Attention, MOVE: This is America! – At the 24th anniversary of the May 13 massacre, MOVE organizes for 2009 Parole Hearings

“Attention, MOVE: This Is America! You must abide by the laws of the United States!” 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. That morning police shot over 10,000 rounds of bullets into their West Philadelphia home, and detonated explosives on the front, and both sides of their house. Following an afternoon standstill, 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. 13-year old Birdie Africa and 30-year old Ramona Africa were the only survivors, after they dodged police gunfire and escaped from the fire with permanent burn scars. (watch video)

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.”

MOVE 9

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 shit?”

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 faggot.”  He was elected mayor in 1972 and by 1979, his police force was indicted by the federal government, when the Justice Dept, for the first time ever, 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.

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 disputed 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 1,000 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.”

“Attention, MOVE: This Is America! You must abide by the laws of the United States!” 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. That morning police shot over 10,000 rounds of bullets into their West Philadelphia home, and detonated explosives on the front, and both sides of their house. Following an afternoon standstill, 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. 13-year old Birdie Africa and 30-year old Ramona Africa were the only survivors, after they dodged police gunfire and escaped from the fire with permanent burn scars. (watch video)

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 shit?”

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 faggot.”  He was elected mayor in 1972 and by 1979, his police force was indicted by the federal government, when the Justice Dept, for the first time ever, 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.

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 disputed 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 1,000 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.”

hbennett@bornblack.ca'

Hans Bennett

Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist whose website is www.insubordination.blogspot.com.

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