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Understanding the Culture of White Right-Wing Rage That Produced the Govt. Shutdown

What we can learn from the Philadelphia firebombing of 1985.

Photo Credit: Hanley


In Jason Osder’s disturbing and extraordinary new documentary  “Let the Fire Burn,” which entirely consists of archival footage, we see a Philadelphia police officer named James Berghaier testify at a commission hearing about the events of May 13, 1985. That was when police dropped an incendiary device (a bomb, in plain English) on a rowhouse in West Philadelphia, igniting a massive fire that killed 11 people – five of them children – and destroyed 61 homes in a working-class neighborhood. Although it happened almost three decades ago, at a time of immense urban dysfunction in America, the Philadelphia MOVE bombing has a startlingly contemporary feeling, partly because it was one of the first all-day live news events, captured in extensive detail by numerous video cameras.

Most of the official testimony we see at the hearings is standard buck-passing and ass-covering, much of it either misinformed, misleading or flat-out false: Members of MOVE, the radical group inside the house, had started the violence; the six adults in the house were dangerous terrorists with automatic weapons (not true) and we had to proceed with caution; in dropping the bomb and letting the fire burn unchecked, we were simply doing what we were told. The police commissioner even says that he does not know whether the children in the house had fired on the police, and I suppose as a technical matter that must be true. He is not asked whether he finds that likely.

Berghaier’s testimony is quite different. The stone-faced police demeanor is missing; this young officer clearly feels conscience-stricken about what happened, and is visibly grieving. Of the hundreds of cops at the scene, he was the one who risked his life to save the only two MOVE members, an adult and a child, who made it out of that house on Osage Avenue. When asked by a commission member what he thought about during the assault on the house, Berghaier says he can’t really answer the question, then does so. “I thought a lot about those kids. I thought about my kids.” One member of the commission, an African-American man, praises him as a hero and one of the few bright spots of that whole terrible episode. After his testimony was over, Berghaier went back to work, and found a racial slur written on his locker. He quit the force soon thereafter.

Welcome to America, people, where the past, as Faulkner famously observed, is not even past. That wrenching story of hope and hatred from 28 years ago hit me especially hard in this year of white rage and white derangement, the year of George Zimmerman and Paula Deen and a government shutdown engineered entirely by a small group of congressmen who represent a lily-white, neo-Confederate nation within a nation. Half a century of evil and insidious racial politicking has brought us to this point of right-wing wish-fulfillment apocalypse, along with the profoundly racist congressional gerrymander of 2010 and the creeping fear among many white Americans that the country they thought they understood – thought they owned — has been yanked out from under their feet.

Statistics and recent electoral history paint a deceptive picture of an increasingly diverse society that mostly appears harmonious, despite worsening economic inequality: White births are now a minority, the white majority population continues to shrink toward 50 percent, and a moderate biracial Democrat has been comfortably elected president twice, winning several previously conservative states. But a great many white people, more than anyone really wants to admit, find these facts profoundly troubling. They have been pandered to for generations by conservative politicians who assured them that their mythological vision of a white-picket-fence, exurban America was more authentic than anyone else’s. I remember covering George H.W. Bush on the campaign trail in 1992 – the son of a senator and Wall Street banker, raised in Greenwich, Conn., and educated at Phillips Andover and Yale – when his stump speech included lines about “rural America, real America.”