On Thursday, the head of Philadelphia
's public health
department was forced to resign for mishandling the remains of MOVE bombing
victims, a racist
act of police violence
that occurred 36 years ago on this day.
Mayor Jim Kenney announced that he had asked Health Commissioner Thomas Farley to resign effective immediately, citing Farley's decision to cremate and dispose of the remains of an unknown number of victims rather than fully identifying and returning them to family members.
Farley disposed of the victims' remains during Kenney's first term in office, but the mayor said he only found out about the "very disturbing incident" this week.
“This action lacked empathy for the victims, their families, and the deep pain that the MOVE bombing has brought to our city for nearly four decades,” Kenney said in a statement, adding that he has also placed Medical Examiner Dr. Sam Gulino on administrative leave pending an investigation and appointed Dr. Cheryl Bettigole as acting health commissioner.
On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police bombed MOVE, a Black liberation and environmental organization housed in one of the city's Black neighborhoods on the west side, after receiving an order to drop an aerial bomb made of C-4 plastic explosives on the compound from the city's bomb disposal chief, Frank Powell.
MOVE members took the surname “Africa” to express their commitment to racial equality and to one another after a years-long conflict with Philadelphia authorities that culminated in a wave of arrests for offenses such as “terroristic threats,” “riot,” and “disorderly conduct,” as well as a standoff that ended with Powell dropping the bomb on their home.
The bomb set off a fire that quickly spread, and the police and fire departments refused to assist in putting it out. The attack
killed 11 of the 13 MOVE members in the building, including five children
, and destroyed 61 homes, displacing 250 Philadelphians.
Philadelphia lawmakers formally apologized last year for the city dropping a bomb on its own citizens and destroying a neighborhood in the process, but none of the officials at the time faced consequences.
“I can't imagine it means much, but I also offer a formal apology to the Africa family and members of the Movement on behalf of the City of Philadelphia, not just for this heinous incident, but also for how administration after administration has failed to atone for the heinous act on May 13, 1985 and continues to dishonor the victims,” Kenney said.
Mike Africa Jr.
is a current MOVE member who was born in a Philadelphia jail after police arrested his MOVE members and sentenced them to 100 years in prison, 40 of which they served until he successfully freed them. Africa spent his childhood with the MOVE group and was 6 years old when the city bombed the house, witnessing the smoke from the attack that killed his family.
“I still can’t believe it. I remember the kids and their behaviors and mischief,” Africa said on his podcast Thursday. “To know that they tried to escape this burning house while this fire was raining down on them and walls were collapsing on top of them, the helplessness, the fear. I remember the fear of the sound of any siren from an ambulance or anything, and it used to drive me insane.
“Where was the people
’s outrage? Was having a Black mayor commit this atrocity more important than the lives that were stolen?”
36 years ago today, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on my family, killing 11 people, including 5 children whose remains were taken without consent
by UPenn and used as study material. No official has ever been held accountable. Please retweet and support @mikeafricajr1 in my mission for justice. pic.twitter
.com/WW8lv2SVpL— Mike Africa Jr (@MikeAfricaJr1) May 13, 2021
Farley resigned less than a month after it was revealed that a set of missing remains, thought to be those of 12-year-old Tree and 14-year-old Delisha Africa, had been held for decades at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University for archaeology and anthropology departments to be studied without the Africa family's knowledge.
Tree and Delisha Africa were inside the MOVE headquarters when police detonated their bomb. Alan Mann, one of two anthropologists involved in studying their bones, turned the remains over to a Philadelphia funeral home late last month in preparation for their final resting place.
Farley told the Philadelphia Inquirer in a statement that Gulino, the medical examiner, told him in 2017 that he had discovered a box containing “bones and bone fragments, presumably from one or more of the victims” of the MOVE bombing. He added that it was standard procedure for the medical examiner’s office to keep “certain specimens” for any future investigations before releasing them.
“Believing that investigations into the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years ago, and not wanting to cause further anguish for the families of the victims, I authorized Dr. Gulino to follow this procedure and dispose of the bones and bone fragments,” Farley said.
We pledge to use this recent revelation to pay tribute to the victims and all those who have suffered as a result of the MOVE bombing; we are engaging local stakeholders on meaningful ways to commemorate MOVE; and we will share more on our plans in the coming weeks.— Jim #VaxUpPhilly Kenney (@PhillyMayor) May 13, 2021
At a press conference later Thursday, Kenney stated that he met with the Africa family prior to announcing Farley's resignation, and that the family requested that the decision be announced on the anniversary
of the bombing. He also stated that, while his administration cannot rewrite history, "we pledge to use this recent revelation as an opportunity to pay dignity and respect to the victims, their families, and the victims' families."
The mayor stated that the policy of disposing of remains reserved for investigations will be changed, and he promised full transparency in the outside review of the handling of all MOVE victims' remains. Kenney stated that his goal is for "this investigation and final report to present a complete picture that has been missing."
“On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police bombed my family. Today, May 13, 2021, they told us more members of our family’s remains were in a drawer and instead of turning them over to us, they [sic] incinerated them,” Mike Africa, Jr. wrote in an Instagram
post about Farley’s resignation.