Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland
MOVE founder John Africa
"There's not going to be any peace as long as there are innocent people in prison. We know what we are going to do. The point is, people have got to die. Not because we want to die - this is the price they are making us pay in order to expose their crimes. Ona MOVE! Long live John Africa!" MOVE spokesperson, Jerry Africa
Eleven people, including five children, perished in the blaze. Sixty-one houses burned to the ground. As this article goes to press, for the first time ever the men who ordered a satchel bomb dropped on the home of MOVE members at 6221 Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, and let the resulting fire burn, are answering in court for their actions on that infamous day: May 13, 1985. Ramona Africa, the only adult MOVE survivor of the siege, and relatives of slain MOVE members are now suing the City of Philadelphia for millions in federal court. Wilson Goode, mayor at the time of the bombing and the city's only black mayor, has been granted immunity from lawsuits in the case by U.S. District Judge Louis Pollack (who claimed the bombing was reasonable under the circumstances). But Goode's police commissioner, Gregore Sambor, and his fire commissioner, William Richmond, who were in charge of operations in the field, have been named as defendants along with the city itself. Court watchers figure the trial will drag on for months, and expect a media circus. Especially given MOVE's confrontational style, which Ramona Africa demonstrated when Judge Pollack debated curtailing the amount of time counsel could question potential jurors: "It is an insult to me when you intimate that time is of the essence," the former paralegal suddenly told the judge. "I spent seven years in prison, and nobody seemed to care about that time."
Listen to Ramona, now 40, tell what happened after she, along with a nine-year-old boy named Birdie Africa, survived the 1985 bombing:
"They put me in jail, charged me with everything that they did - charged me with possession of explosives, arson, recklessly endangering other persons, risking a catastrophe, aggravated and simple assault - everything that they did, they charged me with. I ended up doing seven years in jail. I had a sixteen month to seven year sentence, and when my minimum sentence was up the parole board interviewed me and told me that they'd be willing to parole me, but only if I agreed to leave MOVE. I had to agree to not have any contact with any MOVE person, and I was not going to do that. None of my sisters and brothers did that - every single MOVE person who became eligible for parole was given that same stipulation, and not one of us would accept it."
Why did the City of Philadelphia drop a bomb on a rowhouse and let the fire burn for over an hour? What led the city to commit acts of war upon its own citizens? Was the city - or even the federal government - determined to wipe out MOVE? To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand who MOVE is. While not all black, they all take the surname "Africa." Some call them radicals, lunatics, or terrorists. One award-winning journalist, however - death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal - recently gave me a different description:
"MOVE is a family of revolutionaries, of naturalist revolutionaries, founded in Philadelphia in the late sixties/early seventies, who oppose all that this system represents. For years in Philadelphia, there's been continual and unrelenting conflict between the MOVE organization and the city - that is, the police, the judiciary, and the political arm of the system. They have fought it bitterly.
While not a MOVE member himself, Jamal "without question" considers MOVE founder John Africa to be his spiritual leader: "I found in the teachings of John Africa a truth that was undeniable, that was powerful, that was naked, that was raw. And it talked about this system in a way that I wish I had the guts to talk about it and I wish I had the clarity to talk about it. MOVE members talked about it uncompromisingly, and not just talked about it, but lived it every day. To MOVE, all days are holy days, because all life is holy. When you're out fighting for your brothers and sisters, you're practicing your religion. If you ask a MOVE person: 'What is your religion?', he'll say 'life.'"
The City of Philadelphia's first major confrontation with MOVE came in 1978, when Mayor Frank Rizzo, who liked to brag that his police force could successfully invade Cuba, ordered police to surround MOVE's house in the Powelton Village section of the city. On August 8, gunfire erupted at the barricaded house, killing Police Officer James Ramp with a bullet through his neck. Nine MOVE members were tried and convicted of third-degree murder; all nine were sentenced to 30 to 100 years. But not only do they deny shooting the officer, saying he was hit by his own colleague's bullet; they also demand to know how nine people could all shoot one man with one bullet. In the six years after the shoot-out, nevertheless, police seemed to be waiting for the chance to even the score: David Fattah, of the Muslim community center House of Umoja, recalls seeing graffiti inside a Philadelphia police station that read "MOVE 1, Police 0."
