Decades After Bombing Its Own Residents, Philadelphia Issues Its First Official Apology

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Thirty-five years later, a first public apology. On the night of May 13, 1985, police dropped a demolition device, typically used in war, on Philadelphia’s own people, killing 11 residents, including five children. The satchel bomb destroyed 61 homes and left more than 250 people homeless, lodging in local memory and parts of national memory an example of just how cruel, corrupt, demonstrably racist, and capable states are of atrocity with impunity. The target was the Black liberation group Move, known for protesting war and police violence. The city had wanted to evict Move from its West Philadelphia residence.

The apology comes after the City Council passed a resolution following the measure’s introduction on the 35th anniversary. Only a handful of times in US history have governments—local, state, or federal—apologized for anything. Whether the apology can meaningfully advance a process of reconciliation, if not restorative justice, or is chiefly symbolic is fiercely debated, says Howard University political science professor Niambi Carter. But the acknowledgment does expand focus on a tool democracies have available and rarely use: apology. “I don’t know that an apology is going to be enough to really address the emotional toll that those events took on those communities,” Carter says.

“To evolve and progress towards a more equal and just society,” the resolution says, “we must confront, reflect upon, and learn from heinous government actions of the past.” The apology also establishes a remembrance day to observe the history.

“I know that it’s symbolic, but I also hope that it can be the start of the real listening and conversation and relationship building that we need to happen in the city,” says Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who sponsored the measure.

Learn more about the legacy and share memories and thoughts about the bombing—and the reaches and limits of state apology, as well as what should come next—at recharge@motherjones.com.

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