposed of, without attempting to reach family members. He then explained that, after his first announcement, the remains had actually been found, in the basement of the medical examiner’s office.

But, at first, the story we were told, about the remains at the museum, was this: in 1985, the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office asked Alan Mann, an anthropologist then at the University of Pennsylvania, to identify the remains of the bodies found in the debris of the MOVE house. Mann attempted to do that, but was unable to positively identify one of the sets of bones. He kept those remains for continued study and stored them at the Penn Museum. And, at some point, Janet Monge, an anthropologist and curator at the museum, who as a graduate student had assisted Mann in his original investigation, used the remains to teach an online course at Princeton. That course, which was recently taken down, was previously open to the public, and anyone who registered could see the remains being handled.

The early coverage of this story seemed to understand why some would find it macabre, but many articles also noted that there may not have been anything inherently sinister or unethical about Mann and Monge keeping the MOVE remains. Mann had been asked to do a forensic examination of them, and he and Monge were still trying to do just that. This was the basic argument that representatives of Princeton and Penn were making as well. As a Penn spokesperson informed a critical public, the whole point of holding onto the remains was “to restore the individual’s personhood, help solve this painful case in the city’s history, and bring resolution to the community.”

But a full consideration of the city’s history with MOVE, and of all that actually happened during the original forensic investigation of the bodies that were left in the rubble of Osage Avenue, is exactly what was missing in the earliest reporting on this story. The remains that Mann claimed had never been satisfactorily identified had, in fact, been found to belong to a teen-age girl who, along with her sister, died that day. Until last month, their mother believed that both girls had been buried in 1985. To reckon with the actual history of the case raises troubling questions about why, after the original investigation, Mann had kept the remains at all. But there is, perhaps, something even more important to consider. The full history reveals the risk of too easily, and with too little skepticism, telling a story from the vantage point of those with power or prestige: one can easily end up quite literally erasing from history the people who had neither.

Since its formation, in the early seventies, MOVE had been under constant surveillance by law enforcement. A multiracial collective of people who took the surname of Africa and saw themselves as a family, MOVE members lived a back-to-nature life style and grew increasingly outspoken against what they called “the System”: its intense racism, police brutality, mistreatment of animals, pollution of nature, and much more. In the late seventies, Philadelphia’s mayor, Frank Rizzo, who had previously served as police commissioner and didn’t shy away from courting racist constituents, became determined to arrest MOVE members and evict them from their home—which, at that time, was in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Powelton Village.

Between 1976 and 1978, clashes between the police and MOVE at that house reached a crisis point. That dramatic period saw the death of a MOVE baby (which some members of that group said occurred because police attacked the mother), a months-long police blockade of the MOVE house, and a shootout between police and MOVE at that house, which ended in the death of a police officer. (Police blamed MOVE, and MOVE blamed police.) On the day of the shooting, a MOVE member named Delbert Africa was beaten severely by police. Soon after, that house was levelled by cranes. These events culminated in nine MOVE members being sentenced to up to a hundred years in prison for, among other charges, the death of the police officer, and in the acquittal of three officers who were charged with the beating of Delbert Africa.

By 1983, a core group of MOVE members, including the group’s founder, John Africa, had relocated to the house on Osage Avenue, in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia. The longer they lived there, the more determined they became to force the city and its newly elected Black mayor, Wilson Goode, to revisit the sentences of the MOVE nine. By Christmas Eve of 1983, the residents of 6221 Osage Avenue were blasting their demands for justice, and their increasingly vitriolic and profanity-laced critiques of city officials and the system, from loudspeakers day and night. As dismay about the situation mounted among MOVE’s neighbors, they began pressuring the city to do something.

The city’s response, however, was to once again send in hundreds of heavily armed officers to forcibly remove men, women, and children from yet another MOVE house in yet another West Philadelphia neighborhood. Notably, some of the same officers who had participated in the siege in 1978, including one of the officers who had been charged in the beating of Delbert Africa, also participated in the armed response on Osage Avenue.

By the next morning, the MOVE house was destroyed, and around two city blocks, parts of Osage Avenue and adjacent Pine Street, had burned to the ground. But rather than treat it like a crime scene, city officials dispatched a huge crane to the site, which began scooping at the debris, like so much trash, and dumping it into large piles. It was not until the afternoon, after someone saw a human leg dangling from the jaws of the crane’s bucket, that an assistant medical examiner reported to the scene. There were, in the beginning, at least three city agencies seemingly in charge of the remains of the dead, each using its own system to tag them. The bones were not properly photographed or stored, and, needless to say, much of the other evidence that might have been gathered from the ashes was never collected.

How the scene was handled mattered. Indeed, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The police claimed that, when they dropped the bomb on 6221 Osage, they simply wanted to dislodge a bunker on the roof. They had never wanted to ignite the whole house, they insisted, and were, of course, devastated that people had been killed. The deaths that day had been an accident. But the more details surfaced, the less that the police officers’ claims satisfied the public.

By June, the mayor had appointed the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission on MOVE to get to the bottom of why the disaster had happened, who was responsible, and how so many people had died. During hearings, it was revealed that the police had known there were cans of gasoline on the roof where they dropped the explosives. Then came the disturbing testimony of the fire commissioner, William C. Richmond: once the fire had begun, Richmond said, the police commissioner, Gregore Sambor, instructed him to let it burn.

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