Podcast News·Q&A

The Africas VS. America: Remembering one of the deadliest instances of police violence in U.S. history

In 1985, at the height of the Black Power era, police dropped a bomb in a Philadelphia neighbourhood. Their target? A family of Black radicals known as ‘MOVE’, who found themselves ensnared in a city — and nation’s — domestic war on Black Liberation. Over seven episodes, host Matthew Amha investigates the events that culminated in the MOVE bombing, and the long afterlife of a forgotten American tragedy.

New podcast asks: Why is the historic bombing of MOVE not part of today’s civil rights dialogue?

A composite of 2 images: on the left, a headshot of host Matthew Amha. On the right, the podcast tile art for The Africas VS. America.
The Africas VS. America, a new series from CBC Podcasts and Confluential Films, launched Feb. 6, 2023. (Submitted by Matthew Amha; Artwork by Yannick Lowery)

In May of 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the home of a group of Black liberationists known as MOVE, killing 11 people and setting a neighbourhood on fire.

To this day, the MOVE bombing is one of the deadliest uses of police force in U.S. history. So why isn't it at the centre of the contemporary conversations about anti-Black racism and policing?

This is the question host and producer Matthew Amha set out to answer in making The Africas VS. America, a podcast exploring the story of MOVE, the bombing, and the decades of aftermath.

The podcast, produced by CBC Podcasts with Confluential Films, premiered on Feb. 6. Amha worked with producer Jessica Linzey to make the seven episode series. CBC Podcasts spoke with Amha about the making of the series — here is that conversation.

 

What does this project mean to you?

Matthew Amha: This series will mark the first time the story of the MOVE organization's 50 years in public life will be told by a mainstream publication, and it means listeners will have to confront both history and themselves, to interrogate exactly why so many have never heard about one of the deadliest instances of state violence in American history. Our hope is that it might spur curiosity, and lead listeners to examine how the erasure of stories like that of the MOVE organization, and of the MOVE bombing, reflects a broader cultural blindness that continues to exist today.

The MOVE bombing is a distinctly American story. How did your being Canadian influence the way you decided to tell this story?

MA: The Africas Vs. America is the story of the MOVE organization, and the story of the bombing of their home. It is the story of an American city's war on activism, and that same city's struggle to make sense of itself in the aftermath of the attack. But the series is also about the many intersections that facilitate such violence in the first place. It's about race, class, policing, punishment, and national myth — all of which are cultural phenomena that exist across Canada, just as they do in the United States. In the series, we made some effort to connect the MOVE story to a broader tradition of Black Liberation and Black life, one that extends into Canada, but also across the diaspora, and, in our own small way, challenge the national myths that contend Canada is any better than our American counterparts. 

You travelled to Philadelphia seeking a better understanding of this tragedy. What was that experience like? 

MA: It was revelatory in many ways. To document the events that led to this incredible tragedy with those who lived it – while also speaking with many in the city that had never heard of it before. Many in the MOVE family have spent the last many decades in the shadow of what was done to them, while much of their city moved on as though nothing had happened at all. Interrogating that hole in the public memory, in the city it all happened, was revelatory. 

Was there anything you learned during your investigation that came as a shock to you? 

MA: A great many facts about the story were shocking. From the number of dead, to the way in which their bodies and remains were handled by the state and city many years after the event that culminated in their deaths. Also shocking was the scale at which the public was desensitized to the great loss of life that had taken place, and the extent to which the story of that day — and of the MOVE organization more generally — had been written out of the American story altogether. 

Part of this podcast is about exploring nuance and sitting with uncomfortable truths, like unsympathetic victimhood for example. Could you speak to what it's been like to make space for all those complexities in telling this story? 

MA: Exploring the intimate, precarious inner workings of people's lives as a journalist demands great care and trust. And this must be developed, so as to avoid stealing people's stories rather than telling them ethically. For decades the MOVE organization has had a hostile relationship with the press, who many blame for laying the groundwork for the police operation that would end in the bombing of their home. So, the question was: how do you build trust among people who hold deep, and well-founded skepticism of journalists? 

Two men are pictured outdoors, in front of a forest and beside a stream. Mike Africa Jr is on the left, and Matt Amha is on the right with a mic.
Host and producer Matthew Amha, right, worked closely with Mike Africa Jr., left, activist and son of founding members of MOVE. (Jess Linzey/CBC)

For us, it meant being honest about the story we were telling and being very clear about the fact we had no intention of continuing the media legacy that had historically reduced the group to degrading and dehumanizing caricatures. That we would maintain the journalistic tenets of inquiry, corroboration, evidence, and verification, but employ a more human method. In that spirit, much of the most important work we did for this series was developed away from the microphone — hours-long conversations, exchanging stories and debates. And the fruits of that work are reflected in the access and openness so many of the folks featured in the series offered to us in return. 

Can you explain how the story of MOVE fits into the larger current day conversations that are happening around anti-Black racism, racial justice and reparations?

MA: The MOVE story belongs at the centre of the American civil rights narrative, alongside events like the Tulsa Massacre – another atrocity that had long been obscured from the mainstream historical record. The MOVE bombing represents the very issues we continue to struggle with today: viral incidences of police brutality, repatriation, activism, and reparations. The story of the MOVE organization is the story of the modern era. The Africas Vs. America is also about what becomes of our inconvenient change makers: those who can not be reassembled or malformed to fit into tidy narratives of redemption or national healing. These stories are worth remembering, too. 

File photo shows row houses burning in a west Philadelphia neighbourhood fire after police dropped a bomb on the group MOVE's headquarters on May 13, 1985, killing 11 people and destroying 61 homes. (The Associated Press)

Despite the fact the bombing of the MOVE  home took place nearly four decades ago, The Africas Vs. America focuses itself on the shared conditions that link the time between now and then. So much of which remains unchanged.

What are you hoping listeners will take away from this series? 

MA: I hope listeners will come to complicate their sense of history and challenge conventional wisdom. That they think more deeply about the human story — not the story of a bombing, or any singular act of violence, but the story of the people, flesh and blood, whose lives were unalterably changed by it. I also hope listeners challenge the public need for victims of state violence to be perfect, or in any way passive, in order to garner basic empathy. But most of all, I hope listeners look beyond the cliches that typically attend discussions of racial justice, and radical activist organizations such as MOVE. 


Written & produced by Émilie Quesnel.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

From the finest podcast recommendations to behind the scenes exclusives, CBC's biweekly podcast newsletter brings you the latest in news, events and industry buzz from wide world of podcasts. Hear what sounds good from your favourite podcast creators.

...

The next issue of Sounds Good: CBC’s Podcast Newsletter will soon be in your inbox.

Discover all CBC newsletters in the Subscription Centre.opens new window

now