Last night I saw a documentary about the 1985 conflict in Philadelphia against the “Move” organization which featured a shootout and finally a helicopter dropping a bomb on a fortified building and 60+ row houses in a heavily populated city leveled by fire. The documentary was called “Let the Fire Burn” and it was primarily based on archival video from an inquest that the city of Philadelphia had after the sad incident, vintage news footage that was “live” at the time, and videotaped depositions of the survivors.
One angle that I found intriguing is the relative lack of sophistication of the police in 1985. Prior to the 1985 bomb incident, there was a 1978 incident where “Move” supporters were involved in a firefight with police where a policeman was killed and many others were shot. When police captured one of the “Move” members that surrendered, they beat him up on camera, in what was likely one of the first incidents filmed in this manner (the police were found not guilty). Thus during the 1985 incident, the Philadelphia police were heavily armed and on their highest guard when it came time to attack the “Move” compound.
“Move” built a bunker on the roof of a row house, apparently out of wood but reinforced with metal, with firing ports to command the street. When the police attacked, they used a water gun from a firetruck, but it wasn’t powerful enough to knock the bunkers off the roof.
At one point the police ran out of ammunition. During this siege they fired over 10,000 rounds into the house. A local news segment shows a county policeman showing up with a trunk full of ammo that is distributed to the police, in order to replenish their supply.
After giving up on randomly shooting into the building, and noting that the fire hose wasn’t working, they decided to drop explosives on the roof with a helicopter. The explosives didn’t blow up the bunkers. However, after 15 or so minutes, the building started to catch on fire until finally there were flames shooting ten stories tall (per a local news account). The title of the film “Let the Fire Burn” alluded to the supposed order (disputed by many) to let the fire burn in order to remove that bunker from the roof where the “Move” supporters could have fired on police. In the end, the entire building went up in flames and then 60+ buildings were burned.
It is interesting to consider how different this could have turned out in 2013. The police likely have many modern war veterans in their ranks who would be accomplished shooters (the modern war brought the sniper back to the fore) and could have likely picked off the “Move” supporters had they shown themselves anywhere without shooting 10,000 rounds to no avail. There are other ways to break into / destroy a fortified location, especially given that the order to storm the “Move” HQ was given in advance and they had time to prepare. The police are full of veterans who have stormed into heavy buildings and cleared them of enemies, basically “street fighting” experts.
The police accounts depicted in the documentary are often contradictory; no automatic weapons were found in the “Move” HQ and yet it seems that the original shots fired came from automatic weapons, implying that the police may have inadvertently started the shooting war.
I hope that a situation like this wouldn’t occur nowadays but I am confident that the police have the means to deal with an armed and fortified opponent, or could call in resources that could do this. By comparison the 1985 police in Philadelphia look outmatched by a simple bunker and a few older rifles. To fight them, the Philadelphia police ended up using the oldest of weapons, fire.
Cross posted at LITGM