Let the Fire Burn

"...If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected -- those, precisely, who need the law's protection most -- and listens to their testimony." -James Baldwin

Let the Fire Burn, the new documentary from director John Osder, recounts seven years of persecution by Philadelphia police of the MOVE organization, and the city-sanctioned bombing of their home and headquarters in 1985. Six adults and five children died when Mayor Wilson Goode, police commissioner Gregore Sambore, and members of the Philadelphia police and fire departments acted in concert to let MOVE members perish in a fire ignited when police dropped a bomb on the home. The film's title derives from Goode's order to "let the fire burn" as hoses were poised to extinguish it. MOVE members who attempted to escape were met with over 10,000 rounds of ammunition fired by Philadelphia police, sending the would-be escapees back into the inferno.

Sixty-one homes were destroyed and over 250 residents of the mainly African-American Powelton Village neighborhood were displaced in the fire that ensued. Ramona Africa, the only adult survivor, spent six years in prison, denied parole every year for refusing to disassociate herself from MOVE. Michael Ward (Birdie Africa) was the only child to survive, left physically scarred by the fire and emotionally traumatized by the loss of his mother in the fire. He died just last week, at the age of 41, and the circumstances of his death remain obscure. Mayor Goode, now a minister focusing his efforts on troubled youth, was described by LAPD Chief Daryl Gates as "one of my heroes." President Reagan never mentioned the incident.

The power of this film, in presentation and creation, is nearly beyond description. The Sofia Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra delivered a beautiful score, and Nels Bangeter easily executes one of the best chief editing jobs in recent memory, piecing the story together from footage culled from the archives of news channels, documentaries, and personal video. Osder's choice to let news and PCIS investigative commission footage dominate is brilliant: it leaves no side of the story untold, and in so doing provides some of the most transparent and damning testimony from city officials ever witnessed -- in their own words.

The audience experiences what seems like every bit of seven years in 135 minutes, beginning with the 1978 confrontation between police and MOVE, after which nine MOVE members were sentenced to serve 30-100 years - each - for the shooting death of one officer. The angle of the entry wound was such that it would have been impossible for those convicted of the shooting to have committed the crime: all were trapped in the basement of the MOVE residence, and Officer Ramp was shot from behind and above in what many have conjectured was a case of friendly fire. One of the MOVE 9 has since died in prison, and the remaining eight are denied parole in every instance, every year, though there were no functioning firearms inside the MOVE house at the time of the incident.

Osder does not retreat from footage that portrays MOVE as an organization in the throes of political growing pains, struggling to resolve its contradictions. In his deposition, 13-year-old Birdie Africa recounts the hidden desires of the MOVE children to escape what was clearly a difficult and confusing existence, but also remembers with great confidence that all the children were loved and cherished. Taken together, the complex portrayal of MOVE reveals an organization still finding itself, and the sustained and well-funded efforts by police to eviscerate MOVE altogether makes it a wonder that they were able to continue at all. For the first time in any mainstream narrative of MOVE, we get a glimpse of Black families who refused to allow their radical dreams for self-governance and democracy die with the third world internationalist movements destroyed by COINTELPRO. Osder gives us a picture of a people with virtually no contemporaries, trying for a new way of life amid the shredding of the social safety net and the organized abandonment of communities of color during the heyday of supply-side economics. "I never knew," one member declares, "that revolution consisted of revolutionizing myself."

When the police initiated their two-day siege on 6221 Osage Avenue in 1985, they began by declaring, "Attention MOVE, this is America," presuming the co-signature of an entire nation upon their singular intention to destroy the organization. The footage deployed by Osder and Bangeter locates us squarely in the mid-'80s, but Let the Fire Burn instructs us that history is not over. It reveals just one instance of America's persistent, unapologetic, and unrestrained assaults against those who wish to reimagine what freedom means through self-governance. The film is heartbreaking, and the filmmakers make no attempt to extract the audience from the devastation and ideological ruin of the fire. Yet this is where the genius of the filmmakers really shines: though there is no narrative from the MOVE 9 who remain behind bars, and though the testimony of those killed in the fire was silenced, the freedom seekers of Let the Fire Burn remind us that the blasted and unfulfilled hopes of the past are part of the struggle for a meaningful future.

Attention America: this is MOVE.