Let the Fire Burn

I got to see Let the Fire Burn at the Little on November 12. It's been a while, but I did want to give it a bit of a review.

It's an impressive document of the misguided actions of the Philadelphia government and police against the MOVE organization that led to them bombing and burning a house in 1985 containing 13 members, eleven of whom perished. In a way, it's a microcosm of war: both are avoidable, expensive, and deadly acts.

The most unique feature of the documentary is the exclusive use of found-footage which was limited to video (with a little 16mm film from an older documentary about MOVE.) Because of this limited perspective, there is very little information available about either MOVE and its purpose and actions, or about the police department and administration. Each side taken in isolation—MOVE changing from a radical urban alternative group to an antagonistic aggressor, and the government of the city of Philadelphia playing by-the-book as a racist regime—provides inadequate information to predict why things happened, but taken as interacting entities, it is more clear. Another way of saying that mouthful of marbles is that neither side was at fault as much as pitting them against one another was.

Director Jason Osder was available through SKYPE to discuss the film and revealed that the decision to go with found footage was partly pragmatic: our eye becomes accustomed to the poor quality of NTSC video unless we get a chance to compare it to modern high definition video. As a result, there are no talking heads to guide our reaction or provide possible answers. Ordinarily, we turn to some kind of expert to offer a possible explanation, but Let the Fire Burn gives no answers. It is the raw autopsy of a terrible moment in history left for us to examine.

And I think because of the lack of opinions, we gravitate toward our own biases. I was kind of surprised that one questioner presupposed it was centrally about racism. I thought it had more to do with the nature of a radical ideology that its ideas could not be articulated in a consumerist vocabulary. Neither interpretation is wrong, but it's interesting how our biases creep in.

Let me go back, now, and ruin the beauty of the movie by giving my own talking-head "expert" explanation.

I found the MOVE organization to be strictly following what we'd call urban gardening, veganism, anarchism, and acquiring goods locally. Rather than struggle in the capitalist/consumerist system that is rigged against both poor people and non-white people, MOVE opted instead to define their own rules. But the capitalist system—well, any social or economic (or socio-economic) system—is poorly suited to accommodating a sub-community whose internal rules are in defiance of the system's fundamental tenets.

This happens all the time with anarchist groups within the industrialized capitalism: anarchism defies the very nature of hierarchical, authoritative rule. The trouble is, most people do not like to admit that hierarchical, authoritative rules is a fundamental requirement of industrialized capitalism, so it's not codified in any laws: no law says you must pay for your own life. But for industrialized capitalism to work, it needs workers who are replaceable so they are valued low enough so the end product's price has a built-in profit—it needs for people to have to pay to exist.

If you think that's unfair, and maybe you could make a better go of it just living off the land and taking your changes, well, you're out of luck. The system goes a little nuts. The police will arrest you for no reason, but because no crime is committed, nobody gets charged with anything. But if you continue with that out-of-bounds behavior, you'll eventually be framed for a real crime. And then if you continue, you'll eventually be killed.

And that's what happened with MOVE. When they were harassed for non-crimes, they persisted. Then they were framed for a crime (specifically: nine people are still in prison, for the murder of one police officer—an impossibility since only one person can murder one other person.) And they persisted, and then were eventually killed. What they were "supposed to do" was to give up on the radical philosophies and get jobs like normal people.

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4 thoughts on “Let the Fire Burn

  1. Pingback: Ten More Movies: October through December, 2013 | The Blog of Jason "Jayce" Olshefsky

  2. Thanks for the review. I'm absolutely going to have to check this out as it's obviously very far out of whack with reality for you to draw a conclusion that is the exact opposite from what MOVE was.

    I'll be honest, growing up in Philly, I was familiar with MOVE primarily in a passive sense. The first time I recall hearing about them was in the late 70s, and I remember vividly the images of officers scrambling to get cover from the machine gun fire coming from the building. Hardly a pacifist group.

    Having attended a magnet high school, I had friends from all over the city, including one who lived the next block over on Osage Avenue, and one that lived on another street parallel to Osage. They'd told me tales of MOVE's activities, such as never cleaning up their trash, harassing people walking down the street and blaring racist and political rhetoric through all hours of the day and night over the amplifier system they had on top of the house. I had the misfortune of hearing one time how "whitey needed to be put down because he hate it when a nigger talk back…." when I went to visit my friend (who, I remind you, lived over a block away and I could still hear their rants clearly).

    These were hardly peace-loving hippies just living off the land. They weren't Occupiers, they were a radical terrorist group that openly and frequently provoked their neighbors and the police. And, they amassed an arsenal of weaponry to inflict as much damage as possible when they came a'callin'. As I recall, one of the reasons the bomb did as much damage as it did was due to the amount of ammunition and explosives they had stored there.

    Obviously, none of this is justification for how the police handled the Osage Ave compound. But, to allow these dangerous people to be painted as the victims is just wrong.

  3. I don't think I portrayed MOVE as "peace-loving hippies just living off the land"—by the time they were on Osage, they were vitriolic and aggravating—but I do stand by their commitment to non-violent action. As far as I can tell, MOVE never assaulted or killed anybody (except the killing of Ofc. Ramp in 1978 which may or may not have been MOVE members) because (1) if they had, given the police attention, they would certainly have been instantly jailed, and (2) I can't find any reports of an assault or murder. Despite your recollection, according to the documentary, no weapons were found in the wreckage of the MOVE house on Osage. And in the shootout in 1978, police failed to find any machine guns on MOVE premises (only the police had machine guns) so there was no "machine gun fire coming from the building" as you recalled.

    Respectfully, I'd ask that if you do get a chance to see Let the Fire Burn, go in with an open mind. Before watching, examine your beliefs and tease out what is real evidence: hearing the loudspeakers from your friend's house, and other first-hand accounts, for instance. Be especially critical of the reliability of second-hand reports (could high school friends have exaggerated stories? did your parents or teachers suggest MOVE was a group of dangerous people in an otherwise civilized society?).

    To me, the key is that MOVE did not have the communication skills to bridge from their beliefs to the shared beliefs of everyone else. I can't make sense of "John Africa" and whether that was supposed to be a person, a concept, a mythological person, or something else entirely. But I think "civilized society" must be able to explain and justify itself—to demonstrate why and how those behaviors and beliefs are beneficial to everyone.

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