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On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police dropped two pounds of military explosives onto a city row house occupied by the radical group MOVE. The resulting fire was not fought for over an hour although firefighters were on the scene with water cannons in place. Five children and six adults were killed and sixty-one homes were destroyed by the six-alarm blaze, one of the largest in the city's history. This dramatic tragedy unfolds through an extraordinary visual record previously withheld from the public. It is a graphic illustration of how prejudice, intolerance and fear can lead to unthinkable acts of violence. Written by
Sadly, we didn't seem to have learned much from all this.
Let the Fire Burn is a documentary about an almost forgotten series of incidents that were in many ways like the later Waco fiasco. Sadly, it seems that government officials hadn't learned from this earlier experience in Philadelphia.
Back in the 1970s, an odd group was created in Philadelphia that called itself 'MOVE'. They were rather cult-like by outward appearances and their members lived communally. They apparently raised their children naked and fed them raw foods—insisting on a back to nature approach to life. Their exact beliefs and practices were a bit vague when I watched Let the Fire Burn, but the organization fell afoul of society for two obvious reasons—they lived within a large city and could not go unnoticed living this way and they were also very anti-police. Whether they became anti-police as a result of police persecution or they began that way is difficult to know based on what I saw in the film. Regardless, they and the police disliked and distrusted each other.
After years of antagonism and some incidents of violence, MOVE set up headquarters in a neighborhood row house and appeared to be trying to provoke some sort of action or compromise. They began blasting messaged laced with profanities on loudspeakers and built some bunkers on the roof of this row house to resist the police. Naturally the neighbors hated this and wanted some action—and it couldn't remain that way for long. However, the degree to which the police responded took people by surprise. They surrounded the place and pumped thousands of bullets into the row house. Then, after some time passed, they had a helicopter fly over and drop a large bomb on the place. After the explosion, the police and fire departments did nothing—they just let the fire burn— claiming it was too dangerous to allow fire crews near the blaze. Not surprisingly, most of the people inside were killed and about half of them were children. Because the fires were not put out, pretty much the whole neighborhood ending up being gutted. According to the film, the cheap housing put up to replace these homes was later condemned. Obviously this was NOT Philadelphia's finest hour!
As a retired history teacher, my thought is always on what we can learn from the incident. As I mentioned above, about a decade later the federal government had a somewhat similar situation with the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. Claiming to be concerned about child abuse, the rescue mission ended up killing everyone inside this complex! Obviously, we did not learn from the MOVE tragedy.
But what other lessons can we learn from the firebombing in Philadelphia? The filmmakers really don't take an obvious opinion, as there is no narration—just archival footage. The film leaves many, many questions unanswered. It's inferred that the filmmakers felt the police overreacted and mentioned that later civil cases awarded damages to the survivors—but beyond that, it's difficult to say. What might have made this much clearer would have been to include new interviews in order to see how the participants and survivors see the incident today. This is problematic, however, as the lone teen survivor recently drowned on a cruise ship. As for the other survivor, Ramona Africa (who also survived and was jailed following the incident), the film indicated that she is alive and fighting the system BUT didn't have any recent interviews with her. Additionally, while some archival footage was shown of a couple MOVE members who were not in the home during the firebombing, oddly they were not interviewed either by the filmmakers. Even then, SOME of the police, news reporters and government officials could have been interviewed. Because it lacks any sort of attempt to try to make sense of all this almost 30 years later, the film loses a bit of its punch. However, it still packs quite a strong emotional appeal without this and is very well made. It leaves the viewer numb and, in my case, vaguely angry that the situation was handled in such a heavy- handed fashion.
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