Fast forward seven years to 1985: All nine convicted MOVE members were then, as now, still in prison. Other members had moved into the house on Osage Avenue, which they had fortified with planks out of the belief that they needed to protect themselves from further attack by the city. They committed themselves above all to vociferously demanding the release of their incarcerated brothers and sisters. To this end, they installed a high-powered loudspeaker on the front of their house, and used it to broadcast their attacks on the city.
Neighbors grew weary of listening to MOVE's demands hour after hour, day after day - especially considering that MOVE used obscenities as attention-getting devices. Attention they got: Neighbors began petitioning the city to evict the group, claiming they disturbed the peace and created health hazards by keeping so many stray animals in the house. Little did neighbors suspect that the city would respond to disturbing the peace and sanitary code violations by bombing the house in question and burning down the entire neighborhood.
But according to Ramona Africa, neighbors' complaints only gave the city an excuse to do what they had been itching to do for years:
"The root of the May 13 confrontation - it had nothing to do with MOVE's lifestyle, it had nothing to do with the fact that we don't comb our hair or that we had a speaker attached to our house and spoke over the speaker, it had nothing to do with our use of words known as 'profanity,' it had absolutely nothing to do with complaints from neighbors. All people have to ask themselves is: Since when does the system care about people complaining about their neighbors - particularly black people complaining about their neighbors? I mean, black people have been complaining since we've been in this country. Who listens? Who cares? Who takes serious action to do something about our complaints? Nobody. But they want people to believe that what happened on May 13 happened because the neighbors complained."
Mumia Abu-Jamal concurs with Ramona Africa's assessment:
"On May 13, 1985, the city of Philadelphia literally shot tens of thousands of rounds into that house on Osage Avenue, and dropped a bomb, and let the fire burn for ten or twelve hours. And it consumed sixty-one houses, at last count. Was that disruptive of neighborhood rights? Was that disruptive of life itself? Was that disturbing? I think that many people found themselves suckered by a political and police system that used neighborhood conflict and intensified it into urban war and almost Armageddon. I've lived in several parts of that city and in other cities. I've had neighbors who were pains in the ass - I've had people play their music, and no matter what you said you couldn't get them to turn it down, not unless you wanted to go down there and get into a fistfight or something. In many neighborhoods, in southwest Philadelphia today, you can't stick your head out the door without hearing sub-machine-gun fire - is that disruptive? Is the neighborhood alarmed when some drug-addicted punk pulls out an Uzi and shoots at a competitor? You got crack dealing, you got prostitution - you have all the ills of society. But you know what you don't have? You don't have the government come down as if in a war as they did on May 13, 1985. You don't have that. Unless you have MOVE rebels and revolutionaries in their homes."
Then why did the city bomb MOVE? Ramona Africa tells it this way: "What the May 13 bombing and confrontation were about was the fact that MOVE people had nine sisters and brothers who had been in jail since 1978 for a murder they did not commit. A murder that officials - like the current mayor of Philadelphia, Ed Rendell (who was district attorney in '78), like the current district attorney, Lynne Abraham (who was a judge in '78, and who had signed warrants that ultimately led to MOVE's 1978 confrontation with the city) - these people know that MOVE is innocent, that MOVE did not kill a cop. And these same people had the same jobs in 1985, when they were players in the May 13 confrontation."
(Ed Rendell said the day after the 1985 bombing that he had been advising Mayor Goode for a whole year that the mayor had the legal right to forcefully evict MOVE. Lynne Abraham approved search and arrest warrants for four MOVE members [including Ramona Africa] from her home on Saturday May 11, 1985, the day before police moved in on MOVE.)
