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Tv Review : 'Frontline' Goes To War: 'bombing Of West Philly'

May 05, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

TV is at its best covering war, tragedy and blizzards. And with tonight's episode of "Frontline," PBS' much-heralded documentary series(9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15), we get a chilling look at all three.

"The Bombing of West Philly" offers the amazing history of a decade-long war between Philadelphia police and a black radical group known as MOVE. The simmering feud ended in 1985 when police, acting on Mayor Wilson Goode's orders, dropped an explosive that unleashed a blizzard of destruction, demolishing an entire neighborhood and killing 11 MOVE members, including five children.

The tragedy is that this clash could have--somehow--been avoided. Using news footage and filmed testimony from a post-blast investigation, "Frontline" reminds us that the disaster was as much the result of incompetence--on the part of both black and white leaders--as of institutional racism.

The most fascinating characters here are the MOVE leaders, who possess fanciful monikers such as Gerry Ford Africa, spurn technology and yet are mediawise enough to rehearse courtroom tactics in mock trials before being arrested. On the other hand, we have an interview with a Philly cop who dubs MOVE members as "garbage" and justifies the vicious, on-camera beating of a MOVE leader by saying, "He wants to be a star--I'd have buried him."

It's a sad testimony to the bizarre mores of urban politics that even after MOVE members had installed a fortified roof-top bunker with gun placements, and had bombarded neighborhood residents with a steady stream of loudspeaker propelled obscenities, that Mayor Goode continued to ignore the problem.

The end result--the May 13, 1985, bombing--is shown in graphic detail, as police empty 10,000 rounds of automatic fire into MOVE headquarters and then--without issuing a warning--blow up and burn several city blocks.

It's hard to find any heroes in this tale. Goode appears weak and ineffectual, MOVE leaders arrogant and self-destructive, Philly police insensitive and trigger-happy. "Frontline's" account doesn't provide any answers, but it leaves us with a disturbing question asked by the 250 homeless victims. They wonder whether police and black city leaders would have dreamed up the same deadly solution if they were in a white neighborhood.

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