Photo Essay - 1985 MOVE Incident
John Africa. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The founder of MOVE was born Vincent Leapheart in the Mantua neighborhood of Philadelphia in 1931. A Korean War veteran, Leapheart was working as a handyman when he met white University of Pennsylvania graduate student Donald Glassey in the early 1970s. By that time Leapheart had begun referring to himself as John Africa, a homage to his heritage and "the source of life." Glassey quickly became enamored with Africa's teachings, which included a rejection of modern developments such as capitalism, industry, electricity, and birth control, along with an embrace of an urban back-to-the-land philosophy based on the "principle of natural law." With Glassey's help, Africa, who was largely illiterate, completed The Guidelines, a 300-page manifesto articulating his views. Africa successfully recruited a few dozen followers consisting of "various members of his family, homeless people, college students, business people, and political activists" (Mjagkij, 384), and in 1974 took up residence in a house bought by Glassey in the Powelton Village neighborhood. Like their leader, all members—mostly black, but some white—took on the surname Africa. While initially accepted by their neighbors, MOVE increasingly drew complaints for its eccentric practices, such as composting food scraps and feces in its backyard and shouting messages through bullhorns at all hours. It was the organization's showdown with Philadelphia police, however, that eventually forced its removal and relocation.
MOVE headquarters in Powelton Village. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Since arriving in Powelton Village, the group had frequently stationed members on their porch, bullhorns in hand, loudly propagating the MOVE philosophy. Though exasperating to their neighbors, the spectacle wasn't enough to draw a response from city authorities. In late May 1978, however, members began appearing in military garb and brandishing rifles, a dramatic escalation to a conflict thus far defined by nuisance issues. The group's increasingly militant posture drew the attention of Mayor Frank Rizzo, a tough-talking former Philadelphia police commissioner. Despite his reputation as a "law and order" politician in the mold of Richard Nixon, Rizzo moved slowly, first attempting to bargain the release of incarcerated MOVE members in exchange for the group's relocation outside the city. MOVE refused to leave Philadelphia, putting pressure back on Rizzo to resolve the standoff. Ten months into the stalemate, Rizzo ordered a blockade of the four blocks surrounding the compound. All utilities, food, and water were cut off. Nevertheless, supporters were able to smuggle supplies to the house, prolonging the confrontation for another three months. On 8 August 1978, police moved in. While successful in evicting the group, the raid left police officer James J. Ramp dead, five officers and firefighters wounded, and MOVE member Delbert Africa severely beaten. MOVE headquarters was immediately razed, and ten group members were arrested.
Tensions grow between MOVE supporters and Osage Avenue residents. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
MOVE members able to avoid capture went into hiding. Despite evidence suggesting the inconclusiveness of Ramp's shooting—his death may have been caused by "friendly fire"—by 1981 nine of the ten arrested members had been sentenced to thirty to one hundred years in prison. Later that year John Africa was apprehended in Rochester, NY, and brought back to Philadelphia to stand trial; charged with weapons and conspiracy offenses, and representing himself, he was acquitted. Though fractured, MOVE quietly reorganized and moved into a house at 6221 Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek, a neighborhood with the highest number of black homeowners in Philadelphia. As with their arrival in Powelton Village years earlier, MOVE was welcomed at first by their neighbors. Within a few years, however, history seemed to be repeating itself: the group constructed another large stage on its front yard from which it would blare its message at all hours of the night. And, as in Powelton Village, byproducts of the group's naturalistic lifestyle—vermin, litter, odors—increasingly put it at odds with its neighbors, with whom clashes became more and more heated. Recalling a 1984 Mother's Day discussion between the Osage Avenue block association and the group, neighborhood resident Oris Thomas told Time "[MOVE] said, 'If you do anything to hurt us, we're going to kill you.'" Though the association tried to get the office of Mayor W. Wilson Goode to intervene, he accomplished little, as did the police, both of whom were undoubtedly wary of another showdown. Out of options, the block association scheduled a press conference in hopes of forcing the city's hand.
Phildelphia police begin amassing early on May 15, 1985. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Daily News.
As attention from the city and the media increased, MOVE began demanding the release of their nine imprisoned members. Backchannel negotiations between the mayor's office and MOVE, undertaken as Goode plotted a public response, were unsuccessful: "All hope of agreement ended Saturday when [MOVE] spokesman Jerry Ford Africa sent the mayor an ominous message: 'We are ready for you. Come and get us,'" wrote Time. On 12 March 1985 the city issued warrants for the arrest of four members—Conrad, Theresa, Ramona, and Frank Africa—charging them with "parole violation, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terroristic threats." None of the four turned themselves in. A dangerous escalation seemed imminent, and all residences within five blocks of the compound—a total of three hundred people—were evacuated the next day. It quickly became apparent that MOVE headquarters had been equipped for confrontation: a bunker had been dug in the basement, and reinforcements had been added to the roof. At 5:45 the next morning, police commissioner Gregore Sambor—flanked by a force of 150 police officers, including SWAT and sharpshooter teams—issued a warning for the four wanted members to vacate the premises within fifteen minutes. When the deadline passed, Sambor authorized an attack on the house with tear gas and water cannons. Shots were then fired from the MOVE compound, provoking a 90-minute, 10,000-round return volley from the police. The police continued with a variety of tactics—including boring into the compound and pouring water on the roof to break it open—into the afternoon, to no avail.
Channel 10-WCAU captures the harrowing shot of a Philadelphia helicopter dropping explosives on the MOVE house. Courtesy of Philly.com.