Ramona outlines MOVE's tactics during the years between the two showdowns:
"MOVE had been keeping the pressure on these officials about our family. Our family filed all the appeals available to them to file - not looking for justice in this system, because we know that there is no justice - but certainly to exhaust all the system procedures available to us, to give the system every opportunity possible to do the right thing. And what the system did was prove that it wasn't interested in doing the right thing. At that point, after the appeals had been exhausted, MOVE people stepped up our own campaign for the release of our family. That involved starting our newspaper, called First Day. It involved going around talking to people one on one, it involved sending documentation in the form of information packets to media. We did radio programs. We did everything we could to call attention to the situation. And we were doing such a successful job of it, such an expert job of it, that the system was feeling the pressure. People started to question officials instead of questioning MOVE. And because of that the system felt it had to do something to shut us up.
Ramona Africa's insider account of what happened that fateful day contains few facts the Philadelphia Police's report would contradict. The difference lies in her interpretation of the motives behind what the city did.
"It started on Mother's Day: Sunday, May 12 of 1985. We were listening to the radio, the all-news station, and they started talking about cops gathering at Cobbs Creek Park, basically for a showdown with MOVE. That's when we first heard about it. Slowly but surely the block was being evacuated. People were leaving, cars were being removed from the block. We were listening to all of this on the radio. What we were planning was to protect ourselves as much as possible, and toward that end, late that night I took all the kids down into the basement, because that was the strategy, that's where we were supposed to go. I remember around 11 or 12 that night, before anything started, various members were talking on the loudspeaker, just making it clear that this government was out there to kill us. We even made it clear that we were willing to negotiate with three certain people as mediators - they were never allowed to."
An anonymous top city official later told the Philadelphia Inquirer that three days before the confrontation, MOVE had agreed through a mediator to leave the house peacefully if the city could guarantee they would face no arrests. But Mayor Goode would only promise no immediate arrests - leaving open the possibility of future arrests. Talks with MOVE fell apart. MOVE members reverted to their demands that all nine of their imprisoned brethren be released. While Goode maintained a conciliatory public tone, Judge Lynne Abraham was busy signing MOVE's search and arrest warrants.
"In the wee hours of the morning," continues Ramona, "while we were down in the basement, the police commissioner, Gregore Sambor, is said to have made an announcement, something like this: 'Attention MOVE: This is America. You have to abide by the laws of the United States.' He went on to say that he had warrants for the four of us - myself and three of my sisters and brothers. I personally never heard this announcement; I read about it later. Not that I would have come out if I had heard it. We knew that their intent was not to arrest. So from midnight on I was down in the basement with the kids, and other people came down, after everything was locked up as tight as possible. And that's where we spent most of the time - in the basement. "
The first thing that happened was they trained deluge hoses on the house. The water was just pouring down into that basement. It had to be from the roof down. After an hour or two, that stopped. Then, they claim, they tried to insert tear gas, they wanted to breach three-inch holes in the party walls on both sides of our house to insert tear gas. Well, 'breach' to them meant to explode, to blow holes in the walls. And by the time they finished their explosions, they had blown the whole front of the house off. Then they did fill as much of the house as possible with tear gas.
"When that didn't work, they shot over ten thousand rounds of bullets at us - according to their own estimate. At one point they used up all their ammunition and had to send back to the armory for more."
As in the 1978 confrontation with MOVE, the city claimed MOVE members inside the house fired first - but when city workers combed the debris the next day, they found no trace of the automatic weapons the police had accused MOVE of firing to initiate the battle.
Ramona describes the calm before the fire storm: "After the shooting, it was quiet for a long time. I guess that's when they were preparing this bomb. They want to call it an 'entry device' or put some name on it that will soften the context, but you can't soften the context of what they did. At 5:27 or so on the afternoon of May 13, they dropped that bomb on the roof of the house, and it ignited a fire."
Mayor Goode later said it wasn't a bomb - it was a "percussive device." He said he would never have approved dropping a bomb - seeing that police had seen MOVE members placing gasoline on the roof of the house some days before the confrontation. The city's arrest warrants against MOVE had mentioned the danger from gasoline, ammunition, and other inflammable materials believed to be inside the house. The mayor claimed the plan had been to blow open a hole in the fortified roof so that tear gas could be inserted there. But the entire facade of the house has already been blown off and tear gas had already been unsuccessfully used in an attempt to force MOVE out. Whatever the mayor's plan really was, Goode acknowledged that he "knew from the very beginning that once we made that decision to go in there, it would in fact be war."
