My mind and heart are struggling with this 30-year anniversary. With the fact of the 11 lives lost on May 13th, with the fact of what happened to the people of the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, but also with the clear connection to the ways we see police departments interact with — and act on — communities of color today. And Black communities in particular.
When the Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE house on May 13th 1985, I was more than 3,600 miles away, at the start of a months-long hitch through Europe. I had just left Paris, after a couple of weeks of reconnecting with teachers and friends I’d met during my junior year abroad. I’d had a good day of hitching and was settling into Bordeaux. With no radio or television, I didn’t know about the bombing until the next day when I grabbed a copy of the International Herald Tribune and an Orangina and went to find a sunny spot to enjoy both.
Sitting in a pretty park under cool springtime sun, a photo and news story tilted my entire world.
I don’t remember how many times I read that article. I don’t know how long I sat staring blankly trying and failing to process what I’d read. I sat there long enough and looked lost and distraught enough that a man approached to ask if I was okay, to ask if I was injured in some way. Eventually I clipped the article from the paper and kept it in my journal. A place marker: this is your country, this is the state of things in 1985 in your country, this is a way a local police force in your country chooses to deal with a group of Black people it doesn’t like.
Because that was the horror, that was the reason I read the article over and over. How could it be happening in 1985 in my country? I remember repeating again and again, “But it’s 1985. It’s 1985.”
And now it’s 2015. It’s 30 years later, and we see municipal police departments describing the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve as “enemies,” we see police departments armed with military equipment and perfectly comfortable using those weapons and tools on civilians, we see more and more and more Black bodies, and we see the ones we’ve lost accused of orchestrating their own deaths. Every piece of this echoes what we saw in 1985 at 6221 Osage Avenue.
In 1985, firefighters were told to “let the fire burn,” to allow the fire caused by the police bombing to burn until it spread and destroyed almost two city blocks. Today, we see police officers shoot unarmed Black people and leave them where they fall while they call their union reps or alter crime scene evidence, or just walk away. In 1985, a residential neighborhood was bombed by the police. In 2015 — perhaps in an effort to protect property and serve landlords — police gun us down in the street.
White Supremacy, always the hardest worker in any room, has been busy — up from slavery, out through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, five steps ahead of the Civil Rights Movement, exploding over 6221 Osage, down through to today. White Supremacy doesn’t sleep, keeps its eyes wide open at all times. We get angry, White Supremacy takes three steps forward. We get comfortable, White Supremacy takes five. Bombing the MOVE house was horrific, but it wasn’t enough. White Supremacy needed those snipers firing on folks trying to escape the inferno, needed to let the fire rage and take down 59 other houses to prove a point, make an example, needed to leave that neighborhood in limbo and decay for 30 years to be sure we got the message.
I’m not saying this fight isn’t winnable. No. I’m saying we can’t get comfortable, we have to be as vigilant as White Supremacy, keep our eyes wide open, keep watch on all the doors and windows.
White Supremacy wanted the Philadelphia Bombing to teach us a lesson. Thirty years later, we are making clear that we’ve learned a lesson. Not the one implicit bias, internalized racial hatred, and White Supremacy would have had us learn, however. Thirty years later, we are calling bullshit on the lies and the violence. We are creating a Movement for Black Lives, and we aren’t sitting down and shutting up when white people get their feelings hurt or are forced to examine their motives, their privilege, their dismissal of our deaths.
In 1985, I didn’t know what to do with the pain of the Philadelphia Bombing other than grieve in silence. In 2015, my pen is firmly in my hand. I grieve, but I am no longer silent.
* I suppose it is too much to expect Google’s doodle for this day to be #BlackLivesMatter. But perhaps it’s fitting that the doodle honors the woman who discovered the earth’s core. The issue of state violence against Black bodies is definitely at the core of who we are as a nation.
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