On Thursday, the Philadelphia health commissioner resigned after the mayor revealed that the commissioner had decided to cremate and dispose of partial human remains from the 1985 MOVE bombings without even bothering to notify the family members of the deceased. This news comes on the 36th anniversary of the police attack on the headquarters of MOVE, a Black radical and environmental rights group that lived communally in West Philadelphia during the 1970s and 1980s.
In early 2017, the now-former Philadelphia health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, was informed by the medical examiner that the city had found a box containing materials related to the autopsies of the MOVE bombing victims. The box contained bones and bone fragments, which Farley said were “presumably from one or more of the victims,” because clearly, he didn’t even think it important enough to check who the remains belonged to. It is apparently standard procedure to retain some specimens from deceased people after an autopsy ends, and so Farley decided to authorize the medical examiner to dispose of the bones and bone fragments, claiming that he did not “[want] to cause more anguish for the families of the victims.”
However, it’s no secret the case of the MOVE bombing is far from standard, and that Philadelphia officials have been trying to cover up and conceal the full extent of the horrors they inflicted on that Black community for decades. In fact, it took a whole 35 years for the city of Philadelphia to even issue a formal apology for an incident in which the Philly police force murdered 11 people and destroyed an entire Black community.
During the 1985 attack, a Philadelphia police helicopter dropped a C-4 bomb on the MOVE headquarters at 6221 Osage Avenue, killing 6 adults and 5 children. At the same time, the Philadelphia cops fired over 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the house, while knowing children were present in it. The fire caused by the bombing reportedly burned for an entire hour before emergency responders arrived. In addition to the 11 deaths, over 60 houses were destroyed, and 250 people were left homeless.
No Philadelphia officials ever faced criminal charges for the events of that day. In fact, the only person who was ever charged related to the bombing was Ramona Africa, a MOVE member who was able to escape the attack with her life. She was charged with rioting and conspiracy and served a seven-year prison sentence.
Less than a month ago, the horrifying discovery was made that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton were keeping bones from two of the five Black children who died in the MOVE bombing in their anthropological collections. Professors had even used the bones in classroom settings, discussing the damage that occurred to these children in dehumanizing anthropological terms (one professor literally said “the bones are juicy”)—all without permission from the deceased children’s living family members.
Although the children’s remains in question have never been positively identified, it’s believed they belong to either 14-year-old Tree Africa or 12-year-old Delisha Africa. (All members of MOVE use the surname “Africa” to illustrate their commitment to the collective liberation of Black people). MOVE member Michael Africa Jr., who was only 6 at the time of the bombing, says that it was understood that neither Tree nor Delisha’s mothers (both of whom are still alive) gave their consent for their daughter’s remains to be used to teach an online anthropology course.
“Nobody said you can do that, holding up their bones for the camera,” Michael Africa Jr. told The Guardian. “That’s not how we process our dead. This is beyond words. The anthropology professor is holding the bones of a 14-year-old girl whose mother is still alive and grieving.” The dehumanization and violation of Black people is not even stopped by death.