Ramona recounts the city's reaction - or lack of it - to the spreading fire:
"The Fire Department had been out there from the beginning - they're the ones who had trained the deluge hoses on our house and poured tons of water down on us. But when that bomb ignited that fire, they made the decision that they weren't going to fight it, they weren't going to extinguish it: they were going to let it burn, knowing that innocent men, women, and babies were in that house. Innocent not just by my standards, but by their standards - we had not been convicted of any wrongdoing. But they decided to let that fire burn on innocent people."
The next day, Mayor Goode, Police Commissioner Sambor, and Fire Commissioner Richmond conceded that the city did not begin to battle the fire for over an hour, even as it spread to adjoining houses. Goode claimed that firefighters had been prevented from fighting the inferno by armed MOVE members who had escaped from the house into a back alley, from where they shot at firefighters. But the water cannons that had poured 640,000 gallons of water on the house had been unmanned. Even if armed MOVE members had been shooting at firefighters (and this has never been corroborated by any impartial witness), why did the Fire Department not turn the cannons back on and let them continue to deluge the house as they had done earlier that day?
Ramona Africa's account gets even more grisly:
"We didn't realize initially that the house was on fire. We were still down in the basement, while the fire burned down from the top. Then it got a little smoky, and I thought it was tear gas. But it became apparent that something else was happening, because the smoke started getting thicker and thicker, and it started getting real hot. And when we realized the house was on fire, what we did - contrary to any intimation that we're suicidal and masochistic - we are not suicidal and masochistic, we didn't make some death pact - what we did was open the back door and immediately try to get our kids and animals and ourselves out of there.
At the next day's press conferences, Mayor Goode and Police Commissioner Sambor contradicted each other about whether police had fired on MOVE members coming out of the back of the house. The mayor appeared startled that Sambor was admitting to the firing. Whereupon an aide stepped in to inform Sambor that the police had not fired any shots at escaping MOVE members after all.
"We made another attempt to get out," Ramona went on, "and I was able to get one of the little boys, our brother Birdie, out of there. And really, to this day, neither one of us can explain why any of those bullets did not hit us. I mean, we were burned pretty bad - my left arm, by leg, my back, I had to have grafting done. Just a small portion of Birdie's face was burned, plus his arm and leg. Yeah, we suffered pretty bad burns, third degree burns. I can't explain why we're alive today.
Ramona Africa then traced the plan to bomb MOVE beyond the Philadelphia police and mayor's office:
"They obtained their weaponry of war through the Federal Government, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. That bureau waived every requirement they had to dispense this high-powered weaponry to the Philadelphia Police Department. The C-4 [the military explosive used in the bomb] was supplied by the FBI. A particular FBI agent named Michael Macy finally admitted to providing 37.5 pounds of C-4 to the Philadelphia Police Department. No municipal police department is supposed to have C-4; but he supplied 37.5 pounds of it. So you can see the conspiracy involving not just the local government but on up to the Federal Government. After May 13, when it was known that babies had been burned alive, that innocent people had been killed, then-U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese applauded the Philadelphia Police Department, he commended them for the job they did. So that tells you how far up the conspiracy against MOVE went. Reagan was the President - he never uttered one word about what happened on May 13. Are you telling me the President of a country which has bombed its own citizens doesn't say anything? His silence spoke louder than anything he could have possibly said."
Mayor Goode, who after the bombing described the whole operation as "perfect - except for the fire," also garnered the praise of Los Angeles Police Commissioner Daryl Gates, who called Goode "an inspiration to the nation. I hope he runs for national office. He certainly made my heroes list - and that's not a long list." Frank Selgrath, editor of the police union newspaper Peace Officer, boasted that "every action was taken to see that there was no loss of life or property."
