|Leader(s) John Africa|
Active region(s) Philadelphia
Political position Far-left
Major actions Advocating rights for people of color
MOVE is a Philadelphia-based black liberation group founded by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) in 1972. The group lives communally. Its members frequently engage in public demonstrations against racism, police brutality, and other issues.
- 1978 shoot out
- The MOVE 9
- 1985 bombing
- 2002 shooting of John Gilbride
- Current activities
The group is particularly known for two major conflicts with the Philadelphia Police Department. In 1978, a standoff resulted in the death of one police officer, injuries to several other people, and life sentences for nine members. In 1985, another standoff ended when a police helicopter dropped a bomb on their compound, a row house in the middle of Osage Avenue, causing a fire. This killed eleven MOVE members, including five children. The fire burst out of control and destroyed 65 houses in the neighborhood, prompting widespread news coverage.
MOVE was originally called the Christian Movement for Life when it was founded in 1972. Its founder, John Africa, was functionally illiterate. He dictated a document called The Guideline to Donald Glassey, a social worker from the University of Pennsylvania. Africa and his contemporary, mostly African-American followers wore their hair in dreadlocks, as popularized by some Caribbean musicians. They advocated a radical form of green politics and a return to a hunter-gatherer society, while stating their opposition to science, medicine, and technology. As John Africa had done, his devotees changed their surnames to Africa to show reverence to what they regarded as their mother continent.
John Africa's MOVE members lived in a commune in a house owned by Glassey in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. They staged bullhorn-amplified, profanity-laced demonstrations against institutions that they opposed, such as zoos (MOVE had strong views on animal rights), and speakers whose views they opposed. MOVE activities drew close scrutiny from law enforcement authorities.
In 1977 the police gained a court order requiring MOVE to vacate their Powelton Village house at 311 N 33rd Street. Nearly a year later, they had come to a standoff with members of the community, who had not left. When police attempted entry to the house, shooting erupted. Philadelphia Police Department officer James J. Ramp was killed by a shot to the back of the neck. MOVE representatives claimed that he was facing the house at the time and they denied MOVE's responsibility for his death. Seven other police officers, five firefighters, three MOVE members, and three bystanders were also injured.
The MOVE 9
Nine MOVE members were convicted and each sentenced to a maximum of 100 years in prison for third degree murder for Ramp's murder. Seven of the nine first became eligible for parole in the spring of 2008, but they were denied it. Parole hearings now occur yearly.
In 1998, at age 47, Merle Africa died in prison. In 2015, at age 59, Phil Africa died in prison. The remaining seven in prison are Chuck Africa, Michael Africa, Debbie Africa, Janet Africa, Janine Africa, Delbert Africa, and Eddie Africa.
In 1981 MOVE relocated to a row house at 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia. After the move, neighbors complained for years that MOVE members were broadcasting political messages by bullhorn. The bullhorn was broken and inoperable for the three weeks prior to the bombing of the row house.
The police obtained arrest warrants charging four occupants with crimes including parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terrorist threats. Mayor W. Wilson Goode and police commissioner Gregore J. Sambor classified MOVE as a terrorist organization. On Monday, May 13, 1985, the police, along with city manager Leo Brooks, arrived in force and attempted to clear the building and execute the arrest warrants.
This led to an armed standoff with police, who lobbed tear gas canisters at the building. The police said that MOVE members fired at them; a gunfight with semi-automatic and automatic firearms ensued. Commissioner Sambor ordered that the compound be bombed. From a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter, Philadelphia Police Department Lt. Frank Powell proceeded to drop two one-pound bombs (which the police referred to as "entry devices") made of FBI-supplied water gel explosive, a dynamite substitute, targeting a fortified, bunker-like cubicle on the roof of the house.
The resulting explosions ignited a fire from fuel for a gasoline-powered generator in the rooftop bunker; it spread and eventually destroyed approximately 65 nearby houses. The firefighters, who had earlier deluge-hosed the MOVE members in a failed attempt to evict them from the building, stood by as the fire caused by the bomb engulfed the first house and spread to others, having been given orders to let the fire burn. Despite the earlier drenching of the building by firefighters, officials said they feared that MOVE would shoot at the firefighters. Eleven people (John Africa, five other adults, and five children aged 7 to 13) died in the resulting fire, and more than 250 people in the neighborhood were left homeless. Ramona Africa, one of the two survivors, said that police fired at those trying to escape.
Mayor Goode appointed an investigative commission called the PSIC (aka MOVE Commission), chaired by William H. Brown, III. Police commissioner Sambor resigned in November 1985, reporting that he felt that he was being made a "surrogate" by Goode. Goode, on the other hand, feared the Philadelphia Police Department because he had received intelligence indicating that he had been marked as a target for death by the police department. The MOVE Commission issued its report on March 6, 1986. The report denounced the actions of the city government, stating that "Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable." Following the release of the report, Goode made a formal public apology. No one from the city government was criminally charged. The only surviving adult MOVE member, Ramona Africa, was charged and incarcerated for seven years on riot and conspiracy charges.
In 1996 a federal jury ordered the city to pay a US$ 1.5 million civil suit judgement to survivor Ramona Africa and relatives of two people killed in the bombing. The jury had found that the city used excessive force and violated the members' constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Philadelphia was given the sobriquet "The City that Bombed Itself."
2002 shooting of John Gilbride
After John Africa's death, his widow, Alberta, married John Gilbride, Jr., a white man 20 years younger than she. Together they had a child, Zackary Africa, circa 1996. The couple divorced in 1999. After a custody battle, a court ruling granted Gilbride partial custody of Zackary, allowing him unsupervised visits. Gilbride, by this point a former MOVE supporter, moved to Maple Shade, New Jersey.
On September 10, 2002, in the course of a bitter custody dispute, Gilbride testified in court that MOVE had threatened to kill him. On September 27, 2002, shortly after midnight and prior to Gilbride's first visitation date with Zackary, an unknown assailant shot and killed Gilbride with an automatic weapon as he sat in his car parked outside his home. The case remains unsolved. MOVE initially made statements claiming that the U.S. government had assassinated Gilbride in order to frame MOVE. Alberta Africa denied that the murder had occurred, stating in 2009 that Gilbride "is out hiding somewhere." Tony Allen, an ex-MOVE member, maintains that MOVE murdered Gilbride.
In 2012, a newspaper reported that Gilbride had told friends and family that he had recorded incriminating evidence in a notebook as security against a "hit" by MOVE. Gilbride said he had placed the notebook inside a locker for safekeeping, but the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office declined to follow up on the claims.
Ramona Africa acts as a spokesperson for the group. She has given numerous speeches at leftist events in the United States and other countries. Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of the 1981 murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner, was closely involved with MOVE. MOVE continues to advocate for Abu-Jamal's release as well as for that of imprisoned MOVE members, whom the group regards as political prisoners.
Birdie Africa, also known as Michael Moses Ward, the only child survivor of the 1985 MOVE bombing, accidentally drowned in 2013 in a hot tub on board Carnival Dream while cruising in the Caribbean.
MOVE maintains a website encouraging visitors to support imprisoned MOVE members.
On the 25th anniversary of the 1985 bombing, the Philadelphia Inquirer created a detailed multimedia site containing retrospective articles, archived articles, videos, interviews, photos, and a timeline of the events.
Let the Fire Burn, a documentary composed largely of archival footage, was released in the Fall of 2013.