On the night of March 18, 1976, seven MOVE prisoners had just been released and were greeting their family in front of their Powelton Village home in West Philadelphia, when police arrived and set upon the crowd. Six MOVE men were arrested and beaten so badly that they suffered fractured skulls, concussions and chipped bones. Janine Africa was thrown to the ground and stomped on while holding her 3-week old Life Africa. The baby’s skull was crushed and Life was dead.
After MOVE notified the media of the attack and baby’s death, the police publicly claimed that because there was no birth certificate, there was no baby and that MOVE was lying. In response, MOVE invited journalists and political figures to their home to view the corpse. Shortly after the attack, renowned Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal (now on death row) interviewed an eyewitness who had watched from a window directly across the street. "I saw that baby fall," the old man said. "They were clubbing the mother. I knew the baby was going to get hurt. I even reached for the phone to call the police, before I realized that it was the police. You know what I mean?" The District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute the murder.
The Standoff Begins
In response to the escalated police violence, MOVE staged a major demonstration on May 20, 1977. They took to a large platform in front of their house, with several members holding what appeared to be rifles. MOVE explains that: “We told the cops there wasn’t gonna be any more undercover deaths. This time they better be prepared to murder us in full public view ‘cause if they came at us with fists, we were gonna come back at them with fists. If they came at us with clubs, we’d come back at them with clubs, and if they came at us with guns, we’d use guns too. We don’t believe in death-dealing guns. We believe in life, but we knew the cops wouldn’t be too quick to attack us if they had to face the same stuff they dished out so casually on unarmed defenseless folk.”
Speaking through megaphones on the platform, MOVE demanded a release of their political prisoners and an end to violent harassment from the city. Heavily armed police surrounded the house, and a likely police attack was averted when a crowd from the community broke through the police line and stood in front of MOVE’s home to shield the residents from gunfire.
Days later, Judge Lynn Abraham responded by issuing warrants for 11 MOVE members on riot charges and “possession of an instrument of crime.” Police then set up a 24-hour watch around MOVE’s house to arrest members leaving the property, a standoff that lasted for almost a year.
Mayor Rizzo escalated the conflict on March 16, 1978, when police sealed off a four-block perimeter around MOVE headquarters, blocking food and shutting of the water supply. Rizzo boasted the blockade “was so tight, a fly couldn’t get through.” Numerous community residents were beaten and arrested when they attempted to deliver food and water to the pregnant women, nursing babies, and children inside.After the two-month starvation blockade, MOVE and the City came to a fragile agreement under pressure from the federal government and a very sophisticated campaign mounted by a Philly based community coalition. On May 8, 1978, MOVE prisoners were released, and the police searched MOVE’s house for weapons. Police were shocked to find only inoperable dummy firearms and road flares made to look like dynamite. In the agreement, the DA agreed to drop all charges against MOVE and effectively purge MOVE from the court system within 4-6 weeks. In return, MOVE would move out of their home within a 90-day period, while the city assisted them in finding a new location.
After searching the MOVE home and finding only inoperable dummy weapons, police began to modify terms of the agreement, focusing on the alleged 90-day “deadline,” for MOVE to leave their home. MOVE says that the 90-day time period had been described to them as “a workable timetable for us to relocate,” but “was misrepresented to the media as an absolute deadline. MOVE made it clear to officials that we’d move to other houses but we were keeping our headquarters open as a school.”
At an August 2, 1978 hearing, Judge Fred DiBona ruled that MOVE had violated the deadline and signed arrest warrants that would justify the police siege the following week.
The morning of August 8, hundreds of riot police moved in, bulldozers toppled their fence & outdoor platform, and cranes smashed their home's windows. Forty-five armed police searched the house and found that MOVE was barricaded in the basement. Police began to flood them out with high-pressure hoses.
Suddenly gunshots fired, likely from a house across the street. Police opened fire on MOVE’s house—using over 2,000 rounds of ammunition. The police and most of the mainstream media would later report that MOVE had fired these first shots. However, KYW Radio reporters John McCullough and Larry Rosen both recalled hearing the first shot come from a house diagonally across the street, where they saw an arm holding a gun out of a third floor window.
The subsequent gunfire was chaotic and mostly directed at the flooded basement. Officer James Ramp was fatally wounded in the melee. Three other policemen and several firemen were also hit. A stake-out officer admitted later, under oath, that he had emptied his carbine shooting into the basement, where he heard screaming women and crying children. At a staff meeting days later, a police captain noted “an excessive amount of unnecessary firing on the part of police personnel when there were no targets per se to shoot at.”
When MOVE eventually surrendered and came out of the house, their children were taken and the adults were viciously beaten. Chuck and Mike Africa had been shot in the basement. Live television documented the violent arrest of Delbert Africa. He was smashed in the head with a rifle butt and metal helmet. While on the ground, he was brutally stomped. Twelve MOVE adults were arrested.
At a press conference that afternoon, asked whether this was the last Philadelphia would see of MOVE, Rizzo proclaimed “the only way we’re going to end them is, get that death penalty back, put them in the electric chair, and I’ll pull the switch.”
Destruction of Evidence
The subsequent case against the “MOVE 9,” was plagued by factual inconsistencies and illegal police manipulation of evidence.