Two nights ago I happened upon a documentary on Netflix titled Let the Fire Burn (2013). THis film uses found footage to tell the story of the violent stand-off between the black liberation group MOVE and the city of Philadelphia in 1985. I was roughly thirteen or fourteen when this happened, and I don’t remember any of it. As I watched the documentary two things occurred to me: 1) 1985 was longer ago than I’d like to think, and 2) this show-down between MOVE and the Philadelphia police was insane.
The documentary does an excellent job of giving you the backstory of MOVE, founded as a “back to nature” movement that became increasingly militant as the city became more and more intolerant of their alternative lifestyle. There were two major stand-offs in MOVE’s thirteen year history. The first was in 1978 wherein a raid on their co-operative home resulted in the shooting of a Philadelphia police officer. The other was in 1985, and in this confrontation five children and six adults assocaited with the MOVE organization were burnt to death. The insane part of this was that the Philadelphia Police and Fire commissioners not only started the fire, but let the house continue to burn down with these eleven people in it. Hence the title of the documentary.
The racial tensions in the film are everywhere present, and it’s impossible not to recognize, at least from the privileged perch of historical hindsight, the barbarity of the response on the part of the city of Philadelphia. That said, what’s powerful about the documentary is MOVE doesn’t entirely come off as innocent, righteous victims. Their ongoing acts of bitterness and broadcasted hatred over a loudspeaker on their house was regularly terrorizing residents of this blue collar neighborhood. At the same time, the coordinated response to let eleven people burn to death in a fire started by the police department is a savage response that is incongrous with the crime. And to add to this narrative, there’s at least one white polcie officer on the force that, against the rank and file, ackknowledges this fact.
The documentary deals with this event by piecing together news reports, a depositon with the only child who escaped the fire, as well as numerous scenes from a community hearing wherein police officers, politicians, MOVE members, clergy, and other community leaders try and make sense of this horrific incident. If you have some time, this documentary comes highly recommended. It makes a powerful argument that the long, ugly history of institutionalized racism continues to undergird the power structure of the state. In fact, 1985 is not really that long ago at all, and waht’s interesting to me is how resonant the title is with James Baldwin’s essays about just that in The Fire Next Time.