MOVE’s Philosophy: Militant Blend of Anti-Materialism, Contradiction

Times Staff Writer

The initials MOVE don’t mean anything in an organizational sense. But those familiar with the radical Philadelphia group say that the four letters signify contradiction, confrontation and controversy.

“They (MOVE’s members) always seem to be on a death trip,” said Ron Javers, editor of Philadelphia Magazine, who has followed the group since the 1970s. “It’s a group that needs to feel the world is imploding on them to have inner group solidarity.”

MOVE, with about 50 followers, was founded in 1972 by black handyman Vincent Leaphart, a third-grade dropout, and Donald Glassey, the white son of a national vice president of the Boy Scouts of America and a former student activist.

Over 13 years, the group’s philosophy has been a militant pastiche of anti-materialism, back-to-nature rhetoric and contradictory notions. Its members were urged to spurn electricity, modern technology, baths and Establishment values.


Used Modern Technology

At the same time, however, MOVE’s members were not reluctant to use such products of technology as loudspeakers to harass neighbors, police and passers-by as they put forth their philosophy.

The group argues that pollution is evil, but neighbors charge that MOVE’s followers littered their home sites to such a degree that the health hazards were a danger to those living nearby.

And despite an avowed pacifism, police said Tuesday that MOVE’s followers were skilled in building sophisticated fortifications, including bunkers with half-inch steel walls in their nondescript frame row house on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.


Leaphart, who is considered primarily responsible for MOVE’s mix of philosophy, has since dropped from sight. He took the name John Africa and ordered all MOVE members to take Africa as their surname and encouraged them to wear their hair in the dreadlocks common to the Rastafarian religious movement in Jamaica.

Over the years, the vast majority of MOVE’s members have been black.

Became an Informant

Glassey, the white co-founder, was a social worker for six months in suburban Cornwells Heights before moving into a Powelton Village commune. When MOVE grew more militant, he became a government informant.

Most current MOVE members hold menial jobs or are on welfare. Fifteen are currently imprisoned on various charges.

Nine have been imprisoned since 1981 for their resistance when police stormed a headquarters of the group in August, 1978, when Frank Rizzo was mayor.

That siege left a Philadelphia policeman dead and 13 persons wounded in exchanges of gunfire between the radicals and SWAT team sharpshooters. When it was all over, the three-story row house that the group had occupied under allegedly unhealthy conditions was demolished with the use of a derrick and a bulldozer.

Twelve persons were arrested in the 1978 raid, including five MOVE sympathizers who hurled rocks and bottles at police after the shooting stopped.


Called ‘Terrorist Group’

On Tuesday, Mayor W. Wilson Goode described MOVE as a “terrorist group” that had to be removed from its neighborhood.

Over the years, MOVE showed no set pattern in its demonstrations. Protesters have raised their voices and signs against a range of persons, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Quakers. They have even picketed the Communist Party. Such an ideological hodgepodge has made MOVE hard to fathom.

MOVE’s members have spurned contacts with municipal officials while stockpiling weapons. Neighbors charged that they expressed their militant philosophy in foul language over loudspeakers. Neighbors on Osage Avenue said that MOVE members allowed rats to dwell in their headquarters to show a communion with nature.

As the neighbors complained, the pressure grew for authorities to evict MOVE.

“This community knows MOVE. It knows them as a group dedicated to the entire destruction of our way of life,” Goode charged.

The mayor, in an address to the city Tuesday, said that over the years MOVE had threatened the lives of the President, the police, judges and even their neighbors.

“The MOVE members wanted a desire to have a violent confrontation,” Goode said. “We should not allow any group to hold an entire city hostage.”