Last summer, as protests against police-perpetrated killings of Black people emerged across the world, Philadelphians watched as officers from the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) corralled protesters against an embankment along the side of the highway, trapping them between a wall and an onslaught of attacking police officers. Philadelphians watched as those officers continued to violently attack the panicked crush of bodies. Police officers sprayed tear gas and fired “less-than-lethal” rubber bullets (which are designed to ricochet off the ground before striking their target) toward protesters’ heads at point-blank range. All the while, across town, PPD officers palled around with right-wing agitators and neo-Nazis who were also violating the city’s curfew.
A recently released report, commissioned by the city, noted the similarities between the city’s response to the 2020 protests and another stain on the city’s history: the MOVE bombing of 1985. In both cases, the report points out, the mayor abdicated his responsibility for managing an ongoing emergency, the police commissioner decided to use chemical weapons — banned by the Geneva Convention — against U.S. citizens, and the fire commissioner attempted to remain aloof from the decisions to avoid culpability. History seemed to be repeating itself.
Embattled Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, who is refusing to resign, took umbrage at the report’s invoking of the MOVE bombing. But the parallels are justified. On May 13, 1985, the PPD, using military grade firearms and explosives they borrowed from the FBI, attacked a house in West Philadelphia that was home to a small, Black religious group called MOVE.
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For hours, hundreds of police officers fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the house, threw explosives into the house and inundated it with tear gas. When these tactics failed to force MOVE members from their home, the PPD dropped a highly flammable bomb from a helicopter onto the roof of the house. The bomb created a massive explosion and fire, which law enforcement officials decided to use for their tactical advantage. The fire forced the surviving MOVE people — four adults and six children — to flee the basement into the back alleyway. Once outside, police officers opened fire, forcing the MOVE people back inside, where all but two died.
Mike Africa Jr. was still a child in 1985. He was not in the MOVE house the day of the bombing, but 11 of his MOVE brothers and sisters — the family he grew up with — were killed. The MOVE bombing was not his first loss. In 1979, his parents, Mike Africa and Debbie Africa, were sentenced, collectively, along with seven other MOVE organizers, for the shooting of PPD officer James Ramp. Mike Africa Jr. was born in prison. Until 2018 when his parents were released, he had never visited with his parents outside of prison.
Mike Africa Jr.’s lifelong work to bring his parents home is chronicled in a new HBO series called 40 Years a Prisoner and in a new podcast, “On A MOVE with Mike Africa Jr.” Truthout spoke with him recently about MOVE’s past, present and future, and about how current movements can draw inspiration from the teachings of MOVE founder John Africa. This conversation has been lightly edited.
Richard Kent Evans: For those who don’t know about MOVE, could you give us a brief introduction to MOVE’s history?
Mike Africa Jr.: The MOVE organization surfaced in the early ‘70s. It was founded and coordinated by a wise, strategic Black man named John Africa. John Africa started the organization with the interest of protecting life. When we say life, we’re taking about people, animals and the environment. In the ‘70s, the organization began protesting against institutions that were enslaving life, bartering life and mistreating life. MOVE people demonstrated against Barnum and Bailey Circus, the Philadelphia Zoo, the East Park Reservoir (to protest pollution), and also the prisons themselves for detaining people, particularly Black people, on unjust charges and with extremely high prison terms for crimes that other people served little or no prison time for. Because of this, the group was met with extreme opposition. Frank Rizzo was the police commissioner and then the mayor, and he was intent on shutting the organization down. It wasn’t a civil shut down either. It was violent.
Members of MOVE weren’t Martin-Luther-King-Jr. types in terms of nonviolence. We were nonviolent, but we would fight back. In many incidents, MOVE would get into skirmishes with police, and MOVE people would fight back. Those incidents led to members of the organization being arrested, and others protesting for the release of the arrested members.
The incident that really scaled up the violence between MOVE and the city was when MOVE babies were killed at the hands of police. Rhonda Africa was eight months pregnant with her baby and the police attacked her at a protest calling for the release of Chuck Africa. The sheriffs in City Hall came out and began to attack. They beat Rhonda in her stomach and slammed her head into a plate glass window.
Her baby was born a few days later stillborn with black and blue bruises all over his body.
MOVE built a platform around the headquarters, armed with many weapons, and made a statement. No more will we allow this to happen. No more will police officers attack our family and get away with it. Next time they attack, they will be met with exactly what they dealt to us. If they came with fists, we’ll use fists. If they use clubs, we’ll use clubs. If they came in shooting, we will shoot back in defense of our lives.
That escalated into a standoff. The police refused to do anything for almost a year. There was an agreement where MOVE would surrender our weapons and the police would release our political prisoners. The prisoners were released, the weapons were surrendered. Once that exchange was made, the police attacked our house on August 8, 1978. They came into our house and shot bullets, tear gas, water from water cannons. In the melee, a police officer was killed. Of course, the police blamed MOVE and put nine members in prison with 100-year sentences, including my parents (they are known as the MOVE 9).
