The mere mention of the name MOVE often unleashes intense emotions across Philadelphia. However, for an organization frequently dominating the attention of police, city officials and the news media during the past three decades, precious little is actually known about MOVE.
While many have heard the name MOVE, few realize that the title for this organization founded in the early 1970s is not an acronym. Although its not clear exactly what MOVE means, it is clear that the founder of this organization was a self-styled revolutionary who called himself John Africa and he professed his belief that life is the priority.
Tagged as a back-to-nature organization, MOVE held a radical and controversial presence in the West Philadelphia, initially in Powelton Village and later on Osage Avenue near Cobbs Creek Parkway. MOVE members continually utilized a bullhorn when staging demonstrations against police, the legal system and various public officials in Philadelphia.
“MOVE members were demonstrating all the time,” said Sue Africa, MOVE’s minister of confrontation during an interview.
MOVE held demonstrations against the caging of animals at zoos and opposing conditions at seniors’ homes that produced harassment from police, Africa said. “Our pregnant women would get stopped on the way to the store and get arrested and kept in a cell without a bathroom for 18 hours, getting beat up.”
John Africa began life as Vincent Leaphart, who grew up in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia adjacent to Powelton Village. Africa worked as a handyman at the time of MOVE’s founding. Members joined MOVE under the belief that John Africa was not their leader. Each individual was his or her own leader.
The basis for MOVE’s beliefs is outlined in a collection of writings, “The Guidelines,” a document few outside of MOVE have seen. The organization says its religion is life itself and the figurehead is Mother Nature. Members today use John Africa’s lifestyle as a model for their own.
“John Africa was the example of strength,” Sue Africa said. “He just did anything to like, move and be active and be strong, burn energy and just be fit. The strongest, fittest being I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Beyond the back-to-nature and anti-technology orientation and respect for life ideologies that MOVE follows, something caused a shift in their role in everyday life in the mid-1970s. MOVE says that shift was harassment from Philadelphia police–alleged brutality that caused an increasing reliance on one of their core beliefs: the right of self defense.
“There is a world of difference between violence and self-defense,” explained Ramona Africa, minister of communications for MOVE. “Self defense in the instinct of God. You are not violent when you defend yourself against anything.”
Being taught to fight for what they know is right, MOVE members started challenging City Hall through the legal system by showing up at public hearings and protesting public officials’ positions on many issues.
“We didn’t just start out charging cops and fighting cops,” Ramona Africa said. “That’s just not what happened.”
MOVE considered itself an advocate for the people of West Philadelphia and did not accept the city’s disapproval of the organization.
“What happened after us constantly going to politicians, to city councilmen…and filing all kind of lawsuits about the harassment? Nothing!” Africa pointed out. “Nothing was being done and the only reason we did that was to show that even though we didn’t believe in this stuff, we went through the so-called proper channels and nothing was done.”
By 1977 MOVE was on bad terms with Philadelphia’s Mayor Frank Rizzo and the Philadelphia Police Department, particularly the 16th District that patrolled Powelton Village. A standoff ensued for one year at MOVE’s Powelton compound, located at 307-309 N. 33rd St. That standoff led to a shootout on August 8, 1978.
One police officer was killed during that 1978 clash. Ten MOVE members and two non-members were arrested at the scene. Nine members of MOVE, known as the MOVE 9, were convicted of third-degree murder during a rancorous, circus-like non-jury trial. The other MOVE member, tried separately from the others, was acquitted of the murder charges. Authorities dropped charges against one of the arrested non-MOVE members while the second person arrested was acquitted during a trial.
“They are just bound and determined, just like with Mumia Abu-Jamal, that they are gonna beat MOVE down, that they are going to eliminate the MOVE organization,” Ramona Africa said. “They couldn’t kill us, so they’re going to keep our people in jail for the rest of their lives.
Mumia Abu-Jamal was a radio reporter who covered police brutality and injustices in Philadelphia’s black communities during the late 1970s. By 1980 much of Abu-Jamal’s reporting focused on the harsh treatment of the MOVE community. In December 1981, Abu-Jamal was arrested for murdering Philadelphia policeman, Daniel Faulkner. He was sentenced to death row.
Abu-Jamal said he believes he was falsely convicted and MOVE believes he is innocent. His case contains many similarities to of the MOVE 9.
The Philadelphia judge who convicted the MOVE 9 sentenced them “as a family,” issuing identical sentences between 30 and 100 years despite police testimony that only the four male MOVE members were armed during that 1978 shootout and the fatal bullet came from one rifle that was not conclusively matched to any weapons recovered from the MOVE compound.
