Nutter recalls an attempt at reconciliation

Posted: May 12, 2010

On Mother's Day 1985, Michael Nutter was back in his old neighborhood. He had grown up at 55th and Larchwood, not quite a mile due east of the MOVE rowhouse on Osage Avenue. He had friends and family who lived even closer.

That morning, Nutter attended services at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, where the Rev. Albert F. Campbell advised the congregation of heightened police activity near the MOVE house.

Nutter, then 27 and an aide to City Councilman Angel Ortiz, decided to see for himself. "There was a growing sense of community anxiety but not a lot of activity," Nutter recalled.

This was early afternoon. The future mayor left to pay a visit to his grandmother but returned to Osage Avenue later in the day, where police permitted him to visit 6221.

"I went down the street to the house and talked with Ramona Africa through the screen door," he said. "She was very clear, very direct, very straightforward. Ramona knows how to communicate a message. I just asked, 'Is there any possibility that we might negotiate this out so that there's not a bad outcome here?'

"She talked about family members who had been arrested, asked me a question back: 'What would you do if your family members were locked up illegally?'

"I said, 'Well, I hear what you're saying, but if . . . there's any chance we might be able to do something differently here, I'm from this community and I'm trying to take a less government-official approach and more of a community-person, humane approach to get a resolution.' She said they were going to do what they had to do."

Nutter recalls police in position, barricades up, and neighbors leaving their homes. "It was a bit of a long, lonely walk down that street. There was not much movement or activity. It was a little scary."

Nutter returned the next morning, scrambled for safety in the 6100 block of Osage when gunfire broke out, then spent the afternoon at City Hall. He was at the scene that evening and again early the next day.

"It was a devastating sight, the kinds of things you see in movies. . . . I called someone, I don't remember who, because we would need some mental-health professionals to come out to deal with the neighbors. Some were collapsing in the street when they were allowed in to see the totality of what had happened."

A quarter-century later, Nutter has the responsibilities that W. Wilson Goode carried at the time.

"What we know is that we had an incredibly terrible human tragedy," Nutter said. "People lost their lives, their homes, and their belongings. A neighborhood and the city have been devastated, scarred. For anyone who was out there, that is just an experience you are never going to forget. There are individuals from Mayor Goode on down who will carry that devastation in their hearts and in their minds for the rest of their lives.

"We have to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. . . . And, that all of us public servants, all of us citizens, take appropriate lessons from what happened and dedicate ourselves to resolving conflict, especially with the government, in ways that are ... respectful of life and safety.

"And that at a much earlier stage you try to get a resolution before you reach a point where you have tremendously bad outcomes."

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