Elmer Smith: A waste in so many ways

Posted: May 07, 2010

The drive-by judgments of angry protesters, who used to roll through the block shouting "murderers!" and "baby killers!" at the remaining residents have subsided too.

After 25 years of living and reliving an ordeal that seared the soul of the city, after a generation of assessing blame and assigning guilt, most of us are eager to suppress the memory of the day the city dropped the bomb.

May 13, 1985, put us all on the witness stand. For years, you couldn't travel anywhere without someone asking you how any neighborhood dispute could erupt into a conflagration that killed 11 people.

What could possibly justify the deaths of five innocent children or the destruction that turned 61 blameless families into urban refugees?

Nothing.

That was the conclusion of a commission appointed by W. Wilson Goode, who presided, or failed to preside, over the events of May 13. It was the judgment of a grand jury convened by then-D.A. Ron Castille to determine if the city had committed a crime.

"Our investigation has revealed considerable incompetence and ineptitude," the commission found. "It has not, however, disclosed any action that warrants the filing of criminal charges."

In incredibly judgmental language, the grand jury report charged Goode with "political cowardice" and called the city's actions "morally reprehensible."

Gerald Wayne Renfrow, block captain in the 6200 block of Osage and president of the Osage/Pine Community Association, has no problem assigning guilt.

"Those children's lives were taken in an act of government terrorism," Renfrow told me.

"MOVE used to take their children to the park. The city could have picked those children up and taken them into protective custody if they wanted to.

"I had to try to explain it to my children who used to play with the MOVE kids. It's hard to explain that to your children, especially since they knew that I used to be a cop," he said.

That's a harsh judgment, even in light of all the city's "incompetence and ineptitude." But years of being called murderer on their own block has hardened some of the neighbors.

The story of that day has been told from a dozen perspectives. This the short version:

Members of MOVE, most often described as a "radical back-to-nature" group, moved onto the block in 1980. Two years earlier, a gunfight erupted as police tried to evict them from a house at 33d and Pearl streets.

Officer James Ramp was killed in a barrage of bullets during the siege. Eight MOVE members who were arrested and convicted of murder in Ramp's death have served 32 years so far. A ninth died in prison.

"Their children needed a place to stay, so Louise James let them move into her house at 6211 [Osage]," Renfrow recalled.

"It was peaceful at first. She had always been a good neighbor. Our kids played with their kids.

"Then they started to protest, started shouting from loudspeakers. They set up a platform out front and barricaded the house. It was a nightmare.

"We went to the city for help because we couldn't live like that. It was all night; you couldn't invite people to your house for dinner."

After months of complaints and confrontations, police moved in. They told neighbors to pack enough for 24 hours and leave so that they could evict MOVE.

A gunbattle erupted. Mayor Goode gave police permission to drop a satchel of explosives on the roof of the MOVE house to try to gain entry. It ignited a firestorm, destroying the homes of the very people who had called on the city for help.

After 25 years, the scars of that fiery confrontation are still visible. The same city that failed to protect the neighbors failed to rebuild their homes correctly.

Twenty-four years of building and repairing the houses have cost the city $11 million so far, and the houses still have deficiencies that would cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair.

Ten years ago, Mayor Street offered the remaining residents $150,000 for each of their houses and threatened to demolish the houses of those who didn't accept his offer.

The homes of those who called Street's bluff are interspersed with the boarded-up houses of the people who took Street's offer.

The city settled with 16 of the 24 remaining residents for $190,000 each. At least eight of them are still holding out.

"I can't live like this," said Lucretia Wilson, who lives next door to the MOVE address in a house that has been invaded by squirrels.

"I was a holdout. But I'm going to have to take the settlement just to get this place fixed so I can stay here.

"The MOVE situation was five years of horror. But it made us really close. They're not going to make me move."

So, we've wasted 11 lives and $11 million so far in this debacle.

But 25 years after the bomb was dropped, the city is still in a standoff with neighbors in the 6200 blocks of Osage Avenue and Pine Street.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith

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