By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 7, 2013)
While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.
In an enlightening new documentary called Let the Fire Burn, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.
Depending upon whom you might ask, MOVE was an “organization”, a “religious cult”, a “radical group”, or all of the above. The biggest question in my mind (and one the film doesn’t necessarily delve into) is whether it was another example of psychotic entelechy. So what is “psychotic entelechy”, exactly? Well, according to Stan A. Lindsay, the author of Psychotic Entelechy: The Dangers of Spiritual Gifts Theology, it would be
…the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions.
In the context of Lindsay’s book, he is expanding on some of the ideas laid down by literary theorist Kenneth Burke and applying them to possibly explain the self-destructive traits shared by the charismatic leaders of modern-day cults like The People’s Temple, Order of the Solar Tradition, Heaven’s Gate, and The Branch Davidians. He ponders whether all the tragic deaths that resulted should be labeled as “suicides, murders, or accidents”.
Whether MOVE belongs on that list is perhaps debatable, but in Osder’s film, you do get the sense that leader John Africa (an adapted surname that all followers used) was a charismatic person. He founded the group in 1972, based on an odd hodgepodge of tenets borrowed from Rastafarianism, Black Nationalism and green politics; with a Luddite view of technology (think ELF meets the Panthers…by way of the Amish). Toss in some vaguely egalitarian philosophies about communal living, and I think you’re there.
The group, which shared a town house, largely kept itself to itself (at least at first) but started to draw the attention of Philadelphia law enforcement when a number of their neighbors began expressing concern to the authorities about sanitation issues (the group built compost piles around their building using refuse and human excrement) and the distressing appearance of possible malnutrition among the children of the commune (some of the footage in the film would seem to bear out the latter claim).
The city engaged in a year-long bureaucratic standoff with MOVE over their refusal to vacate, culminating in an attempted forced removal turned-gun battle with police in 1978 that left one officer dead. Nine MOVE members were convicted of 3rd-degree murder and jailed.
The remaining members of MOVE relocated their HQ, but it didn’t take long to wear out their welcome with the new neighbors (John Africa’s strange, rambling political harangues, delivered via loudspeakers mounted outside the MOVE house certainly didn’t help). Africa and his followers began to develop a siege mentality, shuttering up all the windows and constructing a makeshift pillbox style bunker on the roof. Naturally, these actions only served to ratchet up the tension and goad local law enforcement.
On May 13, 1985 it all came to a head when a heavily armed contingent of cops moved in, ostensibly to arrest MOVE members on a number of indictments. Anyone who remembers the shocking news footage knows that the day did not end well. Gunfire was exchanged after tear gas and high-pressure water hoses failed to end the standoff, so authorities decided to take a little shortcut and drop a satchel of C-4 onto the roof of the building. 11 MOVE members (including 5 children) died in the resulting inferno, which consumed 61 homes.
Putting aside any debate or speculation for a moment over whether or not John Africa and his disciples were deranged criminals, or whether or not the group’s actions were self-consciously provocative or politically convoluted, one simple fact remains and bears repeating: “Someone” decided that it was a perfectly acceptable action plan, in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood (located in the City of Brotherly Love, no less) to drop a bomb on a building with children inside it.
Even more appalling is the callous indifference and casual racism displayed by some of the officials and police who are seen in the film testifying before the Mayor’s investigative commission (the sole ray of light, one compassionate officer who braved crossfire to help a young boy escape the burning building, was chastised by fellow officers afterward as a “nigger lover” for his trouble).
Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we still have go in purging the vestiges of institutional racism in this country (1985 was not that long ago).
In a strange bit of Kismet, I saw this film the day before Nelson Mandela died, which has naturally prompted a steady stream of retrospectives about Apartheid on the nightly news. Did you know that in 1985, there was a raging debate over whether we should impose sanctions on South Africa? (*sigh*) Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.