Philadelphia holds day of remembrance for 1985 Move bombing that left 11 dead

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Philadelphia on Thursday marks the city’s first official day of remembrance for the 1985 bombing of a Black liberation group in which 11 people, including five children, were killed and an entire African American neighborhood burned to ashes.

Related: Ivy League colleges apologize for ‘serious error’ in using bones of Black child for teaching

The commemoration of the city’s aerial bombing of the Move organization is being billed as a day of “reflection, observation and recommitment to the principle that all people are created equal”. It follows last year’s formal apology by Philadelphia city council for having committed one of the worst atrocities in America’s long history of racial violence.

The occasion has been overshadowed, however, by the discovery last month that the bones of two of the five children who died in the inferno have been held for almost four decades in the anthropology collection of the University of Pennsylvania. The children are believed to be Tree Africa, who was 14 when she was killed, and Delisha Africa, 12.

The girls’ parents were unaware that their children’s remains had been kept by the university as anthropological artifacts rather than buried. The bones were used as a “case study” in an online forensic anthropology course posted last month by a Penn professor working in conjunction with Princeton University.

As shockwaves from the bones discovery continue to reverberate across Philadelphia, members of the Move family are preparing to mark the 36th anniversary of the 13 May 1985 bombing of their headquarters at 6221 Osage Avenue. At 5.27pm on that day, a police helicopter flew over the Move premises and dropped on to its roof a bomb consisting of C-4 plastic explosives.

At the same time, Philadelphia police fired over 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the house in which children were known to be present. The bomb ignited a raging fire that was allowed to burn for almost an hour before emergency responders were called in.

Apart from the 11 who died, some 61 houses were razed to the ground and 250 people left homeless.

No Philadelphia official ever faced criminal consequences for the atrocity. The only person held criminally liable was Ramona Africa, one of only two Move members who managed to escape the attack – she was charged with riot and conspiracy, and served seven years in prison.

Jamie Gauthier, who represents the Osage Avenue area on the city council and who was instrumental in initiating Thursday’s day of remembrance, told the Guardian that the event would be a chance to reflect on the ways that Black people in Philadelphia and across the US have suffered at the hands of the state.

The recent shock over the children’s bones showed that “we can’t let the Move bombing fade into the past,” she said. “The improper way those remains were handled, the disrespect to Black life, continued from 1985 all the way to 2021.”

To memorialize the moment when the helicopter was sent over the Osage Avenue house, members of the Move organization and supporters will gather at 5pm on Thursday beside the historical marker at the location of the inferno. They will then march to Malcolm X Park.

Mike Africa Jr, a member of Move whose uncle and cousin both died in the bombing, said he was disappointed that the group was having to grapple with the furor over the human remains just as the inaugural day of remembrance was happening. “We had hoped that after some time had passed and the city had apologized we might be able to start thinking about moving forward,” he said.

“But now we are in a position of having to relive the trauma all over again, as if it were yesterday.”

After initial confusion over where the bones of the two children were being stored, they have now been tracked down. They were in the possession of a Penn and Princeton professor emeritus of anthropology, Alan Mann, who had been enlisted by the city’s medical examiner in 1985 to help identify the remains but had held on to them without permission for decades afterwards.

The bones are now being stored by the Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia. Penn Museum, the University of Pennsylvania institution which had curated the remains for years, is in discussions with members of Move family about how finally to respect their wishes.

Penn has set up what it describes as an “independent third-party investigation” into why the museum was in possession of the bones without parental consent for so long. Outside lawyers have been hired to carry out the inquiry.

The arrangement has left Move members skeptical. “How can we be sure that the attorneys who are being paid by the university are going to be fair and independent?” Mike Africa Jr said.

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