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Former Mayor Calls On Philadelphia To Apologize For MOVE Bombing

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The city of Philadelphia recently marked a grim anniversary. On May 13, 1985, police were trying to serve several warrants on members of a black nationalist back to nature group called MOVE who were living inside a townhouse in West Philadelphia. The hours-long standoff ended with a police helicopter dropping explosives on the roof. Eleven people inside the house were killed, including five children. And more than 60 nearby homes also burned in the conflagration, leaving hundreds of people homeless. In the years following, a grand jury considered whether criminal charges should be brought. The city also convened a special MOVE Commission to review what happened. No charges were ever filed, but the inquiries faulted the city's top officials for whatever role they may have played in putting the plan in motion or failing to stop it.

And those officials criticized in the scathing report included the mayor of Philadelphia at the time, W. Wilson Goode Sr. Mayor Goode apologized in a televised address the following day and several times afterwards. But last week, he wrote an op-ed published in The Guardian calling on the city of Philadelphia to finally formally apologize for what happened as well. And he is with us now. Welcome, Mr. Mayor. Thank you for speaking with us.

W WILSON GOODE SR: Thank you so much. It's my pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Well, you pointed out in your piece for The Guardian that you were not directly involved in the decision to use an incendiary device in a residential neighborhood, you know, with children in the house and so forth. So why did you feel you had to apologize that first time in 1985 and a number of times since?

GOODE: I was mayor of the city of Philadelphia. I was the chief executive officer. I appointed everyone at the site who made those decisions. I'm accountable for those I appoint. I'm accountable for those decisions that they make. And I've felt it necessary from the very beginning that if I take credit for good things that happen, I also need to take responsibility for bad things that people I appointed and put in charge of departments. If they make bad decisions, then I'm accountable for that.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, I mean, this has not gone unexamined over the years. There was a grand jury convened. The MOVE Commission did exhaustive work to determine the chain of responsibility for various decisions. What do you think a formal apology from the city does that those official inquiries could not? Like, what's missing for you?

GOODE: We are now in a new generation of MOVE members, of the MOVE family. Many of the people who were involved then have died. And the history is somewhat foggy about what really happened because different people tell different stories about what happened. I think it's important for the city at this point to own up to its responsibility in what happened and to apologize to not only to the MOVE members but also to those police officers and firefighters and families who were there and to the neighbors who lost their homes. I think it's important that we finally get it right out there for the sake of the MOVE members and MOVE families and for the sake of the people who lived in that neighborhood and that are still living there and still need to be made whole.

MARTIN: Last week, 11 Philadelphia City Council members signed onto a letter calling the bombing a, quote, "brutal attack carried out by the city of Philadelphia on its own citizens," unquote, and say they plan to introduce a formal resolution of apology later this year. But the current mayor, Jim Kenney, says that his administration has no plans to issue an official apology. What do you think it is that seems so controversial about something that so many people have already acknowledged was wrong?

GOODE: Well, I think that even the language in the resolution used the word brutal attack. I don't believe that there was any intent on the part who made a decision to drop a device on the roof to harm people. And, in fact, the dropping of the device itself did not harm anyone. It was a shocking decision made by the police commissioner and fire commissioner to let the fire burn that harmed people. I think we need to remind people that this city does not believe that was the right thing to do and do not believe that issue ever repeat itself again.

MARTIN: There are those who argue that it's time to move on, that relitigating these matters, which is what some people feel this is, just serves to reopen old wounds and it's best to let them lie.

GOODE: The pain that comes from loss of life and loss of houses and treasures in houses is something that is very personal that people need to get closure on that. I think that the reason I worked so hard and I've apologized now for the fourth time is I recognize and respect those persons who feel deeply harmed by what happened. And I think that, by having the city apologize will not change anything in the past but in my view can do a lot to pave a way to a better future.

MARTIN: That's W. Wilson Goode Sr. He served as mayor of Philadelphia for two terms. He was also deputy assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration. And he is the director of Amachi, which is a mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOODE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.