On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police department mounted an assault against a group of black revolutionaries, calling themselves MOVE, who were barricaded inside a townhouse in the Powelton Village neighborhood of west Philly. For months the group had been cursing out neighbors through a bullhorn, threatening them and the police, and members had erected two bunkers on the roof of the house, equipped with gun turrets, that gave them a commanding tactical position over the street. Police and MOVE members exchanged fire throughout the day, and just after 5 PM a police helicoper dropped a bomb on the roof, ostensibly to create a distraction for a teargas attack. But after it detonated, the house was gradually engulfed in smoke and flames. Mayor Wilson Goode (who was black) explained later that he approved the plan to let the fire smoke out the MOVE members, but by the time it was extinguished six adults and five children were dead and more than 60 homes in the neighborhood were destroyed.
Jason Osder’s gripping documentary Let the Fire Burn revisits this notorious incident, viewed by some as a police execution and by others as a botched but necessary confrontation between civil authority and urban terrorists. Osder spends the movie’s first half tracing the long-simmering conflict between MOVE and the police after the group was established in 1976: a street clash between cops and MOVE protesters allegedly caused the death of a three-month-old infant, and in August 1978 a police raid on the group’s headquarters left one officer dead and eight police and firefighters injured. Nine MOVE members went to prison for that episode, but their comrades on the outside became even more confrontational, brandishing weapons in front of neighbors and broadcasting threats of murder and bombing attacks. Interviewed by a TV reporter prior to the second raid in 1985, one of the beleagured neighbors being evacuated from the block declares, “I think you’ll have to kill all of them.”
Much of Osder’s footage comes from TV newscasts, especially when he chronicles the day-long siege in the movie’s second half. But two other videorecordings weave through the narrative as well, turning what might have become a shrill “he-said-she-said” between the cops and MOVE survivors into a genuine tragedy. The first is a taped deposition of 12-year-old Michael Ward (aka “Birdie Africa”), the only child in the MOVE house who survived; he paints a more loving and charitable picture of the adults who died than one gets from the news, and recalls the fear and desperation of the innocent kids caught up in the conflict. The second documents the hearings of an investigative commission conducted in the wake of the fire, which brought together not only witnesses from both sides of the controversy but community leaders who spoke of the emotional scars left on the city. Amid all the mutual recrimination, you realize that the greatest casualty of the MOVE episode was the sort of comity that lets people share a city in relative peace.