The 1985 MOVE bombing killed 11 people, five of them children. Remains from the fire were taken by the Philadelphia medical examiner for review.
In May of 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a rowhome where members of MOVE, an organization associated with the Black Power movement, were living.
VOX reports Philadelphia police dropped a satchel bomb, which is primarily used for combat, on the rowhome where men, women and children were living. MOVE founder John Africa and 10 others were killed, 61 homes were destroyed, and 250 people were left without homes because of the bombing.
But in the decades since, some of the human remains of the MOVE followers have been lost, found and now, returned to the family. Survivors accuse the City of Philadelphia of mishandling the bones of two young girls.
The Dotson family said it’s taken nearly four decades for this kind of closure. Inside the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office are the remains, bones and fragments of Katricia and Zanetta Dotson, who were 12 and 14 years old when they were killed in 1985.
“[We’re] finally giving them a resting place, permanently. I can do this for them,” said the girls’ brother Lionell Dotson, who was 8 years old at the time of the bombing.
The remains were tucked away – some say hidden – at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for decades, only to be discovered by a staffer in the past few years. It’s unclear why there were never given to the family before.
“I’m just so overwhelmed with joy,” Dotson said about his sisters’ remains being returned to the family.
“Thirty-seven years in the making, [we’re] finally getting closure.”
The Dotson family is considering legal action. Philadelphia has faced fallout before in the case when health commissioner Thomas Farley was forced to resign after the city said he ordered the disposal of the remains.
It was an order that was refused.
“The city, instead of worrying about the humanity of the victims, were worried about themselves,” said Dotson family attorney Daniel Hartstein.
MOVE members avoided modern conveniences, believed in equal rights for animals and people and rejected government authority. The Associated Press reports the organization clashed with police and neighbors, with officials saying neighbors had filed complaints about issues with sanitation, vermin and noise at odd hours.
Members of the group took the last name “Africa” to symbolize they were a family. The group ate a raw vegan diet and children were homeschooled.
Tensions between the organization and Philadelphia leaders and law enforcement began in 1976. Fights between the organization and group members broke out when police were called for a noise complaint, Billy Penn reports.
Three MOVE members were charged with aggravated assault in connection to the fight and were sentenced to prison time. Charges against police officers involved in the fight were dismissed.
The MOVE bombing left scars deep in Philadelphia and for the Dotsons.
“It’s just unheard of to bomb humans,” said Dotson. “It’s inhumane to do that and to get away with it.”
The girls will be buried in Fayetteville, far from the row home where they burned to death. Their brother says he only recently got an apology from the city.
“They’re acknowledging wrongdoing even though [the current medical examiner] had nothing to do with it,” said Dotson. “She’s apologizing on behalf of the people who came before — owning up for holding them so long on a shelf in a box.”
Dotson said his sisters will now be able to rest in peace.
“This is long overdue recognition for them. … I’m glad that they’re getting to rest in peace,” he said.
The family is originally from Philadelphia, but Dotson said he is settled in North Carolina and wants his sisters close to him.
The city of Philadelphia commissioned a review of what happened. While the review was released this summer, it could not determine why the remains were missing for so long.
Other institutions, like the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, have also been accused of mishandling other MOVE bombing remains as well.
In a letter, members of the Program on Race, Science and Society at Penn said the remains were “unethically retrained and handled by the Penn Museum” without family members’ consent.
PRSS said Penn would also investigate how the children’s remains were handled.
“The investigation should identify how and why those people handling the remains disregarded the humanity of the Africa children, as well as ignoring informed consent, the proper chain of custody, and other ethical requirements,” the letter said.