'Let The Fire Burn': A Philadelphia Community Forever Changed
On May 13, 1985, after a long standoff, Philadelphia municipal authorities dropped a bomb on a residential row house. The Osage Avenue home was the headquarters of the African-American radical group MOVE, which had confronted police on many occasions since the group's founding in 1972.
The resulting fire killed 11 people — including five children and the group's leader, John Africa — destroyed 61 homes, and tore apart a community.
In Let the Fire Burn, a new film showing at the AFI Docs festival, director Jason Osder chronicles the years of tension between police, MOVE and neighbors that ended in tragedy.
The title of the film refers to local authorities' decision to let the fire engulf the compound without intervention.
Osder, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, grew up in Philadelphia and was roughly the same age as the children who were killed in the fire.
"Those of us that are lucky to have, sort of, traditional childhoods, we grow up sheltered in a certain way. And for most people, there's a moment where that shelter is broken," Osder tells NPR's Neal Conan.
"My parents' generation will always remember where they were when JFK died, but for me, it was the MOVE fire."
The catalyst for the incident came eight years before, in 1978, when a confrontation between the police and MOVE resulted in the death of a police officer. Nine members of the organization were imprisoned for the shooting; MOVE said the death was a result of friendly fire.
After that incident, MOVE regrouped and riled up the neighborhood to attract the attention of the authorities. The group moved to a compound on Osage Avenue. In the months before the fire, group members constructed a very intimidating, bunkerlike structure on their roof.
"It has holes to shoot out of, and they have high ground on the block," says Osder. "And the police come to believe that they are in real danger."
The police launched a massive operation aimed at removing the group from its compound. After a days-long confrontation, with thousands of rounds of ammunition fired, the police dropped explosives on the Osage house from a helicopter.
"I think that there's a certain point of view that says, in fact, they wanted to provoke the action of the police and show the true nature of the system as they came over the top.
"Did they expect them to come over the top just that violently? Did they intend to die in the house? I don't know the answer to that. It's not impossible that, in fact, they did."
The MOVE organization was sometimes characterized as a cult, as a back-to-nature group — it was known for requiring a vegan diet — and sometimes as a spinoff of the Black Panthers.
Osder says that in his research he found that the true nature of the group was far more complex.
"Back-to-nature seemed a fairly apt description in the early '70s, when they started, but things became gradually more militant," says Osder. "And in fact, pretty much all of those descriptions, the group would reject. They would reject back-to-nature as well as black liberation."
"They were all the things we talked about, but they're also a family."
The film exclusively uses archival footage from local television coverage and court hearings to piece together the story, without commentary or interviews. Osder did talk to Michael Ward, the only child to survive the fire; to Ramona Africa, the surviving adult; and to one of the police officers. He ultimately decided not to use the footage.
"There was a combination of realizing that in those hearings, we had tremendous potential to do something different and unique," Osder says. "And that, in fact, the things that you want to do with the documentary interview were not that strong in the interviews we'd shot. They weren't that revealing. People hadn't learned a whole lot. They hadn't changed a whole lot."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
In May 1985, after a long stand-off, police dropped a satchel full of explosives on top of a row house in Philadelphia.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, LET THE FIRE BURN)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All the men came down?
MICHAEL MOSES WARD: That's when the big bomb went off.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
WARD: The ship threw our house up.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Lisa, there has just been a huge explosion here. We don't know what it means, but it just shook the whole place. Debris flew all over the place. I don't know what that explosion was. All I can tell you is that it was a huge blast.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Get a shot with me. Get a - Harvey, can you hear us?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: At this point, I really can't tell you very much. There was about a 15-second delay, then the explosion.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Perhaps the most frightening thing here is that police do say that six to eight children are believed to be inside the MOVE house.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: As soon as we find out what the explosion is, we will try to tell you. At this point, I simply do not know.
CONAN: The MOVE house on Osage Avenue was were confrontation with police stretched out over hours and days, thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired. Eventually, 11 people died.
