It still leaves you speechless.
One of the most disastrous police operations in American history unfolded in West Philadelphia in May, 1985, when the city tried to evict members of the radical group MOVE from a rowhouse compound and ended up burning 61 homes to the ground, killing six adult MOVE members and five children.
If you were here then, you’ll never forget it.
If you weren’t, you’ll find the story jaw-dropping, told fully and vibrantly in a new documentary called Let The Fire Burn which opens tomorrow in Center City.
You can hear some voices from the flim and listen to my interview with director Jason Osder above, or see a trailer for the film here.
Osder was a kid when the MOVE disaster happened, and always wanted to understand why kids his age were killed. He spent more than 10 years putting the documentary together, and the result is remarkable.
I covered the story in 1985 and co-anchored WHYY’s live coverage of the investigatory commission’s hearings, and there’s material in Osder’s documentary I’ve never seen. He properly focuses on the decision of the police and fire commissioner to let a fire ignited by a police explosive burn. That improvised plan was supposed to destroy a bunker atop the MOVE house. It did and destroyed a neighborhood before it was extinguished.
The one subject I’d like to see explored more fully is why the city decided to proceed with a military operation knowing children were inside the MOVE house. City officials thought they had a legal case to take the kids into the custody of city social workers, but somehow never got word to the police they were supposed to grab the kids when they could.
So police evacuated a couple hundred people from nearby houses for their safety, but left the MOVE kids in the center of the maelstrom.
MOVE members made a similarly fateful decision. They knew an armed confrontation was imminent and could have left the kids with friends and MOVE members at other locations, but chose to keep them close by. Five died.
Let The Fire Burn is riveting, and it includes excellent material on the 1978 police assault on MOVE in Powelton that left one officer dead and other police and firefighters with serious injuries. Osder decided not to include contemporary interviews, even though he talked to many of the participants. He told me they didn’t have much to say that was very revealing.
Let The Fire Burn opens Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse. Osder told the me the run will depend on attendance, so you might want to get there this weekend.