The dangerous militarization of our police

U.S. police force carries military weapons
U.S. police force carries military weapons

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Story highlights

  • MOVE bombing took place on May 13, 1985
  • David Love: Black, brown communities bear brunt of heavy-handed policing

David A. Love writes for theGrio.com. He is a writer and human rights activist based in Philadelphia. Follow him @DavidALove. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)As Philadelphia comes to terms with the train derailment that has left six people dead and some 200 injured, it's also worth remembering another tragic event that took place in the city exactly 30 years ago. It was an incident that claimed the lives of almost a dozen people, including five children, and destroyed 61 homes. And it was undertaken by the city's own police force.

Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous MOVE bombing, in which police fired 10,000 rounds of ammunition into a row house on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. The police then dropped military-grade explosives on the house, burning an entire city block to the ground.
Fast forward to today, and that deadly, violent chapter provides valuable lessons for a society that so far has decided to ignore them.
MOVE was a revolutionary black power group founded in 1972. The group had a "back to nature," almost religious element to its lifestyle -- members were vegans and animal lovers, shunned technology, and wore their hair in dreadlocks. Their appearance and way of life led to conflict and tension in the community, and in a city with a long history of racism, police brutality, corruption and framings — and surveillance and harassment of political organizations such as the Black Panthers — the Philadelphia Police Department depicted MOVE as a terror threat.
In 1977, Mayor Frank Rizzo ordered a police barricade of MOVE headquarters. After 15 months, on August 8, 1978, the police moved in. One police officer was killed, in what Philadelphia Tribune reporter Linn Washington, who was on the scene, concluded was an act of police gunfire.
Nine MOVE members were convicted of third degree murder, conspiracy and other charges, with sentences ranging between 30 and 100 years. They remain in prison. But three officers charged in the videotaped beating of a MOVE member were found not guilty.
This set the stage for the bombing seven years later, a sequence of events depicted in the 2014 PBS documentary, "Let the Fire Burn."
On May 12, 1985, with the district attorney having prepared warrants to evict MOVE members from their home, police evacuated the entire block and told residents not to return for 24 hours. SWAT teams converged on the area, and gas and water lines were shut off.
The police pumped water and tear gas and later fired thousands of rounds of ammunition into the MOVE home, claiming MOVE had fired on police with automatic weapons, yet none of the four firearms found in the home were automatic weapons.
At the suggestion of a member of the police bomb squad, a state police helicopter dropped a bag of C-4 explosives on the roof of the MOVE home -- in a residential area.
Six children were among the 13 people in the MOVE house during the bombing. Mayor Wilson Goode, then the city's first black mayor, later testified he was fully aware the device would be used but said he gave an order to put out the fire.
"Commissioner (Gregore) Sambor said to me, he said, 'Let's let the bunker burn, to eliminate that high ground advantage and that tactical advantage of the bunker,' and I said OK," testified Fire Commissioner William Richmond at a hearing after the bombing.
Some of the officers involved in the 1978 MOVE operation were involved in the 1985 operation. It was also alleged that people who attempted to flee from the burning building, including children, were shot at by police.
Only two people -- one woman, Ramona Africa, and a child, Birdie Africa, also known as Michael Moses Ward -- survived the destruction of Osage Avenue. "N****r lover" was reportedly written on the police locker of James Berghaier, the officer who helped the burned child out of the house. Berghaier subsequently left the force due to a stress disorder.
A federal judge awarded the survivors $1.5 million, and a commission found that city officials were negligent and police training and supervision were lacking. However, no government officials or police officers were prosecuted for their role in the bombing.
Sadly, the MOVE bombing provided a preview of police state tactics that are commonplace today, and a militarization of local police forces, brought about by the wars on drugs and terror and funded by asset forfeiture and the feds. Indeed, law enforcement is using weaponry utilized by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the Defense Department's 1033 program, along with similar Department of Justice and Homeland Security programs, the cops receive free surplus military arms, aircraft, Humvees, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, you name it.
Give wannabe soldiers with no training all the military hardware they want. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, people die, and children are endangered, such as 19-month old "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh, who was hit with a flash-bang grenade during a raid by police looking for drugs that did not exist. The child was placed in a medically induced coma, leaving the family with a $1 million medical bill.
Addressing police militarization in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill and Rep. William Lacy Clay, both Missouri Democrats, are introducing legislation to require more training and oversight for police departments receiving military equipment from federal programs and ban the use of certain surplus by local police.
Unfortunately, the Fraternal Order of Police opposes any attempt to restrict the equipment used by law enforcement. This blue mentality that justifies and protects the police without criticism -- even as crime decreases -- threatens to further isolate the profession, as Radley Balko suggested recently in the Washington Post.
Thirty years after MOVE, the concept of policing must change. A recent Department of Justice report found serious deficiencies in the Philadelphia police on policies and training on the use of deadly force and a lack of public trust in the police policing themselves.
Noting an increase in police-involved shootings as crime has dropped, the report called for more police accountability and community oversight, independent and consistent investigations of police shootings, training in handling violent encounters and de-escalating tense situations.
In the meantime, black and brown communities across the country, particularly poor and working people, bear the brunt of heavy-handed police tactics. Regularly monitored and harassed, they are fearful and suspicious of police, and with good reason, because police behave like an occupying army in many of their neighborhoods.
It stands to reason that in white communities -- where law enforcement plays a different role -- police generally do not behave as they have carried on in the unrest in Ferguson last year, or Baltimore this year, or in West Philly in 1985. Yet the militarization of the police should concern everyone. Resisting the abuses of an oppressive government is an issue that should resonate with opposite ends of the political spectrum. Dismissing the victims of police brutality as violent black thugs who deserved their fate is delusional.
Ultimately, no one is safe if any one of us is not safe.
As in any police state, when the police become the army, they need an enemy, and the enemy ends up being us. "To serve and protect" is becoming "to suppress and control."
And with billions of dollars in military surplus, the police will find a way to use it.