In a new documentary, "Let the Fire Burn," Jason - director Jason Osder uses archival footage to retell the story of MOVE, its relationship with the Philadelphia police and that stand-off. The film played in the Best of the Fest yesterday showing at the AFIDOCS Festival just outside of Washington. Jason Osder joins us here in Studio 42. Thanks very much for coming in today.
JASON OSDER: Thank you.
CONAN: What drew you to this moment in history?
OSDER: Yeah, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. I was growing up in Philadelphia at the time, and I was, you know, five children and six adults were killed in the fire, and I was roughly the age of some of the children, and I think combination of just how shocking the events were, but also the timing in my life that I was roughly that age. And also that, you know, I think those of us that are lucky to have, sort of, traditional childhoods, we grow up sheltered in a certain way. And for most people, there's a moment where that shelter is broken. And my parents' generation will always remember where they were when JFK died, but for me, it was the MOVE fire. And again, being a child, I think I lacked the context and the frames that adults might put on it. And to me, I was just really frightened.
CONAN: Almost 30 years later, it seems impossible that the police department drop a bomb on its own city.
OSDER: Yeah. I mean, I think, for me, making the film and thinking about what it means, that's sort of the most essential question that the story provokes, is sort of how does the unthinkable come to be reality? And I tried to really draw that out in terms of the moral in the film.
CONAN: Even more unthinkable is the question raised by the title of the movie. We see the mayor, Wilson Goode, saying a decision was made to let the fire burn.
OSDER: Yeah, that's right. And I think it's a very complex story and in a certain point, I think that events on the police side become driven by fear mostly. There's a previous confrontation where a police officer is shot eight years previous, and there's still a lot of overlap on the force with individuals that remember that. And the group has constructed a very intimidating structure on their roof that becomes known as the bunker, and it's fortified, and it has holes to shoot out of, and they have high ground on the block. And the police come to believe, I think, come to feel that they are in real danger.
CONAN: And that is only after their initial tactics failed. These were improvisations.
OSDER: Yeah. I think in the days leading up to the confrontation, one of the things you see as a reluctance on the part of the police organization for people higher up in the organization to participate in the planning because, you know, there will be possible deniability. So then, as things go bad, it becomes more and more haphazard and truly spirals out of control.
CONAN: There are miscalculations on the other side too. This is a group that had its intentions, but one of the things it was doing was deliberately provoking the people in that neighborhood so to force the police department to make a decision.
OSDER: Yeah. I think that's accurate, and it's difficult to know at the end of the day how far they wanted to take things. I think that there's a certain point of view that says, in fact, they wanted to provoke the action of the police and show the true nature of the system as they came over the top. Did they expect them to come over the top just that violently? Did they intend to die in the house? I don't know the answer to that. It's not impossible that, in fact, they did.
CONAN: And they certainly provoked the neighborhood.
OSDER: Absolutely. That was one of their tactics. After the initial incident in 1978, there were nine members of the group imprisoned. And when they regrouped, they were advocating on behalf of those people, and their technique to advocate was that if they riled the neighborhood up that - they wouldn't get attention on their own, but if they drew the neighborhood into the conflict, the neighbors would bring the attention of the authorities. And it still took a long time and a lot of aggravation on the part of those neighbors. But again, in fact, they did force the city's hand to act.
CONAN: And what did you come to understand about the nature of this group? And just going back remembering, at the time, they were sometimes characterized as a radical black organization, sort of the spinoff of the Black Panthers. And we did see pictures of them holding weapons at various points. They were portrayed as a back-to-nature group that fed the children only raw vegetables. They were also portrayed as a religious cult.
OSDER: Yeah. And I think there's a lot of things in play, and there are some patterns that we're familiar with and we can apply and some things that are unique and different. I think, for one thing, it did change over time. Back to nature seemed a fairly apt description in the early '70s when they started, but things became gradually more militant. I think the connections to actual black power movements are tenuous at best. I think that the sort of symbology of some those movements and the imagery of black men holding guns, for instance, was...
CONAN: And women.
OSDER: And women, that's right. I think that imagery was used by the group to, again, provoke an action whereas their intentions were different than a black liberation group. And in fact, pretty much all of those descriptions the group would reject. They would reject back to nature as well as black liberation. So ultimately - but - so I think some of these things apply.
