Letting It All Burn: How A 2013 “Best of” serves as a reminder of 2014’s “Worst of”

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“This police department here in Philadelphia could invade Cuba,” Mayor Frank Rizzo told reporters. “What I’m saying is that we are trained and equipped for war.” Rizzo’s appraisal might have been made nearly 30 years ago, but it now seems eerily prescient. With the events of the last few months, few films from the past couple years capture the current angry zeitgeist like Let the Fire Burn (2013) a documentary investigating the disastrous May 1985 confrontation between the Philadelphia Police Department and the back to earth, black power, anti-technology, commune/organization known as MOVE. After all was said and done, three city blocks, about 60 houses, lay in ruin and eleven MOVE members, five of them children, lay dead. As New York Times critic Nicolas Rapold commented, the siege “turned a Philadelphia neighborhood into an American version of contemporary Beirut.” Sure, Let the Fire Burn came out in 2013, but often these things take time to drip into the ether of popular culture, and the documentary deserves a new viewing in the context of 2014.

Granted, MOVE might have been disliked and even hated by many of the African American families sharing the block with the organization. As one resident told reporters as he and others were evacuated from the neighborhood just prior to the 1985 stand off: “Believe it or not, I think they are going to have to kill them all.” Yet not a single homeowner would have imagined that police would let a six-alarm fire rage during the shootout that ultimately destroyed five dozen homes in the process. As resident Janice Walker related in a tearful interview with reporters at the time, she had been here for twenty years only to see all her family’s hard work, and those of her neighbors, “go up in smoke.” The negligence or lack of consideration for the neighborhood’s black residents displayed by city and law enforcement officials in 1985 Philadelphia, while not a perfect analog to today, serves as a useful reminder of the ways in which America hasn’t progressed. In this example, the different status accorded to black homeowners and their white counterparts; one can imagine the hell to pay had police burned down 60 houses in a white community.

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What was and who made up MOVE? To be fair, as critics like the Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson pointed out, the film does little to really sketch out any sort explanation of the organization. “Let The Fire Burn doesn’t do much to explore its history, its seeming connection with the black-power movement, or the apparent paradox in staging a back-to-nature movement in the middle of a vast, crowded city,” reflects Robinson. “MOVE’s goals are largely expressed through its members’ startling home movies of chaotic courtroom training sessions for the adults (the assumption being that the members were likely to be arrested and need to know how to stand up for themselves) and education sessions with the children.” Indeed, the group’s ideology and practices appear to be an odd amalgamation of social movements from the 1960s: environmentalism, black separatism, and communal living.   However, the group’s ideology and abrasiveness—make no mistake, they insult nearly everyone in the film not directly associated with the organization—remain beside the point. The main issue, several critics note, is that regardless of their orientation, no one in MOVE, least of all the children living in the house, deserved the fate thrust upon them by city officials and Philadelphia’s police department. The destruction of three city blocks only reinforces this message. When then-District Attorney and future governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell testifies that he considered the organization a “terrorist” group, the basic contours of the event seemed well established.

Two events bookend MOVE’s relationship with the city: the first, a violent 1978 shootout in which the city attempted to evict the group by force from its original headquarters at 32nd and Pearl St. (soon after demolished by the city) and the second, the aforementioned 1985 siege of their new home on Osage Avenue. The 1978 incident resulted in one officer dead and several injured; however, assigning blame over the tragedy seems about as clear as mud. Dodgy evidence, cross accusations and allegations from MOVE and city officials never really establish exactly what happened, though viewers can draw their own conclusions.

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Nine members would be arrested and sentenced to long jail terms and one unarmed member, Delbert Africa, would receive a brutal beating by three disgruntled police officers. Caught on film, “police footage of three policemen brutally kicking, stomping, and beating one unarmed, surrendering, prone member is as incendiary as the Rodney King beating tape,” noted Robinson in 2013. The first confrontation poisoned the water for both the police and MOVE. MOVE members testify that after the 1978 incident and constant police harassment, internal dynamics within the organization turned darker and bitterer. Philadelphia officials reacted similarly, adopting an outwardly hostile stance toward the organization.

During the 1985 confrontation, the police fired over 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Though officials claim MOVE members sparked the shootout by opening fire first, evidence suggests more mystery. The opening salvos of gun fire, numerous observers including the then Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor argued, came from automatic weapons, yet while several guns were found in the ruins, none could have fired the shots heard by witnesses. After hours of shooting, the police decided to more or less drop a bomb on the Osage Avenue headquarters and then allowed for a conflagration to grow that would consume an entire community. That decision to “let the fire burn” undoubtedly tarnished Mayor Wilson Goode’s tenure. “We had a difficult problem …We made a difficult decision that did not turn out as we wanted,” he would tell the media afterwards.

