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Philadelphia’s Violent Attack On A Black Radical Group

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By revisiting the 1978 conflict between MOVE and the city of Philadelphia, Americans can learn from its parallels to present-day uprisings against police brutality, incarceration, racism, and inequality.

MOVE

The Group

MOVE is a back-to-nature Black liberation group founded in 1972 in Philadelphia by John Africa (born Vincent Leophart).

In accordance with John Africa’s teachings, MOVE members maintain an active lifestyle, wear dreadlocks, homeschool their children, and eat raw food. Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. Photograph: Jack Tinney

They advocate for freedom and equality of Life—human, plant, and animal—and against oppressive legal and political systems.

Philadelphia

The System

From 1972 to 1980, Philadelphia’s mayor was Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner with a racist, “tough-on-crime” reputation.

Under Rizzo, Philadelphia police were so notoriously abusive that in 1979 the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city for a pattern of brutality that “shocks the Conscience.” Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. Photograph: Joseph Wasko

MOVE’s disruptive, nonviolent protests against animal abuse and police violence made them frequent targets of harassment and arrest.

Following Rizzo’s lead, local authorities regarded MOVE’s activism with increasing fear and suspicion from 1973 to 1976.

MOVE had good reason to distrust the city. In March of 1976, MOVE celebrated the release of seven incarcerated members. Police arrived claiming that MOVE was creating a disturbance.

Moving to grab Phil Africa, an officer threw down his wife, Janine Africa, while she was holding her infant child. Life Africa, born at home three weeks earlier, died.

The city refused to investigate the baby’s murder.

Powelton Village

The Neighborhood

In the early 1970s, Powelton Village, which bordered the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, was a hub of counterculture and radicalism.

While it was once a Black middle class neighborhood, it was gentrifying.

MOVE’s three-and-a-half story Victorian served as the home and headquarters for members and their children. To earn money, MOVE operated a neighborhood car wash, shoveled sidewalks and performed repairs for elderly people in the neighborhood. Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. Photograph: Anthony Bernato

MOVE and their neighbors had a complicated relationship. Many residents supported MOVE’s message and held disdain for Rizzo’s police force. However, the group’s natural lifestyle attracted stray animals and pests, creating friction.

As the conflict escalated, the city filed a civil lawsuit alleging Health and Housing Code violations, which enabled police surveillance and intervention at MOVE headquarters.

On May 20, 1977, city health inspectors attempted to enter the house. MOVE, whose distrust of local authorities had reached a boiling point, met them on the porch bearing rifles.

MOVE members wore matching jumpsuits and protested with a megaphone, calling for the release of their political prisoners and an end to police use of force. Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. Photograph: Don Camp

After the armed demonstration, the city issued warrants for those involved. Rizzo ordered 24/7 police surveillance of MOVE’s home, forcing members to barricade themselves inside.

1978

The Conflict

After a 10-month stalemate, Rizzo won court approval to blockade the house in hopes of starving MOVE out.

Over 500 police and firemen took over a six-block area of Powelton Village, cutting off access to city water and barring sympathetic community members from resupplying the activists inside.

As the siege went on, the court ordered MOVE to vacate by August 1.

At dawn, police took the MOVE house by force. Hundreds of police officers surrounded the building, using a bulldozer to strip down MOVE’s fortifications.

MOVE barricaded themselves in the basement while firefighters used deluge guns to blast water through the windows. Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. Photograph: Richard Rosenberg / Atlantic Re:think

A shoot-out ensued, and Philadelphia police officer James Ramp was killed in the crossfire.

Whether the deadly shot came from MOVE or was friendly fire would be a key point of contention in the day’s aftermath. Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. Photograph: Jon Falk / Atlantic Re:think

Ultimately, police forced MOVE out with tear gas, arresting 12 adults and removing 11 children. Officers brutalized Delbert Africa as he surrendered.

The city had leveled the house by that afternoon. Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA. Photograph: James J. Craig

Aftermath

The Sentences

Nine MOVE members were convicted in the murder of Officer James Ramp and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison. Judge Edwin S. Malmed noted they called themselves a family, so he had sentenced them as a family, with shared guilt.

In September, a little over a month after the shootout, Debbie Sims Africa gave birth to a son inside her Philadelphia jail cell.

Michael Africa Jr. would spend decades of his life working to free his mother and father, Michael Africa Sr., two of the MOVE 9.

To learn more about MOVE and Michael’s journey, watch Tommy Oliver’s upcoming documentary, 40 Years a Prisoner, on HBO.

Watch the documentary now

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