The barbaric police bombing of MOVE: May 13th at 30

by Mumia Abu-Jamal

Why should we care what happened on May 13th, 1985? I mean, seriously, that was 30 years ago, a long time ago, way back when, know what I mean?

Most people won’t say that – but they think it.

A crowd gathers to watch the conflagration, which had consumed the entire 6200 block of Osage Avenue in a Black middle-class neighborhood by the time the firefighters were told to aim their hoses at it.
A crowd gathers to watch the conflagration, which had consumed the entire 6200 block of Osage Avenue in a Black middle-class neighborhood by the time the firefighters were told to aim their hoses at it.

I’ll tell you why: because what happened then is a harbinger of what’s happening now – all across America.

I don’t mean bombing people – not yet, that is. I mean the visceral hatred and violent contempt once held for MOVE is now visited upon average people – not just radicals and revolutionaries, like MOVE.

In May 1985, officials justified the vicious attacks on MOVE children by saying they, too, were “combatants.” In Ferguson, Missouri, as police and National Guard confronted “citizens” with weapons of warfare, guess how cops described them in their own files? “Enemies.”

“Enemy combatants,” anyone?

Then look at 12-year-old Tamir Rice, of Cleveland. A boy, treated as if he were a man.

Boys. Men. Girls. Women. It doesn’t matter.

What happened then is a harbinger of what’s happening now – all across America.

When many people stood in silence, or worse, in bitter acquiescence to the bombing, shooting and carnage of May 13, 1985, upon MOVE, they opened the door to the ugliness of today’s police terrorism from coast to coast. There is a direct line from then to now.

May 13, 1985 led to the eerie Robocop present. If it had been justly and widely condemned then, there would be no now; no Ferguson, no South Carolina, no Los Angeles – no Baltimore.

The barbaric police bombing of May 13, 1985, and the whitewash of the murders of 11 MOVE men, women and children opened a door that still has not been closed. We are today still living with those consequences.

© Copyright 2015 Mumia Abu-Jamal. Keep updated at www.freemumia.com. His new book is “Writing on the Wall,” edited by Joanna Hernandez, to be released April 21. For Mumia’s commentaries, visit www.prisonradio.org. Encourage the media to publish and broadcast Mumia’s commentaries and interviews. Send our brotha some love and light: Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM 8335, SCI-Mahanoy, 301 Morea Road, Frackville, PA 17932. This is the first written commentary from Brother Mumia since the medical attempt on his life!

A free screening of “Let the Fire Burn,” the documentary on the police bombing of MOVE in Philadelphia on May 13, 1985, takes place on the 30th anniversary of the bombing, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, 7-10 p.m., at Omni Oakland Commons, 4799 Shattuck Ave., Oakland.

30 years later, MOVE returns to Osage Avenue

by Larry Miller

Thirty years ago, the second violent confrontation between the city of Philadelphia and the back-to-nature group known as MOVE ended with five children and six adults dead.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

On Wednesday, May 13, the anniversary of the assault and fire that tore through 61 homes, a commemoration rally will be held by members of the MOVE family at 62nd Street and Osage Avenue.

The rally starts at 12 p.m. and will be followed by a march and car caravan to First District Plaza, located at 3801 Market St. Among those scheduled to appear are scholar activists Cornel West and Ward Churchill. A prerecorded message from Angela Davis is also scheduled. There will also be a speak-out by members of various religious organizations and recognition of people killed by police.

The confrontation on May 13 was the culmination of MOVE’s public efforts to push for the freeing of the so-called MOVE 9 from prison. A bomb was dropped onto the roof of the group’s residence at 6221 Osage Ave. by a police helicopter.

It was supposed to be a tactic to force MOVE members from the house, according to officials. But an explosion ignited a fire and the fire was allowed to burn. Sixty-one homes were destroyed and 11 people, five of them children, were dead. Among the dead was the group’s founder, John Africa.

“It’s so important to never forget what happened that day and to continue to actively fight for justice even 30 years later,” said defense attorney and activist Michael Coard.

Seven members of the group remain in prison: Delbert Orr Africa, William Phillips Africa, Janet Hollaway Africa, Michael Davis Africa, Edward Goodman Africa, Janine Phillips Africa, Debbie Sims Africa and Charles Sims Africa. MOVE members all take the last name of “Africa.”

Police and fire officials remove bodies from the MOVE house and assess the damage they caused.
Police and fire officials remove bodies from the MOVE house and assess the damage they caused.

All were convicted for the fatal shooting of police officer James Ramp in August 1978 during another siege and battle with city police. The nine were sentenced to 30 to 100 years. Merle Africa died in prison in March 1998. Phil Africa died in prison in January of this year. None of them were ever granted parole.