That unjust imprisoning of our people led to protests for the release of our people. We met with politicians, we met with city officials, we met with community activists — anyone who wanted to meet. We met with people who did not want to meet. We continually protested…. MOVE attached a bullhorn to our house and made announcements regularly on Osage Avenue, calling for the release of our people. When the release did not happen, members of the community went down to City Hall and complained to the mayor and other city officials. Eventually, this led to the city deciding to do something about MOVE. Their decision was to fly a helicopter over our house and drop a bomb onto the roof of MOVE headquarters. The explosion of the bomb ignited a blazing fire. The police shot at the members who tried to escape the raging inferno.
Eleven members of the organization were shot and/or burned to death by the Philadelphia police and the fire department. The fire and police commissioners agreed with each other to let the fire burn. Sixty-one houses burned, and 250 people were left homeless.
Since that incident, we have continued to fight for the release of the people. It would take another 33 years for our people to finally come home. Once the people were home, I had meetings with Wilson Goode, who was the mayor at the time of the bombing, to try to come to some understanding of atonement and restorative justice for our people, the Osage [Avenue] community and the Philadelphia community that is still very haunted and traumatized by the bombing. My meetings with him pushed the city of Philadelphia, himself included, to make an official apology for his role in the massacre.
What does MOVE believe?
MOVE believes in life. We believe that life is important, that there’s nothing more important than life, that there’s nothing as important as life. Air is what we need to live — don’t pollute it. It’s as simple as that.
Animals are life’s creatures and deserve the same respect people deserve. Black people deserve the same respect that white people deserve. Our mission is to expose the system for corruption, and to show the system destroys, corrupts and enslaves life for money.
Nature is God. Nature is to be protected. Nature shows us the way. Everything we need is found in nature. Everything we don’t need is man-made. All the problems we have as a society, as families, as people, as water, all the problems we have as air — it is man that creates the problem. It’s not nature that causes these problems. The planet is in danger because of man. A natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami doesn’t create the kind of disasters we’re facing right now as a people.
A lot has changed with MOVE over the last couple of years. Could you give us an update?
A big update is that the members of the MOVE 9 are home. That’s probably the biggest update. Over the years, a lot has changed. In terms of our religious beliefs, that hasn’t changed any. We’ve moved and evolved with modern conveniences and technologies in terms of Facebook and the internet. We’ve moved with the times, for sure. But the core understanding and belief system — believing in life, that life should be protected, preserved and safeguarded — hasn’t changed.
How have MOVE’s goals shifted since the release of the remaining MOVE 9?
I think this is more of a question for me personally. My goal has shifted to giving full attention to the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal. MOVE has its own agenda in its practices. I strongly advocated for the MOVE 9. The shift has been to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. That’s the primary focus right now. All that energy that was going to the MOVE 9 and other people is now going to Mumia.
What role does religious belief and practice play in your activism?
I think religion plays a big part, because of what religion means. Religion means a way of life. My life revolves around activities, revolution. People understand religion to be worship, churchgoing or synagogue-visiting, or that kind of thing. That’s not how we live. We don’t live that way. Religion for us is everything we practice. It ain’t something you do on the weekends or after doing all these horrible things all week — it’s everyday practice. My activism is my religion. My family is my religion. Religion is a way of life.
What do you think John Africa would say about the state of the world in 2020?
I would think that he would say, “I told you so.” He wouldn’t be surprised. He would be urging people more than ever to wake up and recognize and put the actual work into make the change that’s needed to reverse the wrongs. He would be adamant. He has a quote that says, “The system is failing. It has failed you yesterday, it has failed you today, and it has created the conditions for failure tomorrow.” I don’t think his message would change, except a few minor changes to tailor the message to current events, the message would be 100 percent the same.
What role might religion play in the movement for Black lives?
I think that anyone in any position has the responsibility to support the movement for life, and for Black lives. Religion ain’t necessarily important in this, but it ain’t necessarily unimportant, either. Because religion is just a way to reconnect yourself to God. And how people recognize or view what that is — that’s personal choice. That’s not a natural occurrence. The things that are happening to Black people, being killed by the police, that’s not about religion.
Did the police know what religion George Floyd was? He was killed anyway. Religion is just a construct. It’s not a natural thing. People adopt it to connect with God. People adopt it because they recognize they are being disconnected. Religion has nothing to do with this, really. But it can serve as a beacon of light for people who are religious to get the message across to their followers. I bet every type of religion that exists has a representative saying Black Lives Matter. But I also bet every religion has opposition to Black Lives Matter, too.
What projects are you working on these days?
Right now, I’m working on a project called Children of Revolution. It’s a film project that shows the struggles that revolutionaries’ children have endured. It’s centered on myself, as the son of Debbie Africa and Mike Africa (both members of the MOVE 9), and some others.
How can people get in touch with you?