This is a past event.

Let The Fire Burn 

When: Fri., Sept. 20, 7 p.m. 2013
Price: Free, tickets required
The MOVE organization, largely an African-American group, was led by John Africa, a charismatic man who called for members to return to a primitive lifestyle and to live outside the system. While unconventional, their communal lifestyle, religious undertones and radical politics were not unusual for the 1970s (or now): They cooked on wood stoves, shunned television and encouraged their children to run around their inner-city compound naked.

However, the scene for MOVE was not flowers-in-your-hair California, but gritty west Philadelphia. While they were provocateurs—members aggravated their black neighbors by shouting through bullhorns profanity-laced protests against oppression and police—there is no evidence MOVE members initially threatened anything but the status quo. For their part, Philly police seemed equally antagonistic toward the group.

That antagonism escalated to the 1985 police bombing of MOVE's headquarters, the subject of Jason Osder's documentary Let the Fire Burn. The film is fraught with tension as it searches for the truth about the bombing and the 1978 brutalization of a MOVE member and shooting of a police officer that provided kindling for the conflagration seven years later.

"Let the fire burn" refers to a pivotal decision made by Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode on May 13, 1985: Even though police had been using tear gas and water cannons to try to flush MOVE members from the house, after a police helicopter bombed it, Goode recommended that firefighters—who obliged—to "let the fire burn."

Eleven of 13 people inside died, several of them children, at least 60 houses in the neighborhood were destroyed.

Police and MOVE members tell contradictory accounts of the incidents, and the conflict is teased out through skillful juxtaposition of archival footage: The testimony of Philadelphia officials (who considered MOVE a terrorist organization) and MOVE members before a special city commission, and the deposition of 12-year-old Birdie Africa, who survived after he ran from the burning building and was rescued by a police officer.

Thirty years ago such incidents seemed outrageous; now nothing would surprise us. —Lisa Sorg

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