Justice

Here’s What Happened When Black People Tried Armed Occupation

CREDIT: AP Images/George Widman

The MOVE bombing of 1985

When a small group of radical militiamen linked to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on Saturday, they vowed to use violence in their fight against the federal government. Claiming the feds have no right to oversee ranch management in the U.S. — a point of contention that led to another armed standoff in 2014 — the group has called on patriots to join them at the wildlife refuge and “free” ranchers from “tyranny.” The gunman have also said they will “kill and be killed if necessary.”

Schools in the area have been shut down, and locals are afraid that people will die. But authorities have made no indication that they plan to use force against the militia — a stark shift from the way people of color perceived as threatening have been treated by law enforcement.

Since the start of the building’s occupation, people on social media have pointed out the racist double standards in the way the militiamen have been treated by police and described by mainstream media. News outlets like the Associated Press have referred to Bundy’s men as peaceful protesters, whereas unarmed Black Lives Matter activists have been called terrorists and a grave threat to police officers by Fox News and CNN analysts. Similarly, Oregon police’s desire for a peaceful resolution has been contrasted to the instantaneous police killings of unarmed black people, including Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald.

And 30 years ago, a similar standoff between police and a black anti-government group in Philadelphia played out very differently. Armed members of a fringe liberation group called MOVE were bombed and burned alive for directing their weapons at police. The bombing highlighted the stark contrast in the way cops treat black and white radicals.

Members of the liberation group sought a natural lifestyle, free of government control, law enforcement, and technology. They lived together in a barricaded house, protested for animal rights, and ate raw foods. Similar to Bundy’s supporters, they believed the federal government violated their constitutional rights. And with a cache of weapons in their possession, they also advocated armed defense if targeted by the city’s authorities.

On May 13, 1985, officers with warrants and military-grade weapons surrounded their house. Police claimed they were there to evict the group, in response to complaints from locals about MOVE’s use of blow-horns to proselytize late into the night. They pointed deluge guns at the house and yelled at the people inside to evacuate. Tear gas was thrown into the building to smoke them out. But when someone started shooting back, the officers returned the gunfire with 10,000 rounds. Without knowing how many people were inside, they began throwing explosives at the house. And when nobody came out, they dropped a bomb from a helicopter — setting off a fire that spread to 65 homes and that firefighters were ordered not to put out.

In the end, one woman and one child made it out of the house alive. Five children and six adults were killed.

According to survivor Ramona Africa, MOVE residents tried to exit the house but police would not stop shooting at them. “We were met with a barrage of police gunfire. And you could see it hitting all around us, all around the house,” she told Democracy Now. “And it forced us back in to that blazing inferno, several times. And finally, you know, you’re in a position where either you choke to death and burn alive or you possibly are shot to death.” Local journalist Juan Gonzalez verified her account.

Africa also believes the attack on MOVE was aimed at killing its members — not responding to neighbors’ complaints. Years before the bombing, MOVE struck a deal with Philadelphia officials to hand over its weapons and evacuate the house in exchange for the release of some if its detained members. When the city obliged the request, MOVE did not budge. Police subsequently attacked the building with water cannons and battering rams. Some of the radicals opened fire, killing one officer and injuring 16 additional cops and firefighters.

Africa maintains police were trying to settle the score. “It wasn’t about an arrest. Both situations, they keep using this word ‘eviction,’ that they were coming out to evict MOVE. Since when are evictions held, you know, carried out, by hundreds of cops armed for war?”

But the MOVE bombing was not an isolated event, and the treatment of white militiamen in Oregon is not a rarity. There have been some instances where violence against white extremists has been used, in Waco and Ruby Ridge, for example. But in the past and present, black people who use guns in self-defense have been disproportionately penalized. African Americans in Stand Your Ground states are 354 percent less likely to be justified for killing in self-defense. And studies show that police are more likely to use physical force against black people.

This post originally stated the MOVE bombing was 25 years ago. It was in fact 30 years ago. Information about police standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge has been added as well.