MOVE Still Wants to Shake Up Things
They became icons of defiant protest after the Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on their fortified row-house headquarters in 1985, killing 11 people and demolishing two square blocks of homes.
Now MOVE is at the vanguard of a 21st century version of political activism, complete with cellular phones, college lectures and a new hip-hop album to be released this fall.
But though the radical group may have mellowed, it remains as dedicated as ever to spreading its message that society’s power structure encourages police violence and keeps people from true happiness.
“We’re determined to keep working, committing ourselves to this revolution so our family did not die in vain,” said Ramona Africa, the group’s “minister of information.”
To ensure that, MOVE plans to be all around Philadelphia today, joining local and out-of-town activists launching protests against the criminal justice system and speaking about the case of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former MOVE disciple convicted of killing a police officer.
Indeed, as activists have launched rallies during the Republican National Convention here this week, MOVE members have been present either in person or in the image of a popular T-shirt portraying a helicopter dropping a bomb under the words, “Welcome to Philadelphia.”
To MOVE’s dreadlocked members, it is a chance to remind the world of their city’s last time in the national spotlight, as a spruced-up Philadelphia basks in the media glow of convention.
“They’re attempting to fill the hole that was placed in [the city’s heart] on May 13, 1985,” said 21-year-old Michael Africa. “They’re attempting to do it with the convention. They’re attempting to do it by making this place the tourist capital of the world. . . . But we’re not ever going to let nobody forget.”
MOVE was founded by a man originally named Vincent Leaphart who changed his name to John Africa and preached a simpler way of life, one without electricity, cooked foods or bathing.
Its members followed his teachings and adopted the last name of Africa--not necessarily as a reference to their African heritage, but because the continent was thought to symbolize a simple existence. Indeed, although the group is mostly African American, not all its members are black.
The group also will not disclose the size of its membership. But Raymond Africa, a 17-year-old member of the MOVE hip-hop recording group Seeds of Wisdom, said the group is smaller than at MOVE’s peak, when observers estimated about 150 members and supporters.
MOVE first came to prominence trying to liberate animals from the Philadelphia Zoo. Throughout the 1970s, it became embroiled in increasingly tense standoffs with police, culminating in a police raid on MOVE headquarters in 1978 in which armed members of the group and officers exchanged fire.
Officer James J. Ramp was killed in the fight and nine MOVE members were convicted of murder. One has since died in prison and current members believe their still-imprisoned brethren are innocent.
In 1984, MOVE moved into a two-story row house on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia and quickly fortified it against anticipated police raids. Neighbors complained that MOVE members ran through the streets haranguing residents on megaphones, picked fights and disconnected their sewer lines. Some neighbors urged the city to take action.
Eventually, the city did. On Mother’s Day 1985, it sent to the residence officers who launched a daylong siege full of gunfire. Finally, they dropped the bomb on the roof, sparking the fatal fire that the city let burn for hours.
There were only two survivors--a 13-year-old who was reunited with his estranged father, and Ramona Africa, who spent seven years in prison after the bombing. An old college classmate of Ramona Africa is now working to produce a movie about her life.
After her incarceration, Ramona Africa successfully sued the city, winning a $1.5-million verdict from a jury, which she said was later reduced to $500,000. The money still helps the group fund its activities, which include organizing protests around the pending execution of former MOVE member Abu-Jamal, an international cause celebre who contends he was framed for killing a police officer in 1982.
Ramona Africa has herself been in the limelight this week as thousands of activists converged on Philadelphia for protests during the convention.
On Saturday, she was a featured speaker at a rally against police brutality where she displayed a large painting of the death of John Africa, who was killed during the 1985 bombing. On Monday, she was a guest of the Pacifica radio network’s “Democracy Now” program.
Tensions between MOVE and police have eased somewhat since the bombing, and some local activists say MOVE has toned down its behavior.
The group shares offices with a local Quaker-based progressive organization and has helped plan nonviolent protests during the convention. They decline to say whether they still stockpile weapons for self-defense. Ramona Africa said MOVE defends itself “in line with the teachings of John Africa.”
MOVE members, who say they still try to avoid cooked foods and respect animals, acknowledge the irony of jetting around the world--from France to Cuba--to spread their back-to-nature message. But they say they have no choice.
“When I go to L.A., it’s about revolution,” said Pam Africa, who will go to Los Angeles for a speaking tour next week. “It’s about explaining to people why they should resist airplanes, why automobiles cause problems.”