A year after MOVE, residents still displaced, mayor on shaky ground

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's been just a year since a bomb was dropped on a row house in Philadelphia. Last May a police confrontation with the radical, back-to-nature MOVE organization led to a fiery end, with 11 people dead, 61 houses destroyed, and 250 people homeless.

The city resurfaced Pine Street in West Philadelphia last week, but Osage Avenue is still blocked off. New row houses in the solidly middle-income neighborhood have gone up, but only a third are occupied.

A commission appointed by Mayor W. Wilson Goode to investigate the bombing of the MOVE headquarters issued a scathing report two months ago that pointed a finger at top government officials, including the mayor. Last week District Attorney Ronald D. Castille impaneled a grand jury to consider indictments in the MOVE incident, in which five children were among those killed.

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And in West Philadelphia, families that dutifully left their homes the afternoon of May 12 -- thinking that the city was finally paying attention to their cry for help regarding the MOVE house -- still wait to see the complete rebuilding of their neighborhood. They had watched in horror and disbelief as their homes were demolished in a fire that was left burning even after a mayoral order to put it out.

``Until the community is made whole, the mourning will not be over,'' says the Rev. Charles Diamond of St. Carthage Catholic Church, where refugees from the tragedy gathered last year. He says the community is still waiting. The city had originally promised that the new homes would be completed by Christmas. Of 22 homes completed on Pine Street, 15 are occupied and two were scheduled to be settled Monday.

The city, which is expecting all of the displaced families to return, says the remaining 39 homes will be completed by May 31, at a cost of $8.27 million. The project was originally slated to cost slightly less than $5 million. The original developer of the project, Ernest Edwards, defaulted and was removed by the city.

The fallout from the disaster has been widespread. Although core members of the MOVE organization were killed during the tragedy, several MOVE supporters still occupy a house in Southwest Philadelphia. Ramona Africa, one of two survivors of the bombing, was subsequently tried and convicted of riot and conspiracy and is now serving a sentence at a women's state prison. Nine MOVE members are now in jail on charges stemming from the first MOVE incident in 1978, in which a police officer was killed.

The political ramifications of the siege on Mayor Goode's career are now being debated. The commission that investigated the incident was at first considered suspect, because it was composed of many of the mayor's supporters. But its report was seen as impartial and tough, calling the mayor ``grossly negligent'' in failing to halt the operation when he knew children were involved, and using the words ``failed'' and ``abdicated'' in reference to his responsibilities as a leader.

The report was also highly critical of the three other top decisionmakers that day -- former Managing Director Leo A. Brooks, former Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, and Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond. And it called the deaths of the children ``unjustifiable homicide.''

Since then Goode has struggled to move forward, but the reverberations of the incident, the ensuing hearings, the forthcoming grand jury probe, and possible investigations from the state Senate and the US Congress continue to shake him. He is seen in some quarters as a weak leader, and the initial aura of good will and support after his election has long gone. He still has staunch defenders, but many agree he must be tougher in putting the incident behind him.

Goode has continually pushed for a thorough investigation of the incident and last week said that the grand jury was welcome as something ``that will help cleanse us.'' He has repeatedly said he does not think he will or should be indicted, and that he will run for reelection next year.

It is a certainty that he will be challenged from the Republican Party, and most likely from Democrats. And though blacks have largely rallied around Goode, who is Philadelphia's first black mayor, some worry that the 1987 campaign could become racial. Ex-mayor Frank L. Rizzo has made noises about running again.

There will be some remembrances today to mark the anniversary of the MOVE tragedy. Fr. Diamond says the residents would like to put the whole incident behind them and get on with the normal day-to-day life that was theirs before MOVE supporters came into their neighborhood.

Though St. Carthage will keep its doors open 24 hours from 6 in the evening May 12 to noon May 14, as it did during the seige last year, there will be no special service, says Diamond.

``We tested the community, and they said they wanted us to help them forget it,'' he says. ``If they want or need to come in and pray, or just come in off the street, we are open and waiting. We will commemorate the event in a very quiet way.''

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