Join the discussion on

" From now on I’ll get someone else to handle my divorces "
— Hugh Grant, Two Weeks Notice

MRQE Top Critic

Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde offers an excitingly fresh and strong female lead. —Matt Anderson (review...)

Sponsored links

I vaguely recall news reports of a fire in Philadelphia, the result of a standoff between some sort of a commune and the government, but at the time it went in one of my teenaged ears and out the other.

Now that story has a documentary behind it, and maybe it will spread wider. What happened is as shocking as what happened with the Branch Davidians in Waco and Rodney King in L.A.

1977

In Philadelphia in the ’70s and ’80s (and maybe still, I don’t know) there was an organization called MOVE. What I know of them comes from Let the Fire Burn: They didn’t call themselves a cult, but they lived collectively under a charismatic leader who had some non-traditional notions about how people should live. MOVE children played outside, unclothed, and did not go to school. Adults were allowed cooked food, but the kids were only allowed whole foods. Everyone in MOVE seems to have taken the surname “Africa.”

Twice, the city of Philadelphia — under two different mayors, one white and one black — attacked MOVE in militaristic standoffs. In 1978, responding to many complaints and confrontations, police arrived at the MOVE house in force. There was a shootout. One police officer was killed. Several MOVE members were wounded. One was beaten and kicked by police officers, and the incident was caught on film, predating Rodney King by two decades. None of the police officers who kicked the MOVE member were found guilty of assault.

During the raid, police brought in a bulldozer and damaged the structure of the house. After everyone was removed, the house was knocked down, that very day.

1985

Sixty homes were destroyed in the inferno
Sixty homes were destroyed in the inferno

The second raid was worse: MOVE had built a “bunker” on top of their house and annoyed the neighbors with profanity blasted from a loudspeaker audible from blocks away. Eventually, the police came to evict them.

Rather than sending a couple of officers and a lawyer, they approached the eviction with a military mindset. First they evacuated all the neighbors, then they started blasting the house with a water cannon. By the end of that day, the MOVE house had been bombed (police dropped C4 explosive on the rooftop bunker), burned — nobody knows for sure whether the explosives started the fire, and allowed to burn (thus the title) in order to encourage the MOVE members to leave the house.

The fire got out of control before it was extinguished and in the end, sixty houses in addition to the MOVE house had burned down in the ensuing inferno. Only two people who had been in the MOVE house escaped alive.

Found Footage

This amazing story of a badly escalated case of bad neighbors is told almost entirely through historical footage. Only a few title cards explain context and outcomes.

Filmmaker Jason Osder was able to tell such a complete story because there were hearings held in the aftermath of the 1985 fire which were videotaped. Osder supplements the hearings with footage from Philadelphia news reports and with the video testimony of Michael Moses Ward, a child at the time and one of the two survivors to escape. (He’s still alive in the film’s “Where are they now” titles, but his obituary appeared in the New York Times a month ago.)

Osder lets the story unfold chronologically, first the 1977 standoff, then the 1985 standoff. As the story is told, we learn more depth about the specific people involved.

Right and Wrong

Two MOVE women, LaVerne Sims and Louise James, who were not in the house that day in 1985, speak angrily at the videotaped hearings. At first they sound vaguely cultish, evading straight questions with hostile answers.

But listen closely you’ll realize they are very astute in their anger. A questioner asks whether MOVE had any weapons. “No.” Have you seen the photograph of MOVE members carrying rifles? “Yes.”

I think it was Sims who eventually explains that even a microphone can be a “weapon.” The rifles in the photographs were modified such that they could not fire and were thus, not “weapons.”

Let the Fire Burn doesn’t outright say that MOVE were victims and the city was wrong. But it’s pretty hard not to reach that conclusion.

I wouldn’t have wanted to live next door to MOVE. At the same time, I expect my government to show restraint and to take the moral high ground when it comes to resolving conflicts. Police and politicians act on behalf of the entire community. They must not let their personal anger and frustration drive their dealings with the community.

In Philadelphia, those lessons came at a very high cost.