Despite its vastly superior firepower, the city was unable to dislodge MOVE. The exact events that followed remain contentious to this day, and are detailed in 30 cubic feet of records contained in the 1986 Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission report. Nevertheless, the following is without dispute: at 5:27 pm, the Philadelphia Police Department, under the direction of Police Commissioner Sambor and the sanction of Mayor Goode, dropped "two 1 lb. tubes filled with a water-based gel explosive" from a helicopter onto the roof of the MOVE compound (Time). According to Goode's testimony before the Commission, the devices were intended to smash one of the bunkers built on top of the roof, creating an entry for police to evict the MOVE members. The explosion ignited a blaze that quickly spread to nearby houses. Perhaps even more controversial than the city's decision to drop the explosive, the fire department did not fight the blaze for at least the first thirty minutes. Fire chief William Richmond, acting under the command of Sambor, explained that spraying the roof would have inhibited police officers from "breaching" the compound and would have produced a heavy smoke cover for escaping MOVE members. At last receiving orders to approach the house, firefighters were confronted with what sounded like gunfire and immediately retreated as the fire spread further down the block. Accounts vary on whether or not police entered the house and opened fire, but two people finally emerged from the compound: MOVE information minister Ramona Africa and 13-year-old Birdie Africa. The blaze was declared under control just before midnight. When it was over, all remaining eleven members of the household had died, including five children and MOVE founder John Africa, and 250 people had been displaced from 62 homes.
Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, Managing Director Leo Brooks, Fire Commissioner William Richmond, and Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor testify before the PSIC.
In testimony to the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (PSIC) that October, Philadelphia police commissioner Gregore Sambor insisted he was given assurances that the explosive dropped on MOVE was safe. "What has imprinted that device on the mind of the city is, in fact, the method of delivery," he said, referring to its helicopter discharge. "If it had been carried or thrown into position or if it had been dropped from a crane, the perception of that action would be quite different." Regardless of the actions of Sambor and Richmond, Mayor Goode took full responsibility for the event, saying in a press conference the night of the bombing "I was aware of what was going on…therefore, the people of the city will have to judge [me]" (Philadelphia Magazine). The eleven-person commission, led by former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission head William Brown III, was formed within two weeks of the bombing. On the way to its report in March 1986, the PSIC incorporated the assistance of forty-five law school students, seven investigators, and numerous authorities in forensic pathology and explosives; administered one thousand interviews; and broadcasted five weeks of televised hearings, at a cost of almost $1 million.
Osage avenue, days after the MOVE confrontation. Courtesy of Philly.com.
Though comprising an enormous sum of documentary evidence, the entire PSIC report might be reduced to its statement that "dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable." The children's deaths "appeared to be unjustified homicide," the report said, and the actions of Police Chief Sambor and Fire Commissioner Richmond were "grossly negligent." The hearings, which lasted eighteen days, "provided a shocking picture of confusion and indecision in the high command" (People). A concurrent investigation launched by the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the police department had been surveying the MOVE compound for over a year and a half and undertaking tests on explosives for weeks. (The Inquirer also reported that one of the explosives dropped on the house, Du Pont's Tovex TR-2, was explicitly designed "to be used underground for mining and quarrying, not in the open.") Under testimony the police department bomb unit invoked the Fifth Amendment, but Sambor maintained his defense, stating that "any approach on May 13th would have presented an immediate and deadly danger…[MOVE] announced that morning that they would never surrender and that they would kill as many of us as they could." Ramona Africa declined to testify.
Ramona Africa in 2010. Courtesy of Uhurusolidarity.org.
Along with thirteen-year-old Birdie Africa, Ramona Africa was the only survivor of the bombing. She escaped from the remains of the MOVE compound by crawling through a window, suffering severe burns in the process. Taken immediately into police custody, Ramona, the organization's spokeswoman, was tried and convicted on charges of conspiracy to riot. She served the entirety of her seven-year sentence; though eligible for parole at sixteen months, she continually refused to disassociate herself with MOVE, a condition for early release. Though little is known about her early life, Ramona worked as a paralegal before joining MOVE, an experience that would later help her navigate the battery of legal fights that would make up much of her adult life. In 1996 Ramona—along with relatives of deceased MOVE leader John Africa and his nephew Frank Africa—successfully sued the city of Philadelphia in a wrongful death suit. The jury verdict held that the city used excessive force and violated the organization's right to unreasonable search and seizure, awarding Ramona $500,000 and the relatives of John and Frank $1 million. Additionally, former Philadelphia police commissioner Gregore Sambor and former fire commissioner William Richmond were ordered to pay Ramona $1 per week for the following eleven years. Birdie Africa, now living with his non-MOVE-affiliated father and known as Michael Moses Ward, was awarded $1.7 million in 1991. No criminal convictions have been brought against Goode, Richmond, Sambor, or any other city official involved in the raid.
Cobbs Creek resident Gerald Renfrow stands in front of 6221 Osage Avenue. Courtesy of Philly.com.
In June 2010, Temple University student journal Philadelphia Neighborhoods reported that Ramona Africa was living quietly in West Philadelphia with the remaining members of MOVE. Since her release in 1992, she has continued to advocate for the acquittal of the nine group members imprisoned after the 1978 Powelton Village raid (referred to by supporters as the MOVE 9) and Mumia Abu-Jamal, the famous activist and longtime MOVE sympathizer on death row. Ramona remains an in-demand speaker; as recently as February 2010 she participated in a conference on public interest and environmental law at the University of Oregon law school. Though Sambor resigned as police commissioner in November 1985, Goode finished his term as mayor and was reelected in 1988. After leaving office four years later, Goode became a minister and youth advocate and still lives in Philadelphia. Though the city rebuilt homes destroyed in the bombing in a little over a year, the reconstruction was so substandard that most were condemned within a few years, and in 2000 Mayor John Street offered each household $150,000 to relocate. By 2005 the city of Philadelphia had spent a total of $42 million on settlements.