“It’s so important to never forget what happened that day and to continue to actively fight for justice even 30 years later,” said defense attorney and activist Michael Coard. “This event is a call for justice.

“You just don’t drop a bomb onto a civilian location. You don’t do that! And no one has ever paid for this. Someone has to answer for what happened.”

Larry Miller is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Tribune, a Black newspaper, where this story first appeared. He can be reached at lmiller@phillytrib.com.

MOVE sole survivor: Didn’t happen over neighbor complaints

by Damon C. Williams

For MOVE member Ramona Africa – the sole surviving member of the catastrophic residential bombing of the MOVE compound on May 13, 1985 – the focus of the group has remained steadfast over the past three decades: the release of her family members, the MOVE 9, and Mumia Abu Jamal.

Ramona Africa, speaking here at a rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal on April 19, 2008, is the sole adult survivor of the 1985 bombing. “Without any announcement, warning or anything, a helicopter flew over our home and dropped two bombs on the roof of our house and it ignited a fire,” she says. When the people inside tried to flee, police opened fire to prevent them from escaping the blazing inferno. “They tried to burn me alive and shoot me to death.” She survived with major burns by crawling through a basement window with Birdie, 13, the only child to make it out alive. After several months in the hospital, she served a seven-year prison sentence for inciting a riot. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report
Ramona Africa, speaking here at a rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal on April 19, 2008, is the sole adult survivor of the 1985 bombing. “Without any announcement, warning or anything, a helicopter flew over our home and dropped two bombs on the roof of our house and it ignited a fire,” she says. When the people inside tried to flee, police opened fire to prevent them from escaping the blazing inferno. “They tried to burn me alive and shoot me to death.” She survived with major burns by crawling through a basement window with Birdie, 13, the only child to make it out alive. After several months in the hospital, she served a seven-year prison sentence for inciting a riot. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report

“From the moment I was released from Muncy State Prison on May 13, 1992, I made the three-hour drive back to Philadelphia,” Africa said. “From that day on, it’s been a whirlwind of putting out information to educate people and correct people’s perceptions, because the government tried to convince people that what happened on May 13, 1985, was because of neighbor complaints.

“This government never cared about neighbors complaining about each other, and they particularly never cared when Black neighbors complained about each other, so to say it happened over neighbor complaints is absolutely ridiculous.”

From the beginning

The reported chronologies of events on that fateful 1985 day vary, but the essence of the situation remains.

The 1985 conflict between MOVE and the police department has roots in similar clashes that took place in 1978.

MOVE and the police department engaged in a shootout on August 8, 1978, in which officer James J. Ramp was struck and killed. Africa and MOVE contend that Ramp was not shot by a member, but by one of the police department’s own men.

After that shootout, the MOVE 9 – Chuck, Debbie, Delbert, Eddie, Janet, Janine, Merle, Mike and Phil Arica – were sentenced to 30-plus years for the killing of Ramp.

“The Aug. 8, 1978, police attack on MOVE followed years of police brutality against MOVE and was a major military operation carried out by the Philadelphia police department under orders of then-mayor Frank Rizzo,” reads a portion of the historical account provided on MOVE’s website. “Mayor Rizzo’s reputation for racism and brutality was and is well known – it followed him up through the ranks of the police department to the police commissioner’s office to the mayor’s office.

“The MOVE 9 are innocent men and women who have been in prison since Aug. 8, 1978, following a massive police attack on us at our home in the Powelton Village neighborhood of Philadelphia,” the account continued. “This was seven years before the government dropped a bomb on MOVE, killing 11 people, including five babies.”

Two days after the bombing, inspectors search the debris, all that was left of the MOVE family’s home. – Photo: George Widman, AP
Two days after the bombing, inspectors search the debris, all that was left of the MOVE family’s home. – Photo: George Widman, AP

MOVE then moved to Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia in 1981, and published reports note that neighbors almost immediately began complaining about the lifestyle of MOVE members. When police tried to clear MOVE from the compound, the confrontation became deadly; the city dropped an incendiary entrance device – a bomb – on the compound, destroying it and virtually an entire neighborhood in the process.

Lone survivor

Africa was the lone adult to survive; the late Birdie Africa was the only adolescent to live.

“One thing we always made clear to people: The root of the bombing and the murder of MOVE men, women and babies is due to our unrelenting fight for the release of our innocent family members, known as the MOVE 9,” Africa said. “That is what the government is trying to silence and crush, but they have not been able to do that, despite the vicious bombing and murder of our members.

“That is what I have been doing, and what the family has been doing,” Africa continued. “We have been putting out information, literally all over the world, to correct the persona the government has been trying to fool people with.”