According to MOVE, the evidence presented in trial by the city prosecutors proved MOVE’s innocence rather than its guilt, but that stance was rejected by the trial judge and appellate courts.
Gaining release of those imprisoned members is the focus of MOVE today. Gaining release of the MOVE 9 also led to a second fatal clash in May 1985 — a shootout and bombing that claimed the life of John Africa and 10 other MOVE members, including five children.
By the 1980s, the city was still in its years-long battle with MOVE. During the early 1980s MOVE increasingly focused on legal system injustices almost exclusively the conviction of its nine members.
MOVE’s new headquarters was 6221 Osage Ave. in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia. Neighbors in that community vividly recall endless nights of MOVE shouting through the bullhorn mounted on the fortified rowhouse and various confrontations with residents of the 6200 block of Osage.
“There were clear signs that they had their own ideas about things and how they felt things should be,” said Akhen Wilson, an Osage Avenue resident. “They would, like, have a bullhorn, broadcast things loud in the middle of the night. I lived right next door, so I can remember clearly. A lot of people remember the bombing, but there was a lot that built up to that.”
The bombing Wilson mentioned took place on a day still remembered by all neighbors on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue. During a standoff on May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb from a helicopter containing hi-explosives. That bomb sparked a raging inferno that destroyed 6221 and 60 other homes in the area.
On May 13, police had sought to arrest a few MOVE members barricaded inside 6221 Osage. The inferno raged because the then police ommissioner gave an infamous order to “Let the fire burn!”
“They didn’t tell us they were going to drop a bomb,” said Wilson, one of the 250 people left homeless by the bomb that sparked firestorm. “But it was obviously involving MOVE. There were events leading up to that day. It was kind of a build-up up to that day.”
Ramona Africa is the sole survivor of that Osage Avenue bombing. She is still an active member of MOVE whose work is dedicated to the freeing of her family (the MOVE 9) from prison for the 1978 murder of police officer James Ramp.
Today, the current MOVE headquarters is located at 45th Street and Kingsessing Avenue where the Africa family now lives. The placid exterior of this well-kept property contrasts with the Osage and North 33rd Street compounds.
“It has absolutely changed me,” Ramona Africa said, remembering the day her home was bombed. “It has strengthened my resolve and my commitment to revolution. Prior to May 13, I knew from the beginning that the teaching of John Africa is right. It’s so simple: to respect and defend and put priority on life, not on things, not on money, not on positions, not on social standing and that nonsense.”
“As things escalated confrontation became inevitable,” Africa contended, “because MOVE wasn’t going to leave things alone. We want our family members who are innocent out of prison.”
This year marked the 25th anniversary of that bombing in West Philadelphia that made news headlines around the world and cost the city tens of millions in rebuilding and lawsuit settlement costs.
“Anybody that says they could be a victim of such an attack and not be terrified, and terrorized and frightened, they’re either lying or all of their instincts are dead,” Ramona Africa explained. “Because fear is an instinct just like self defense to let you know something is wrong.”
Africa and her family are devoted to securing release of the MOVE 9 — an action they consider just. The bombing can be viewed as a scare tactic by the city or an attempt to rid the system of the plague that was MOVE’s in-your-face activism. Not surprisingly, May 13, 1985. further solidified several members’ commitment to the teaching of John Africa.
“When all was said and done, it didn’t make me want to leave MOVE and assimilate back into the system that did this to me and my family,” said Ramona Africa, who still bears gruesome scares from burns suffered on May 13. “It made me more determined to fight and resist a system that could burn babies alive, that could drop a bomb on a home containing innocent men and women, babies and animals. None of us had been convicted of anything. They did that to innocent people.”
There is not much else going on with MOVE today. Their cause for the past quarter-century has been justice for the MOVE 9, and other plans beyond that are irrelevant at this point.
Philadelphia prosecutors and the city’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, oppose the release of the MOVE 9, now eight due to the prison death of one female member. Prosecutors and police consider the imprisoned MOVE members remorseless killers. Although state prison officials have recommended release of the remaining eight, the Pennsylvania Parole Board has rejected release, citing opposition from prosecutors and police plus MOVE’s refusal to accept responsibility for the 1978 killing — a death MOVE members claim they did not cause.
Ramona Africa does imagine the day her family is released and expects to continue to spread the teaching of John Africa for the rest of her life.