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
Growing up on the East Coast near Philadelphia, I became used to the local news reports of the latest problems with a group call MOVE – a "back to nature", almost survivalist group. What I knew about them came from those local newscasts, which were usually about a police confrontation of one sort or another. What also stood out about them to me was that all the members had the last name of "Africa", and that they occupied a townhouse smack dab in the middle of a blue collar, working class neighborhood. When one thought of communes at the time, one thought of encampments out in a remote forest. Well this commune shared walls with working class homes and families, and their rejection of technology led to no electricity, boarded up windows, and mounds of trash on the sidewalks. I left the area in 1982 and headed for California.
Imagine my surprise three years later to turn on CNN and find them covering the mass destruction of an entire city block in Philadelphia, and that MOVE was at the center of the inferno. After a failed attempt at eviction and after shots had been fired, the decision was made to drop an incendiary device on the roof of the house to destroy a fortified bunker. Things quickly got out hand. The result – eleven people dead, including five children, and 60 other homes burned to the ground. How did this happen? Filmmaker Jason Osder's "Let the Fire Burn" uses archival news footage, depositions and the filmed record of an investigative commission to retell the story of the MOVE clash. Big news at the time, but mostly forgotten today (overshadowed, no doubt by the Waco/Branch Davidian siege) Osder recaptures the feel and mood of the time and allows the protagonists to speak for themselves. His film is not a polemic on government abuse or the evils of racism (the mayor of Philadelphia at the time and the majority of the citizens affected were African-American). "Let the Fire Burn" is simply the filmed record of an event, masterfully edited in a way that, while knowing full well what the outcome is going to be, keeps you engrossed from start to painful finish.
At a time when civility seems to be rapidly diminishing in what passes for political discourse these days, it is good to be reminded of what the real result of extreme action, of any kind or on any side, can be. Just ask the residents of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.
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