Ramona Africa gives her own view of Goode's intentions on May 13, 1985: "As then-Mayor Wilson Goode said in a radio program on WDAS before the confrontation, he did not want MOVE people arrested on minor charges where we could be back out on the street on bail in a couple of months or a year - he wanted a 'permanent end to MOVE.' That's what he was attempting to do - and it didn't work. MOVE is still here, alive, strong, thriving, more committed than ever, still exposing this system and more determined than ever to bring our family home.
"They came out there with .50-caliber machine guns and M-60 automatic rifles and 3006 sniper rifles with silencers and 20-millimeter armor-piercing anti-tank guns - to arrest four people! What did they need silencers for? That's the tool of an assassin, a silencer. This was a major confrontation. Why would anyone feel the need to silence a shot? They clearly came out there for war. This was not about an arrest. They could have arrested us at any time. We weren't hiding. We went food shopping twice a week, every week, same place, we took our kids to the park pretty much every day, we went from MOVE house to MOVE house taking care of whatever activities we needed to take care of. We were accessible. I remember walking or running certain places by myself, and stopping and talking to some of these cops - just giving them information about MOVE's position and how we knew what they were up to. I could have been arrested at any time. Most of us had outstanding bench warrants on us by 1984. They could have arrested us at any time. But they didn't do that. Because their interest was not in arrest."
Mumia Abu-Jamal contrasts the attack on MOVE with a more recent siege: "Interestingly, there's a case that just arose in Philadelphia, Delaware County. I'm talking about the case of the multi-millionaire John E. duPont, one of the principal heirs to the chemical company fortune, who has been accused of killing Olympic wrestler David Schultz on his estate in January. It's very interesting to note what was common and what was uncommon between those two experiences - I mean between what happened on May 13, 1985 and what happened recently on John duPont's estate. Here you have a man, according to at least one eyewitness - I'm talking about the wife, the widow now, of the Olympic wrestler - who said she saw him shoot her husband dead , and she left the house and told this to the police. John E. duPont went into his home and refused to come out - refused to come out. He had a few telephone negotiations, conversations with high-ranking police officials. It went on a day. It went on for forty-eight hours. And he was finally arrested after he went out to fix his heater, because the police had sabotaged his heating system and he got cold in that big mansion and he went out to check the boiler and they nabbed him. But he wasn't hurt, wasn't beaten up. Here's a man who - while it is legally improper to say he was guilty, I don't know - all we know is what we see in the media and who can trust the media? - we at least have one eyewitness who said 'I saw him actually kill my husband, I was standing there when he shot my husband.' But here's a man who is a suspect in a murder who was allowed forty-eight hours to rest, to wash, to shave, to sleep, to talk on the phone to whomever he wished. And there was not even the suspicion that police would raid this man's home, who was said to have been heavily armed.
"Who did MOVE kill on May 13, 1985? What witness came forth and said 'he killed (or she killed) my husband'? And look at those two responses. And I think that you cannot look at those two realities outside of what race and power mean in this society, of what wealth and influence and poverty and lack of influence mean in this society. And the role of the police. The role of the police, of course, is to protect the interests of the wealthy, not to protect the interests of the poor. I just told you about neighborhoods all across America where people are shooting sub-machine guns and Uzis and Mac-10's every night - well, that's not a problem. But if someone gets on a bullhorn and talks about the conditions and realities under which people live, the oppressive realities - that becomes public enemy number one."
Since her release from prison in 1992, Ramona Africa has once again been spearheading MOVE's crusade to free their nine brethren imprisoned for the 1978 shooting of Officer James Ramp. "The issue now, as then, is our family in prison. We are not going to sit back and watch our innocent family members rot in prison for something we know they didn't do and that the government knows they didn't do." Ramona says her purpose in suing the City of Philadelphia in federal court now is to draw attention to the continued oppression of MOVE members by police and government.
Another MOVE spokesperson, Jerry Africa, strikes a similar chord:
"There's not going to be any peace as long as there are innocent people in prison. We know what we are going to do. The point is, people have got to die. Not because we want to die - this is the price they are making us pay in order to expose their crimes. Ona MOVE! Long live John Africa!"
© Allen Hougland 1996