Africa said support for MOVE hasn’t waned in 30 years, and the world is coming around to the holistic teachings first espoused by MOVE founder and coordinator John Africa.

For MOVE member Ramona Africa, the focus of the group has remained steadfast over the past three decades: the release of her family members, the MOVE 9, and Mumia Abu Jamal.

John Africa, who founded MOVE in 1972, died in the May 13, 1985, confrontation.

Indeed, made trendy have been the wearing of hair in locks, natural childbirth and composting – now heralded as elements of a progressive society.

A view from the air after the bombing shows the burned out shells of what had been a neighborhood. – Photo: Bettmann-Corbis
A view from the air after the bombing shows the burned out shells of what had been a neighborhood. – Photo: Bettmann-Corbis

“Back in the 1970s when MOVE first emerged, people criticized and ostracized MOVE all across the board for everything from wearing our hair naturally in locks to our natural food diet that John Africa encouraged, to the way we had babies naturally at home and to the way we home-schooled our children, not turning them over to the system to so-call ‘educate,’” Africa said.

“And today, people call it composting, but for MOVE, we were simply feeding the earth that fed us. But MOVE was criticized for that, though, with people saying we were nasty and dirty and that we were throwing garbage in our backyard.

“Now, not only is MOVE wearing their hair naturally some 40 years later; celebrities of all kinds are wearing their hair naturally. There are now raw food restaurants from here to New York to California. And now with composting, when we did it, we were called nasty, but now they put a cute name on it and it’s an accepted thing,” Africa added.

“People didn’t want to accept [those ideas] from MOVE, but now, system professionals are backing John Africa up – everything the MOVE founder taught was proved to be the right way to live.”

Birdie Africa

Aside from comments regarding the fate of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the surviving members of MOVE 9, Africa also shared thoughts on the passing of Birdie Africa, also known as Michael Moses Ward, who drowned in 2013 in a hot tub aboard a cruise ship.

MOVE children cry out passionately to free Mumia Abu-Jamal at a rally on May 17, 2007, in Philadelphia. Succeeding generations of MOVE children learn about the 1978 attack and the 1985 bombing – and about Mumia Abu-Jamal, who as a journalist has always strongly supported the organization, both before and since his imprisonment in 1981. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report
MOVE children cry out passionately to free Mumia Abu-Jamal at a rally on May 17, 2007, in Philadelphia. Succeeding generations of MOVE children learn about the 1978 attack and the 1985 bombing – and about Mumia Abu-Jamal, who as a journalist has always strongly supported the organization, both before and since his imprisonment in 1981. – Photo: JR Valrey, Block Report

Ramona Africa said Birdie’s death was “very strange” to MOVE and that his death remains highly suspicious, given that Birdie never drank or took drugs and was a capable swimmer.

Ramona confirmed Birdie was taught to swim by MOVE at a very early age, and it was extremely difficult to reconcile the events of his death with the Birdie that Ramona and MOVE knew.

“The one thing I’d like to point out is that if Birdie was still with MOVE, he would have not drowned in a hot tub on a cruise, because he would not have been on that cruise ship; it really hurt us to see Birdie go down like that,” Africa said.

“But the reality is, Birdie was a grown man, and he had plenty opportunities to come back to MOVE and contact us. One of his aunts made an attempt to contact me and said Birdie wanted to see me and asked how I was doing. I told Birdie’s aunt that we loved Birdie and to contact us at any time.

“I don’t know the types of pressures and influences Birdie was under, but he never did contact me. It is a shame, because Birdie would have been safe with MOVE.”

Moving forward

MOVE bombing graphicIn the end, Ramona Africa and the rest of the MOVE organization finds itself in the same position it’s been in since its founding – fighting for “freedom, justice and equality,” protecting their way of life and freeing their family from what they see as an unjust confinement from a corrupt system.

“From even 1978 to today, our focus is on the release of our innocent family members who have been in jail for 37 years – despite their innocence and despite being eligible for parole since 2008, when they completed their minimum 30-year mandatory sentences,” Africa said. “The parole board refuses to parole them unless they lie and say they are guilty of the murder of police officer James Ramp.

“Our focus remains on the release of our innocent family members, and we are also fighting for the release of our brother Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is facing a serious health crisis now,” Africa added. “We have been standing with and fighting for Mumia since Dec. 9, 1981, because he is innocent and because we understand that he is not in prison for the accusation of murder … This is witch hunt and a vendetta against MOVE and Mumia.”

Damon C. Williams is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Tribune, a Black newspaper, where this story first appeared. He can be reached at dwilliams@phillytrib.com.