When I first got old enough to vote, I was living in West Philadelphia.  I remember the registration form vaguely, and the one element that still stands out to this day was the box asking for skin color.  As I was wont to do, I wrote “tan.”  

Wilson Goode was running for mayor, and was likely to be the first black mayor of Philadelphia. I was excited to vote in my first election.  When my registration card came, under skin color was the word, “black.”  When election day came, I walked to my polling place, (I loved walking around West Philly), and waited in line.  When I got to the table, the poll worker could not find my name in the book.  I showed my registration card, it did not matter. He checked the date, saw that I had registered in time, and should have been eligible to vote. He did not seem surprised.  I was told that I could go to court, swear that I had registered on time, and the judge would issue a warrant which I could bring back to the polling place and I would be allowed to vote.  The poll worker said I could probably get a ride from someone outside.

Outside, indeed.  There was someone with a clipboard standing outside a van, collecting people who needed to go to the courthouse. I took the ride. When the van was full, off we went.  At the courthouse, the line to see the judge was long, and it seemed everyone was there for the same reason.  The judge seemed blurry-eyed, the bailiff held up a bible.  I had never been in court before.  I think I asked if I could skip swearing on the bible.  Maybe I didn’t.  But I got the warrant, got back in the van, and when it was full we went back to the polling place.  My name was added to the book, and I cast my first vote, and it was for Wilson Goode.

A few years later I came to regret that vote.  West Philadelphia had a group called MOVE! in residence, and they were not well liked.  One member of the group was in jail for killing a Philly cop.  The cop had most likely been killed by other cops, by accident, during a standoff with MOVE! years before.  Now MOVE! had a new house, and were prone to harassing the neighborhood with loud broadcasts from their rooftop. A lot of people lived in the house.  Some were children.  They were dirty, ate raw food, had boarded up the windows, wore dreadlocks, followed a man called John Afrika.  But they were in West Philly, in a black neighborhood.  

Now, the Philly cops were a bad lot at that time.  They drove baby-blue St. Regis Plymouths.  And they were mean.  More than one friend of mine had been beaten up by cops on the way home from the bar late at night.  And their allies in the city government were notorious.  I can’t remember the whole cast of characters from that time, but the punchline of their history is that years later, Frank Rizzo died of a heart attack while taking a crap in his campaign headquarters.  And there was never a more fitting end to a political career.

In any case, eventually a warrant was issued to protect the children in the MOVE! house. “Attention MOVE!, this is America.” was shouted at the house through a bullhorn before an all-out assault began.  Over 10,000 bullets were fired into the house, it was inundated with water from firehoses, teargas was pumped in, and eventually a bomb made of C-4 explosive was dropped onto it.  Most of everybody inside was killed, as the fire started by the bomb was let to burn.  The entire block was engulfed in flames.  Those who tried to escape into an alley behind the house were shot by police.  

In the aftermath, Mayor Goode stood by the police.  The city rebuilt the entire block.  The twenty-year anniversary has come and gone.  Most people I know claim to have never heard of this event.  

I am not certain why I remember this now.  My dreadlocks are pretty long these years later.  I have been stopped for nothing by many cops since then.  I’ve had rocks thrown at me by kids shouting “nigger.”   I still vote every time election day arrives.  And I still think of those children huddled under wet blankets, in a basement on Osage Avenue, in dirty water, waiting to burn.

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