The Slatest

How Can the Man Who Tried to Dispose of the MOVE Victims’ Remains Have a New Job in Public Health?

Row houses burn in Philadelphia after police dropped a bomb on MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985.
Row houses burn in Philadelphia after police dropped a bomb on MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985. AP Photo/File

In May, Philadelphia’s then-Health Commissioner Thomas Farley resigned after admitting that he ordered the cremation and disposal of human remains belonging to the victims of the 1985 police bombing of the West Philadelphia headquarters of MOVE, a Black liberation organization.

As of Monday, Farley is an executive in D.C.’s office of community health administration, a segment of the city’s health department that works to reduce health disparities. As the Washington Post noted on Wednesday, Black Lives Matter DC and others are not happy about Farley getting this new gig. To fully understand why, it’s important to understand the history around the MOVE bombing and the remains of those killed.

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On May 13, 1985, after a long and contentious standoff between members of MOVE, some of whom were living collectively in a middle-class Black neighborhood where neighbors complained of trash in their yard and other run-ins, and the police, who were initially there to serve an eviction notice, the department dropped an illegally obtained satchel bomb onto the roof of the MOVE house. Officials were aware that children were inside. And for an hour after the subsequent blaze started, the fire department and police conspired to let the fire burn. The blast and resulting fire killed 11 MOVE members, including five children, left 240 residents of the neighborhood homeless, and more than 50 row houses burned to the ground.

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Thirty-two years later, in early 2017, Farley learned from the Philadelphia medical examiner Dr. Sam Gulino that a box containing bones and bone fragments from the MOVE bombing victims’ autopsies had been found. “Believing that investigations related to the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years earlier, and not wanting to cause more anguish for the families of the victims, I authorized Dr. Gulino to … dispose of the bones and bone fragments,” Farley said in a statement released from the mayor’s office in 2021. (Those remains, it was later discovered, were not cremated.)

Also in 2021, officials at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University admitted that anthropologists were sharing the bones of an unidentified MOVE victim for educational purposes. Elaine Ayers, who studies the history of science, explained in Slate earlier this year how the remains ended up in Ivy League circles:

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Soon after the bombing, the remains were sent to the Philadelphia medical examiner to be analyzed by the MOVE Special Investigation Commission, appointed by then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode in response to outcry from across the city. While forensic anthropologist Ali Hameli, who was Delaware’s chief medical examiner and was acting as the MOVE commission’s pathologist, identified the pelvic bone and femur fragment as belonging to Delisha and Tree Africa, Penn professor Alan Mann was called in to consult on the case. Assisted by then–graduate student Janet Monge, Mann, who initially disagreed with Hameli’s identification, took custody of the remains—despite legal strictures requiring consent from next of kin—moving them in a cardboard box to Penn and then to his new job in the anthropology department at Princeton in 2001.

Philadelphia’s actions toward the MOVE victims in 1985, the subsequent passing around of their remains, and Farley’s actions are part of a broader contempt and indifference for Black life in the public health world. It all makes Farley a peculiar choice for a senior job in an office whose mission is to address health disparities, in a city where the most troublesome health inequalities affect Black residents.

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