The Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association strongly condemns the desecration of MOVE victims’ remains and unequivocally endorses the statement and list of demands issued by the Association of Black Anthropologists (ABA), the Society of Black Archaeologists (SBA), and the Black in Bioanthropology Collective (BiBA). MES recognizes the deep legacy of racism in our discipline and our shared responsibility to address historic and contemporary wrongs and work towards more ethical practices. The desecration of the MOVE victims’ remains displays the perniciousness of racist thought that erases the humanity of racialized communities and treats their remains as objects rather than as the bodies of humans who deserve equal respect, in life and in death.
Even the history underlying this horrific story is poorly understood and often overlooked. On May 13, 1985 the City of Philadelphia bombed the home of the MOVE organization, murdering eleven MOVE members, including five children. As anthropologists who were called in to identify remains after this egregious act of racist state violence, Mann and Monge had the personal and professional obligation to treat the bodies of these human victims with respect and the responsibility to meaningfully engage with the family and community in mourning; obligations that they manifestly failed to uphold. We denounce in the strongest terms recent revelations of the desecration of the remains of these children through their use for a course being taught at Princeton University by an affiliated faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. It is important to acknowledge that this is part of a long-standing and on-going track record of injustice, euphemistically labelled “science,” that is committed on the bones of Black and Indigenous women by agents of these two prestigious institutions and many others like them.
Moreover, we echo our colleagues’ call for specific steps to be taken to redress the injuries done to the Africa family, the MOVE family, and the Black community in Philadelphia. These include: the immediate return of remains, financial reparations to the MOVE family, the removal of all online material utilizing the Africa children’s remains, and the creation of a transparent, public investigation. All are important steps towards holding those responsible accountable for a prolonged pattern of reprehensible behavior and abdication of professional obligation.
Beyond particular circumstances and the individual faculty members, the larger institutional framework within which this pattern of behavior took place over nearly forty years needs to be evaluated. Current actions (such as holding and displaying skeletons, mortuary items, etc) that refuse to honor the dignity of human and nonhuman remains need to be stopped, and safeguards need to be put in place to ensure ethical treatment of all humans and their ancestors. The first step is, as our colleagues’ joint statement articulates, a national audit of all human remains and burial materials in museum and university collections.