'Let the Fire Burn': Remembering the 1985 MOVE Bombing

As Let the Fire Burn opens with young survivor Michael Ward, so it also it returns to his deposition repeatedly, creating a rhythm, reconnecting the various pieces of the catastrophe with this child's story.

Let the Fire Burn

Director: Jason Oder
Rated: NR
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-10-02 (Limited release)

Editor's note: RIP Michael Ward, who died tragically at age 41 on 20 September 2013.

"I wasn't saved by a cop. I was saved by my mother. She pushed me out. She could have saved herself but instead she got me out."

-- Michael Ward, 1995

"Perhaps when the cloud clears, we'll know a little bit more."

-- Local Philadelphia TV report, 13 May 1985

"Do you know what it is to tell the truth about things?" Michael Ward, just 13 years old in October 1985, looks at his questioner, William Brown III, and nods, barely. "Don't lie," he says. Brown asks whether he knows what happens to someone who lies. The boy nods, "They get hurt."

Here the video recording of Michael's deposition scritches and wavers and fades to black, an image distortion that underscores the fragility of such an effort to document, to remember, to assert truth. Here Let the Fire Burn cuts to TV reports of the ordeal this boy survived, which is to say, shots of fire raging at 6221 Osage Avenue, the rowhouse occupied by the MOVE organization and assaulted by the city of Philadelphia on 13 May 1985. Michael, at the time called Birdie Africa, emerged badly burned. Eleven people died in the fire, including five children, and 61 homes were destroyed, owing to city officials' decision to "let the fire burn" (the police commissioner at the time, Gregore Sambor, testifies.

The only other survivor, Ramona Africa, appears in archival interview, declaring, "We have done nothing wrong," followed by more images of the chaos, a police helicopter and firemen standing on the sidewalk, hands to their ears, and then a shot of Wilson Goode, Philadelphia mayor at the time. "I stand fully accountable," he says.

This opening montage sets the focus of Jason Oder's remarkable documentary, which uses only archival footage -- TV reports, press conferences and interviews, as well as footage from the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (PSIC) looking into the event, that is, the Commission chaired by William Brown III. As these many images and testimonies accumulate, they form something of a chronology, noting MOVE's founding by John Africa in 1972, its back-to-nature philosophy and animal rights, along with a selective rejection of technology: they had no TVs or phones, though, as one TV report here observes, the members did drive cars and use PA systems to proclaim their beliefs and, by most accounts, annoy and alarm their neighbors.

It's difficult to sort out the faults and trajectories of the antagonisms between MOVE and their neighbors, as well as the Philadelphia police department, but it is plain the relationship became increasingly hostile. Let the Fire Burn tracks these tensions in some detail, including the 1978 shoot out at the group's home in Powelton Village that resulted in injuries to MOVE members, firemen, policemen, and bystanders and the death of police officer James Ramp.

Nine MOVE members were found guilty of third degree murder and sentenced to prison terms. In 1981, MOVE relocated to Osage Avenue, where they began using bullhorns and foul language to assert their political beliefs. Here again, the film assembles a narrative from archival sources: a police officer at the 1985 Commission says, "Anything that was vile, they would go into it," followed by a man-on-the-street interview with a neighbor who says, "What we really hoped for was the city would find a way to deal with the situation."

As Let the Fire Burn represents such frustrations, as well as footage of MOVE children and adults that suggests how they might have upset neighbors, it also shows not only that the city's "way" of dealing with MOVE was disturbing, but also that authorities lied during the Commission hearings. When Sambor suggests that the MOVE members fired first, and he personally heard automatic weapons fire coming from the house, the film points out that no automatic weapons were found inside 6221 Osage Avenue.

Asked what he heard MOVE members say, the police commissioner remembers they taunted officers, yelling that not only would the officers be dead by the end of the day but as well, "Our wives would be sleeping with black men." Asked to characterize such threats, Sambor says, "They were efforts to incite myself and other police."

That authorities were so incited seems clear enough, and the film notes too that several members of the police force that day were also involved in the 1978 shooting and so might have been seeking revenge. Perhaps the most devastating decision during a day filled with such decisions came when Goode okayed and Sambor carried out the deployment of explosives onto the MOVE house roof, at which point the fire erupted. While Sambor explains that the intention was to remove or ruin what he describes as a bunker on the roof, reports have it that he ordered the firemen on scene to "Let the fire burn."

While Sambor and Fire Commissioner William Richmond both deny giving or hearing that order, the phrase resonates throughout the film, even apart from its title. Witnesses describe the effects of the bomb and the fire, one reporter saying, "It's another Vietnam out there." The phrase speaks as well to the monstrous arrogance of the authorities at the time, an arrogance and sense of self-righteousness that produced and were produced by lies.

Whether or not someone said the words, for residents of Philadelphia at that moment -- myself included -- the effects of the event linger still. The gunfire and explosion, the smoke and heat, the horror of the day and the aftermath, remain unresolved, a sore point underscored in Let the Fire Burn when it reveals that the PSIC concluded that "City officials were negligent in their actions," but "No criminal charges were ever filed."

And so the phrase "Let the fire burn" speaks also to a broader interest, in the problem of history and memory, in claims to truth and authority. As Let the Fire Burn opens with young Michael, so it also it returns to his deposition repeatedly, creating a rhythm, reconnecting the various pieces with this child's story. Brown is resolutely gentle with him, allowing him to tell his story, about whether he liked living at the house, whether he or his friends were spanked or ever wanted to leave. The boy responds to each question put to him, and as the camera pushes in for close-ups of his scarred face or pulls out to show him seated alongside three adult men in suits and ties (one a lawyer brought in by his father Andino Ward, not a MOVE member).

As the men look toward Michael or the camera, posed with legal pads and awkward demeanors, you can only wonder how anyone in that room imagined a truth emerging, or whether they considered how such truth might be used or framed or remembered. Asked about that frightening, traumatizing day, Michael recalls smoke and tear gas. "Did it burn your eyes?" asks Brown. "Yes," says Michael.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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