But then at the end of the day, especially since I made the film and I wanted to really bring in the point of view of Michael Ward, the only child who survived, and again, myself being a child at the time, there was also the sense that they were a family. And when you hear it from a child's point of view, you know, as different as they were, sometimes they were the same in the sense in which they had these religious or quasi-religious beliefs, raw food.
But the children always had to eat raw food, whereas the adult, not always. And to me, that doesn't sound that different in the way a lot of Americans take their religion. And when Michael Ward says in the film, you know, they didn't believe in spankings, they didn't hit us, but they would yell at us. And I just asked, well, did you cry when they yelled at you? And he said, yeah, we cried when they yelled at us.
So in some ways, I wanted to keep intact that if you were, you know, regular is what you grow up with. And if you grow up in it, the rules were just the rules. And so yeah, they were all the things we talked about, but they're also a family.
CONAN: I was intrigued by the choice you made to use only archival footage in this picture. We see a lot of local television coverage. We see a lot of footage from the deposition of that young man you were just talking about, and we see a lot of footage from a hearing that was held about, what, five months after the incident to try to find out what happened, what went wrong, how all these miscalculations ended up in tragedy.
OSDER: Yeah. I mean, I have to give credit to the editor of the film named Nels Bangerter, who's a very talented documentary film editor. And what he helped me realize when he came on to the project - I've been researching in a very long time. I had shot some interviews and intended to use them.
But there was a combination of realizing that in those hearings, we had tremendous potential to do something different and unique and that, in fact, the things that you want to do with the documentary interview were not that strong in the interviews we'd shot. They weren't that revealing. People hadn't learned a whole lot. They hadn't changed a whole lot.
CONAN: Did you get a chance to talk with Mayor Goode or former Mayor Goode?
OSDER: Mayor Goode is the one interview that I wanted and I had not gotten at the time that we decided to go to another direction. But I did interview Michael Ward, which is big, exclusive as an adult as well as Ramona Africa and James Berghaier, the - one of the police that you meet in the film and...
CONAN: About the only person who comes off, really, as a hero.
OSDER: Yes. There is the feeling that James Berghaier is one police officer who is on the scene and sees the situation for what it is, which is children in peril whereas I imagine a lot of the other police officers sort of rooted in their boots.
CONAN: I wanted to talk about that moment. There's - we talked about that hearing, the commission where MOVE members of police, local government officials testify about the incident. And here's the Reverend Paul Washington asking police officers what they thought was going on when children left the house, then with - facing the possibility of - not the possibility, the actuality of a maelstrom of a terrible fire behind them, decided to go back inside.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LET THE FIRE BURN")
REVEREND PAUL WASHINGTON: Just as a human being myself, I'm just trying to imagine myself in that situation, and behind me, there's a raging inferno, and in front of me, there are people who are saying come on out. I'm trying to imagine what would cause me to turn back and run into the fire.
CONAN: A question - one of the many questions in the film, that's never answered.
OSDER: Yeah. What happens at the culmination of the film in the back alley while the house is still on fire is sort of one of the great mysteries of the story for those who follow it, and we tried to leave things in the film with implications open. It's a little bit of Rashomon moment.
And, yeah, I think people should watch and judge themselves who's telling the truth and who's lying and what might have really happened in that back alley.
CONAN: Jason Osder's new documentary is called "Let the Fire Burn." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I have to say, you said, a lot of the people you spoke with years later had not learned. There is an aspect of this that suggests we didn't learn either because you look at this and you say, oh, my God, Waco.
OSDER: Yeah. I am - it's a difficult story. And I think that in one sense it falls under the category of we might not have learned and we don't even know. And one of the things as I grew older that was disturbing to me is as I, you know, left the Philadelphia area and grew up a little bit, met my peers from other parts of the country, just how unfamiliar people were - of the story. And that goes on certainly with younger people as well. And I teach college now. And, you know, for the most part, people have not heard of it.
