The head of Philadelphia’s public health department was forced to resign on Thursday for mishandling the remains of victims of the MOVE bombing, a racist act of police violence that happened on this exact day 36 years ago.
Mayor Jim Kenney announced that he had asked Health Commissioner Thomas Farley to hand in his resignation effective immediately due to Farley’s decision to cremate and dispose of an unknown number of victims’ remains instead of fully identifying them and returning them to family members.
Farley disposed of the victims’ remains during the first term of Kenney’s administration, but the mayor said he had only learned of the “very disturbing incident” this week.
“This action lacked empathy for the victims, their family, 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 pending a full investigation and has appointed Dr. Cheryl Bettigole to be acting health commissioner.
Philadelphia police bombed MOVE, a Black liberation and environmental group housed in one of the city’s Black neighborhoods on the west side, on May 13, 1985. Frank Powell, who was the city’s bomb disposal chief at the time, carried out an order to drop an aerial bomb made of C-4 plastic explosives on the compound.
Each member of MOVE took the last name “Africa” as a way to signal their commitment to racial equality and to each other. The group was in a yearslong conflict with Philadelphia authorities that culminated that May in a wave of arrests for offenses like “terroristic threats,” “riot” and “disorderly conduct,” as well as a standoff that ended with Powell dropping the bomb on their home.
The bomb produced a fire that began to spread ― one that the police and fire departments refused to help control. The attack killed 11 of the 13 MOVE members in the building, including five children. The fire burned down 61 homes, leaving 250 Philadelphians homeless.
None of the officials at the time of the massacre ended up facing consequences. Philadelphia lawmakers formally apologized last year for the city dropping a bomb on its own citizens and destroying a neighborhood in the process.
“I cannot imagine that 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 disgraceful 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. “I am profoundly sorry for the incredible pain, harm, and loss caused by that horrific day.”
Mike Africa Jr. is a current member of MOVE who was born in a Philadelphia jail after police arrested his parents, who were 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 and friends.
“I still can’t even believe it. I remember the kids and the behaviors and the mischief,” Africa said Thursday on his podcast. “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 crazy. I can’t even imagine what they had to experience.”
“Where was the rage from the people? Was having a Black mayor commit this atrocity more important than the lives that were stolen? Where was the rage, the outrage?”
Farley’s resignation came less than a month after outlets reported that a set of missing remains ― thought to be those of 12-year-old Tree and 14-year-old Delisha Africa, were held for decades at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University to be studied by their archaeology and anthropology departments without the Africa family’s knowledge.
Tree and Delisha Africa were inside the MOVE headquarters when police dropped their bomb. One of two anthropologists involved in studying their bones, Alan Mann, turned the remains over to a Philadelphia funeral home late last month in preparation for their final resting place. Penn Museum has started an independent investigation into why the universities kept the Africa children’s remains for decades.
In a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Farley said 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. The health commissioner said it was standard procedure for the medical examiner’s office to keep “certain specimens” for any future investigations before releasing the rest of the remains to the family. Such materials are then disposed of once the investigations are complete.
“Believing that investigations related to the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years earlier, and not wanting to cause more 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. “I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them.”
At a press conference later Thursday, Kenney said he met with the Africa family prior to announcing Farley’s resignation. The family requested that Kenney announce the decision on the anniversary of the bombing. He also said 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 all Philadelphians who have suffered because of the MOVE bombing.”
The mayor said the policy of disposing of remains reserved for investigations will be changed, and promised full transparency in the outside review of the handling of all MOVE victims’ remains. The investigation will consist of people specifically approved by the Africa family, with Kenney saying it’s his goal “that this investigation and final report present a complete picture that’s been missing for far too long.”
“On May 13 1985 Philly police bombed my family. Today May 13th 2021 they told us more members of our family’s remains were in a drawer and instead of turning them over to us the [sic] incinerated them,” Mike Africa, Jr. wrote in an Instagram post about Farley’s resignation. “These rotten perpetrators need to be held accountable for their crimes against humanity.”