“As a pawn, we were caught in between and nobody, frankly, gave a damn,” homeowner and neighborhood resident Clifford Bond told civic leaders and city officials at public hearings. Indeed, Bond and others testify that while, yes, they largely opposed MOVE, nobody wanted their community bombed. The parallels to today seem uncanny. Black communities often endure greater victimization at the hands of criminals and many residents often clamor for greater police protection. However, none want more police brutality or heavy handed interventions that treat the entire community like occupied territory. A happy medium exists but as the documentary and recent events demonstrate, achieving it remains an elusive goal. Sure, Michael Brown might not have been a saint, Tamir Rice did have a toy gun that looked shockingly like a real weapon, and Eric Garner was illegally selling loose cigarettes, but was police reaction or even procedure acceptable in any of these cases? These questions continue to rightly be asked.

Some readers might argue that a film like Fruitvale Station (2013), based on the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by a San Francisco police officer, deserves equal mention. Sure, Fruitvale is a good film, but the most telling difference that separates the two and makes Let the Fire Burn more attuned to the issues at hand are its sources.

Director Jason Osder constructed a narrative from nothing but archival footage and the archive is rich. The 2012 documentary Black Power Mixtape delved into a similar embarrassment of historical fortune as it explored a trove of 16 mm film recordings and interviews filmed and conducted by Swedish journalists in the 1960s who had sojourned to the U.S. to investigate urban America and the Black Power movement. The subsequent film gave us new insights into the movement and offered us views of Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and others that eschewed the usual depiction of Black nationalists of the era. Still even Black Power Mixtape depended on the voiceover narrations of more than a few celebrities including Nas to establish a narrative arc. Let It Burn lets the edited sources speak for themselves.

 The bulk of the film’s footage consists of news reports, press conferences, a video taped interview of one of only two survivors from the fire, Birdie Africa aka Michael Ward, and the October 1985 Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission during which a cast of characters including hostile former MOVE members, city councilmen, Osage Avenue residents, police officers, and a brawny, recalcitrant police commissioner, the aforementioned Sambore all gave testimony. The October 1985 commission proves especially fruitful. Commission members and witnesses let fly with the kind of facial expressions and responses that a pre- social media/reality television landscape once provided. Nothing is put-on here; the anger, sadness, indignation, and bitterness, and near the end perhaps a sliver of hopefulness, all emerges. Though arranged and edited, the sources are the source itself and our interpretation of them matters as much as anything else.

The film’s omission of a voiceover narrative and the nature of its almost primary source footage seem especially relevant to events today. If the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice killings tell us anything, it is that even video evidence that sometimes seems incontrovertible can be useless in a court of law. Writing in the Los Angeles Times recently, sociologist Jennifer Dawn Carson correctly notes that recording an officer’s every movement won’t solve everything.Cameras are not unbiased observers.” she writes. “Often, they are like witnesses whose hazy memories rarely have the power to subvert powerful narratives that reflect mainstream beliefs about police and criminality. The actions police take might become part of public debate but in the courtroom video functions more as a means to establish “alibis, not game-changers.” Indeed, as Carson reminds readers, the video of the Rodney King beating looked pretty convincing as well. We know how that turned out. In the context of 2014, the Let the Fire Burn operates in many ways as a parallel to today; our own familiarity with reality television, security tapes, and surveillance strengthens the film’s narrative in ways that might have been obscured with previous less surveilled, less mediacentric generations.

Where No Camera Went

Then again, public debate helps to create reform or at least the will for reform. So in this way, placing cameras on officers would still be valuable, even if one needs to remember, as Carson notes, that though we may all be surveilled more than ever before this “erosion of privacy is not shared equally across society.”

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The one part of the documentary not caught on film, demonstrates one reason why video or recorded evidence still matters. As the fire raged, the police slipped into the alley behind the Osage Avenue headquarters in large numbers. Whether they had done so to aid possible survivors in escaping the fire or to force anyone lucky enough to emerge from the flames back into the inferno remains up to one’s interpretation, but it sure seemed more like the latter. Having footage of events in the alley might not have settled the questions that arose but it would have helped to sketch out a narrative that varied widely between the police and Michael Ward’s testimony.

According to Michael Ward, when MOVE member Conrad “Rad” Africa attempted to carry one of the children out of the fire into the alley, police fired on him, forcing him and the child back into the burning house. Officers deny firing any shots, though when pressed by one of the commission members to explain why someone would turn back into a fire, the officer replies, “to regroup.” Needless to say, commission member Reverend Paul Washington was unimpressed.