So, yeah, I think the beginning of, you know, it may be a cliche but you can only, you know, we need to learn our history so that we don't repeat it. And I think even in the baseline level, it needs to be part of American history to learn from it and see the parallels.
CONAN: We see in that hearing, a black politician saying he thought this was primarily a racial issue. And then he went to meet with people in the neighborhood, the people who are complaining about the MOVE house and what their tactics were, and said to his surprise, this were ordinarily - ordinary, working class, African-American people, that this wasn't a racial issue yet it is impossible to divorce it from raise.
OSDER: Yeah. I guess what I would say is that I would always argue on the side of complexity. It is absolutely a story about race in America, yet it is not only a story about race in America. And I think, sort of, the ultimate moral lesson to me about how does the unthinkable come to happen is it is truly any time that we look upon a fellow human and see, not a fellow human, but a label. And I think what begins to become very interesting about the story is that the assumption is that label is black but, in fact, it's different than that. And that label is sort of this one unique label that only existed for a moment in Philadelphia, called MOVE.
And - but, in fact, the lesson is that that label could be absolutely anything. It could be race, or gender, or orientation. But the answer to the question - I don't want to say unthinkable. I mean, they let the fire burn and there were children in the house. And the beginning of that is when we don't see another human being.
CONAN: And "Let the Fire Burn -" the idea was to destroy that bunker you talked about on the roof of the house, yet they were willing to let the fire burn and kill everyone else inside.
OSDER: Kill everyone in the house including children, and destroy 61 homes, 61 families lost their homes. And we do have to come back to the issue of race because they were predominantly, or actually, I believe, exclusively black families.
CONAN: And one of the updates is that, yes, houses were built for all of those people by the city, yet the construction was so shoddy, they are hard to be torn down.
OSDER: That's correct. And there was actually a lawsuit and charges of kickbacks to the contractor and ultimately indictments about that as well. It was truly an ongoing disaster for decades.
CONAN: And indictment for that yet no charges filed.
OSDER: Yeah. I mean, one of the ironies is that there are exactly two people to serve time over this incident, both were African-American. One is Ramona Africa, who is in the house, is convicted of conspiracy to commit riot; and the other is, in fact, the African-American contractor who's hired by the city to rebuild the homes, which are, ultimately, condemned.
CONAN: And there is one figure in the film who - well, an important role, but relatively minor, to his later political career, Ed Rendell, then the district attorney, later the governor of state of Pennsylvania.
OSDER: Yes. I think that's right. For the most part, the people you see have faded away there immediately or a little while later. But you do see an early chapter of Ed Rendell's life. And I haven't heard from Mr. Rendell but I'll be interested if he's the film and what he thinks.
CONAN: It's interesting. He is as always blunt spoken.
OSDER: Yeah. And, I mean, in my opinion in the film, he comes off certainly not as bad as many other people in the film. And, in fact, the things that you hear him saying are - he does represent a certain rationality, even if he still winds up sort of on the side that perpetuates the atrocities in a lot of ways.
CONAN: And did not necessarily take responsibility for that.
OSDER: No. He does not necessarily take responsibility. That's true.
CONAN: Neither does any - there's this terrible moment where people say I - the mayor says, I issued an order to put out the fire. And the head of the police department says, well, wait a minute, did I get - well, he's very vague on whether he got the order. And the fire chief says, I never got that order.
OSDER: Yeah. In the - there are some great sort of academic literature on the issue in communications area, and they would call that a breach, right, when communication broke down and whatever system is supposed to be working - stopped working and communication stopped. And I think that's an interesting way to look at it.
The fire chief ultimately is the only person who - it doesn't appear in the film, but he eventually a press conference breaks down and apologizes in sort of an emotional way. He says it was all my fault. Everyone else issues, at best, half apologies.
CONAN: "Let the Fire Burn" is the name of the documentary. Jason Osder is its director and playing at the AFI Docs Best of Fest on Monday. The film is an account of the incident that led up to during the 1985 standoff between MOVE and Philadelphia authorities. Jason Osder joins us here in Studio 42. Thank you very much for your time today.
OSDER: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, we expect the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, Prop 8 and DOMA. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.