In Philadelphia, a strange return of the 1970s
A hippie's trial and a radical group's protest prompt a city to reexamine itself.
PHILADELPHIA — "History" here usually refers to Ben Franklin and the Liberty Bell, but in recent weeks, two artifacts of the 1970s have resurfaced. Ira Einhorn, the iconoclast who was on the run for 16 years, is finally on trial for the murder of his '70s girlfriend. Across town, the strident antigovernment group MOVE has thrown up new barricades in a fresh dispute with the criminal justice system. The combination has sent Philadelphians into a wistful, sometimes painful, spate of memory in a place often struggling to break free of its past.
It's been two decades since the public has heard from Mr. Einhorn, the bushy-bearded prophet of the '70s who pontificated on the paranormal, the power of computers, and government surveillance. Explaining that the counterculture was a game for him, he once smirked: "People give me money, just for being Ira."
And then he was gone, jumping bail in 1981 after being arrested on suspicion of killing his girlfriend, Holly Maddux. In 1997, he was captured, and the state agreed to grant him a new trial. On Monday, he took the witness stand in a spare, brightly lit courtroom and insisted he had nothing to do with the murder. His long, wild hair had been trimmed to a fairway fringe, his burly shoulders tucked into a navy suit. Bluster has mellowed to a middle-aged smirk. But not everything has changed; he has argued that the government framed him because he knew too much about "psychotronic mind-control weaponry."
A few miles away from Einhorn's haunts, on streets lined with aging, majestic Victorians, another Philadelphia relic has re-emerged. The anti-government, back-to-nature group MOVE has nailed plywood over the windows of its house, part of its latest dispute in a decades-long fight with the city's criminal justice system this time, surrounding a custody fight over one member's son.
The oddly twinned events have left residents to examine how far their city has come since the Age of Aquarius.
"I would see this as the strange last gasp of 1970s politics," says historian Tom Sugrue of the University of Pennsylvania. "Both feel they're victims of a government conspiracy. What makes these cases interesting is that they remind us of a time when organizations like MOVE and individuals like Einhorn could command the attention of local activists and the political elite."
TO many, the city is more vibrant and cosmopolitan than in the Flower Power Days: It now boasts skyscrapers, four-star restaurants, corporate headquarters, and a new concert hall. It pulled itself from bankruptcy in the early 1990s. Yet Philly grapples with old, familiar problems: rickety housing that insurers refuse to cover, the bleeding of white residents into more opulent suburbs, and a growing underclass. The city lost 130,000 jobs in the last decade, and is now one of the poorest cities in America, with one quarter of its 1.5 million residents living below the poverty line.
The city is trying to surmount some of these problems. Saddled with 14,000 vacant buildings, Mayor John F. Street last year proposed razing those blocks, leaving more of the city ripe for developers. Philadelphia schools, where graduation rates have plummeted, opened this year under new management and a CEO.
For most residents, the city has moved beyond the days when police shot at citizens more often than any other force. Yet the department has bungled several high-profile murder cases. And many still see ghosts from the days of Mayor Frank Rizzo, when police had free reign to harass. "Nothing structurally has changed that would prevent the re-occurrence of what happened in 1985,'' says Thaddeus Mathis, an associate dean at Temple University's School of Social Administration. "Even now [the police force is] still oppressive, still abusive."
Both Einhorn and MOVE grew out of the counterculture movements of West Philadelphia, in the Powelton Village neighborhood near the University of Pennsylvania. There amid a cluster of Victorians on leafy streets, a mini-Haight Asbury thrived with natural food stores, art collectives, and groups extolling civil rights, the ban on war, and women's lib. Einhorn was in the vanguard of the hippie movement, preaching free love.
MOVE pursued a different course. It was made up mostly of black men and women who believed in letting nature run its course even in the city. They wore dreadlocks and didn't bathe, clear the yard, or dispose of trash. Through bullhorns, they preached bans on pesticides, drugs, and "The System." An attempt by police to evict them from one house in 1978 erupted in gunfire and an officer's death. In 1985, members built what some believed was a gun turret atop their home. Another standoff ensued, ending when then-Mayor Wilson Goode ordered that a bomb be dropped on the rowhouse. Of the 11 killed, 5 were children, and 61 homes were torched as a fire burned out of control.
In August, a Philadelphia judge ruled that a former MOVE member, John Gilbride, could have unsupervised visits with his son. The boy's mother, an active MOVE member, vowed to violate the order. MOVE members picketed the court and nailed slats over their windows. In September, hours before he was to see his son, Mr. Gilbride was shot, execution style, outside his suburban New Jersey apartment. MOVE members say it was the work of government agents. Police will not comment on whether MOVE members are being investigated.
"A mother is not wrong," says Sue Africa, a member who spoke last week outside the group's home. "I should think they would have learned that MOVE will not respond to threats and intimidation.''
The case has caused hand-wringing, but little fear. Many neighbors are sympathetic. "If you lived through what they lived through, you might board up your windows, too," says neighbor Adam Goldman.
To many, the story is simply freak history and evidence of the city's progress. Other than reporters milling about, the neighborhood is quiet. Police cars roll by, but keep their distance; the force seems to be letting time diffuse the anger. "People think of Philadelphia as a reactionary place. Actually, it's quite the opposite it's a place where progressive forces are tolerated," says Ramy Djerassi, a former prosecutor and now criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia. "We are a city that gets along, for the most part."