Yet, if these officers disappointed, Officer James Berghaier rose to the occasion, slipping into the driveway to save Michael Ward and Ramona Africa from the fire. “Then, I saw Birdie … and it looked like he literally walked right out of the fire,” he told the commission. Brushing aside the reservations of his fellow officers, who believed it was “a trap,” Berghaier saw Ward fall from the fence as he tried to scale the wall to safety and swooped in to grab the child. “I was scared to death,” he admitted. “I just didn’t want to leave the kid there like that.” Ward’s mother would perish in the fire.

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“I’ve been sitting here listening for many days, and I’ve read scores of pages of reports and testimony and it has all been, all of it, very depressing and very discouraging,” noted one commission member, “except what I read about Officer Berghaeir and what I heard from Officer Berghaeir. If there’s any hope in this whole sorry situation it’s because of that officer.” Yet, with his locker later vandalized with the words “nigger lover,” Berghaeir would soon be diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and off the force within two years.

 Let the Fire Burn precedes and gives illustration to 2014 social media conversations like #BlackLivesMatter, but also to the inequalities that have not only persisted but expanded during the recent economic downturn. Recently using Federal Reserve data, Pew researchers Rakesh Kochar and Richard Fry demonstrated the toll the “Great Recession” took on American net worth. From 2007 to 2010 the average net worth of Americans dropped by 40%, but for minorities the outcome proved even more dire. “Now whites have 13 dollars for every dollar held by African Americans, a level of inequality not seen since 1989, when the white-black gap was 17 to 1,” pointed out Washington Post reporter Michael Fletcher. For Latinos, the gap remains smaller but still a problematic 10-1. Per household, the differences look even starker. The average net worth of white American families to be roughly $140,000 while that of African Americans comes to only $11,000 and Latinos to just over $13,000.[1] In 2013, the Urban Institute issued a study that found the average white family had approximately “$632,000 in wealth” while their black and Latino counterparts had only $98,000 and $11,000 respectively.[2] For both blacks and whites, value of primary residence served as the most important asset in determining the value of a family’s financial portfolio. To say nothing of problematic federal and state housing policies that made non-white homeownership more difficult to attain, the city burning down one’s home didn’t help matters.

This coming May marks the 30th anniversary of events in the film. While the conflict between MOVE and the Philadelphia police might be unique to the city in some respects, the idea of a militarized force capable of “invading Cuba” laying siege to a home of 11 people, six of them children, seems more than a little disproportionate and disturbingly common today. Admittedly, the Philadelphia’s police’s overreaction might also reflect the disorder and chaos that many city officials felt as the dual processes of deindustrialization and suburbanization denuded urban America of capital and revenue. Mayor Goode and Commissioner Sambore struggled to respond to the rising tide of 1980s dysfunction that afflicted Philadelphia and nearly all the nation’s cities. As Robinson pointed out in her 2013 review, the city’s tragic overreaction had grown out of its own impotence having been unable to evict the group without evidence “of criminal activity.

Yet too much of the film seems relevant to now; it’s like watching a detached vision of your own demise: it all seems so obvious but you can’t do anything to stop it. Maybe revisiting Let the Fire Burn will give a tangible, visible example of the processes that have helped lead us to where we stand now. Such an awareness will be useful as we move forward into 2015. After all, as one gets older, you realize, thirty years isn’t that long.

 

[1] Michael A. Fletcher, “White Americans Have 13 Dollars for Every Dollar Held By Black Americans,” Washington Post, Dec 12, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/get-there/wp/2014/12/12/white-people-have-13-dollars-for-every-dollar-held-by-black-americans/

[2] Annie Lowery, “Wealth Gap Among Races Has Widened Since The Recession,” New York Times, April 28, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/29/business/racial-wealth-gap-widened-during-recession.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1418501230-XNDygSqaK5qyURoHatW//A.

Comments

  1. May 13, 1985. It was a warm Monday. I watched it on the TV, live, on WCAU.
    All week before hand, MOVE had been blaring loud speakers 24/7, annoying neighbors. Repeadily police, L&I and the city wanted them to stop. Living conditions were horrible. The children were not permitted to go to school. When they were told to leave the house so there could be an inspection, that’s when things heated up. All along, i kept blaming MOVE for the problems: the fire, the deaths, all the destruction… well, here, 30 years later, almost, my views have not changed. For a radical group, they got exactly what they wanted: they met the police and they had their confrontation and lost. Had this not been a police action, the fire department would have been fighting these fires from almost the beginning. To me, the 60 houses lost, the several deaths, they all get put on the shoulders of MOVE.

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