ATTENTION, MOVE! This is America!
At the 22nd anniversary of the May 13 massacre, MOVE organizes for 2008 Parole Hearings
By Hans Bennett
“Attention, MOVE: This Is America!” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sambor declared through a loudspeaker, minutes before the May 13, 1985 police assault on the revolutionary MOVE organization’s home. This assault killed 5 children and 6 adults, including MOVE founder John Africa. After police shot over 10,000 rounds of bullets into their West Philadelphia home, a State Police helicopter dropped a C-4 bomb, illegally supplied by the FBI, on MOVE’s roof. The bomb started a fire that eventually destroyed 60 homes: the entire block of a middle-class black neighborhood. Carrying the young Birdie Africa, the only other survivor, Ramona Africa dodged gunfire and escaped from the fire with permanent burn scars.
Today, Ramona recalls being in the basement with the children when the assault began. “Water started pouring in from the hoses. Then the tear gas came after explosives blew the whole front of the house off. After hearing a lot of gunfire, things became pretty quiet. It was then that they dropped the bomb without any warning.”
“At first, those of us in the basement didn’t realize that the house was on fire because there was so much tear gas that it was hard to recognize smoke. We opened the door and started to yell that we were coming out with the kids. The kids were hollering too. We know they heard us but the instant we were visible in the doorway, they opened fire. You could hear the bullets hitting all around the garage area. They deliberately took aim and shot at us. Anybody can see that their aim, very simply, was to kill MOVE people—not to arrest anybody.”
After surviving the bombing, Ramona was charged with conspiracy, riot, and multiple counts of simple and aggravated assault. Her sentence was 16 months to 7 years, but she served the full 7 years when she was denied parole for not renouncing MOVE. In court, all charges listed on the May 11 arrest warrant, used to justify the assault, were dismissed by the judge. Says Ramona, “This means that they had no valid reason to even be out there, but they did not dismiss the charges placed on me as a result of what happened after they came out.”
Concluding Ramona’s 1986 trial, Judge Stiles explicitly told the jurors not to consider any wrongdoing by police and other government officials, because they would be held accountable in “other” proceedings. This would never happen, as Ramona explains: “not one single official, police officer, or anybody else has ever been held accountable for the murder of my family.”
“People should not be fooled by this government using words like ‘justice.’ My family members, who were parents of most of those children that were murdered on May 13, have been in prison for almost 30 years to this day, for the accusation of a murder that they didn't commit, that nobody saw them commit. Meanwhile, the people who murdered their babies are still collecting paychecks, still seen as respectable, and never did a day in jail.”
Origins of the Confrontation
The 1985 police bombing was the culmination of many years of political repression by Philadelphia authorities. Much has already been written about the events of May 13, 1985, but less is told of the “MOVE 9”: Janine, Debbie, Janet, Merle, Delbert, Mike, Phil, Eddie, and Chuck Africa. These nine MOVE members were jointly sentenced in the 1978 killing of Officer James Ramp after a year-long police stakeout of MOVE’s Powelton Village home. Their parole hearings come up in 2008. Ramona Africa explains, “The government came out to Powelton Village in 1978 not to arrest, but to kill. Having failed to do that, my family was unjustly convicted of a murder that the government knows they didn’t commit, and imprisoned them with 30-100 year sentences. Later, when we as a family dared to speak up against this, they came out to our home again and dropped a bomb on us, burned babies alive.”
First, some history:
Founded in the early 70’s by John Africa, MOVE sought to expose and challenge all injustice and abuse of all forms of life, including animals and nature. Along with neighborhood activism, MOVE also organized nonviolent protests at zoos, animal testing facilities, public forums, corporate media outlets, and other places.
MOVE’s first conflicts with police began at these nonviolent protests when Mayor Frank Rizzo’s police reacted in their typical brutal fashion. From the very beginning, MOVE acted on the principle of self-defense and “met fist with fist.” Defending this today, Ramona Africa explains “I’m sure the police were outraged that these ‘niggers’ had stood up to them, telling them that they couldn’t come and beat on our men, women, and babies without us defending themselves. What are people supposed to do? Sit back and take that sh*t?”Given Rizzo’s iron-fist rule, confrontation with MOVE was inevitable. Infamous for his racist brutality as Police Commissioner from 1968-71, Rizzo once publicly boasted that his police force would be so repressive that he’d “make Attila the Hun look like a f*ggot.” He was elected mayor in 1972, with campaign slogans like “Vote White.” By 1979, his police force would become the first PD ever indicted by the federal government, when the Justice Dept had brought suit against civil authorities-- not just police officials. The suit named Rizzo and 20 other top city officials (inclusive of police command) for aiding and abetting police brutality.
Police attacks on MOVE escalated on May 9, 1974 when two pregnant MOVE women, Janet and Leesing, miscarried after being beaten by police and jailed overnight without food or water. On April 29, 1975, Alberta Africa lost her baby after she was arrested, dragged from a holding cell, held down, and beaten in the stomach and vagina.