Jason Osder’s documentary “Let the Fire Burn” details a shocking instance of police oppression circa 1980.The Mayor of Philadelphia ordered police to evacuate the MOVE commune. Refusing to leave, the besieged members were attacked by water cannons, over 10, 0000 rounds of ammunition and a bomb dropped by helicopter on their row houses. Arrogance, hubris and obsession on both sides lead to this tragic urban war.
Fire broke out (captured on TV News cameras). 11 adults and children burned to death (two escaped) and over 60 neighboring structures in the black neighborhood of Osage Ave were destroyed. ‘Let the fire burn” was the watchword from the city, echoed by Mayor Goode, who refused to back down.
Although the fire department eventually showed up, the blaze was too large to stop, and footage reveals a shaky history, it’s unclear if the City simply ignored Black Mayor Goode’s order to put out the fire, or whether he ever ordered it.
Little reported except in Philly, the incident was the culmination of a long time feud between Black Power militants (MOVE) and Philadelphia’s first Black mayor, Wilson Goode.
MOVE adopted the teachings of John Africa (who died in the attack.) Living in a commune, they were essentially a politically motivated cult, with all the rules that implies. Their children ate only raw food, and like earlier religious groups (i.e. Anabaptists and the Amish) they forbade most technology. MOVE indoctrination videos infuriate: naked kids, their bellies distended like famine victims, belie the MOVE ideology.
Neighbors were enraged by their filthy living conditions and the constant foul-mouthed rants broadcast from a loudspeaker, as MOVE demanded the release of their imprisoned members.
Arrested on weapons charges, white co-founder Donald Glassey, told the police about a MOVE arsenal.
As the point man for city hall, former Police Commissioner Gregor Sambor and Fire Commissioner William Richmond played the heavies.
(NOTE: Goode, who was later praised by Los Angeles Police Commissioner Daryl Gates as “an inspiration to the nation. I hope he runs for national office” was looking for a ‘permanent end to MOVE” Goode described the action as “perfect-except for the fire,”)
In 1978, during the administration of Police chief turned Mayor Frank Rizzo, an earlier standoff between MOVE and the police left a dead cop, possibly avictim of friendly fire. Three police officers, captured on camera viciously beat Delbert Africa. They were all acquitted, while nine members of MOVE got 30-90 years for the cop killing.
Editor Nels Bangerter makes an impressive driving story of his found elements, including historic and recent interviews and extended clips from the televised hearings. Most painful is the deposition of 13-year-old Michael Ward, the sole surviving child from the MOVE commune. Officer Berghaier, who entered the fire to save the two surviving kids, was morally aghast, “I thought a lot about those kids. I thought about my kids.” . Praised by the commission, he was hazed at the station and quit.
Ironies abound in Osder and Bangerter’s brilliant edit: DA Ed Rendell, future Democratic governor (from 2003 to 2011) comments on the “commendable restraint” of the Police cut to images of cops kicking a man in the head.
The most surprising thing about the film is how first time director Osder, managed to make such a gripping documentary from found footage including news footage, court and police videos and MOVE videos. He spent twelve years combing archives, after his current day interviews with crucial figures and survivors proofed useless. Happily Osder’s employer George Washington University teamed up with Temple University, giving him access to the complete materials of the Mayor Goode’s investigatory commission, including police stake out tapes, which were archived at Temple.
All of this is set during the collapse of Democratic Liberalism and the beginning of the Republican party’s social engineering (pitting white middle and lower middle class workers against the underclass) which has culminated in the frightening rise of Christian fascism currently hell bent on destroying government and what’s left of democracy in this country.
RIVITING! Opens October 19, Landmark Nurat Theater