VIDEO: Part two of our May, 2010 interview with Ramona Africa. In this segment, Ramona gives her personal account of May 13, 1985. Watch part one here.
On May 13, 1985, a state police helicopter dropped a C-4 bomb, illegally supplied by the FBI, on the roof of the MOVE Organization’s house at 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. The bomb started a fire that was allowed to burn and that eventually destroyed 61 homes, leaving 250 people homeless: the entire block of a middle-class black community.
The Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (the MOVE Commission), appointed by Mayor Wilson Goode, documented that when the occupants of the house tried to escape the fire, police shot at them, blocking their escape. In the end, six MOVE adults and five children died. Ramona Africa and 13-year-old Birdie Africa were the only survivors, having successfully dodged the police gunfire.
The MOVE Commission concluded that the deaths of the five MOVE children “appeared to be unjustified homicides which should be investigated by a grand jury” (curiously, the Commission did not similarly criticize the murder of the MOVE adults). However, two subsequent grand juries refused to press charges against any city or police official for murder or any other wrongdoing. In contrast, Ramona Africa spent seven years in prison.
Recognizing the racial implications of the massacre, the MOVE Commission wrote that the day’s many horrifying decisions, including “the use of high explosives, and, in a 90-minute period, the firing of at least 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the house; to sanction the dropping of a bomb on an occupied row house; and to let a fire burn in a row house occupied by children, would not likely have been made had the MOVE house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood.”
As death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal writes in his essay, “When Massacre Is No Crime,” MOVE is currently seeking murder charges against police and city officials for the deaths of eleven of their family members on May 13, 1985. The remainder of this article, organized into six sections – The Legalization of Murder; The Morning Assault; Mayor Goode Refuses to Negotiate; Dropping the C-4 Bomb; “Fire As a Tactical Weapon”; Police Shoot at Fleeing Occupants – is a compilation of testimony and evidence that makes a compelling case for why murder charges are needed.
The Legalization of Murder
As detailed in the article that accompanied the first part of our video-interview with Ramona Africa, the Philadelphia police had launched a previous, military-style assault on MOVE’s home in the Powelton Village neighborhood of West Philadelphia on August 8, 1978. During the assault, Officer James Ramp was shot and killed by what many believe was actually police gunfire because MOVE was belowground in the basement and the bullet that hit Officer Ramp did not enter at an upward trajectory, as a bullet from the basement would have. Furthermore, Philadelphia journalist Linn Washington Jr. has reported that several different sources within the Philadelphia Police Department told him that Ramp had in fact been shot by police gunfire.
However, nine MOVE members (known today as the “MOVE 9”) arrested in the house that day were jointly convicted of third-degree murder and conspiracy for the shooting death of Officer Ramp and sentenced to 30 to 100 years. In the years following the imprisonment of the MOVE 9, the headquarters for MOVE shifted to 6221 Osage Avenue, in a middle-class black neighborhood, where MOVE continually demanded an official investigation into the 1978 confrontation and the convictions of the MOVE 9.
Many of MOVE’s neighbors complained to the city government about MOVE’s use of a loudspeaker to air their own grievances with the city, which mostly centered around the MOVE 9 convictions. Along with sanitation complaints, the neighbors also expressed concern about a bunker built above the house, which MOVE said they had built to defend themselves from another military-style police assault on their home similar to the attack waged on August 8, 1978.
In response to these sanitation and noise complaints from neighbors, Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode held a meeting with city managing director Leo A. Brooks, police commissioner Gregore Sambor, district attorney Ed Rendell (now the governor of Pennsylvania), and others, during which he first authorized Sambor to prepare and execute a tactical plan under the supervision of Brooks, a plan allegedly devised to solve the neighborhood dispute.
On May 11, Judge Lynn Abraham approved DA Rendell’s requested emergency arrest and search warrants for four MOVE members on charges of disorderly conduct and terrorist threats. The warrants were based upon statements MOVE made on their loudspeaker two weeks earlier, when, among other things, they stated that they’d defend themselves from a police attack.
Today, Ramona Africa challenges the legitimacy of these May 11 emergency warrants by citing the fact that during Ramona’s later trial, all charges listed on her arrest warrant were dismissed by the judge. Ramona says that “this means that they had no valid reason to even be out there, but they did not dismiss the charges placed on me as a result of what happened after they came out.”
Initially charged with conspiracy, riot and multiple counts of simple and aggravated assault, Ramona Africa was ultimately convicted of riot and conspiracy. She served the entirety of her 16-month to 7-year sentence after she was repeatedly denied parole for not renouncing MOVE.
Concluding Ramona’s 1986 trial, presiding judge Michael R. Stiles told the jurors not to consider any wrongdoing by police and city officials because they would be held accountable in “other” proceedings. No official has ever faced criminal charges.
In 1996, Ramona successfully sued the City of Philadelphia and was awarded $500,000 for pain, suffering and injuries. Relatives of John Africa and his nephew Frank James Africa, who died in the incident, were awarded a total of $1 million. Another $1.7 million was paid to Birdie Africa, now Michael Moses Ward.
The 1996 jury also ordered that Ramona receive $1 per week for 11 years directly from Sambor and Richmond, but this was overruled by Judge Louis Pollack on grounds that the two had not shown “willful misconduct,” and were therefore immune from financial liability.
The Morning Assault
At 5:35 AM on May 13, 1985, after evacuating the neighbors, Police Commissioner Sambor declared on the bullhorn: “Attention, MOVE! This is America! You have to abide by the laws of the United States,” and gave them fifteen minutes to surrender.
After the fifteen-minute deadline passed, several “squirt gun” fire hoses were directed at the bunker on MOVE’s roof in an attempt to dislodge it. At 5:53, police teargassed the front and rear of the house, creating a smokescreen. Police then sent bomb squads to enter the row houses on either side of the building.
While the bomb squads entered, gunfire erupted, and in the next 90 minutes, police used over 10,000 rounds of ammunition, including 4,500 rounds from M-16s; 1,500 from Uzis; and 2,240 from M-60 machine guns. Simultaneously, the two bomb squads repeatedly detonated explosives in the side walls and then blew off the front of the house.
Sambor later attempted to justify police gunfire by saying that officers had first responded to automatic gunfire from MOVE. However, the only weapons found in MOVE’s house were two pistols, a shotgun, and a .22 caliber rifle: no automatic weapons. Sambor was unable to explain this contradiction when challenged by the MOVE Commission.
The MOVE Commission wrote that “the firing of over 10,000 rounds of ammunition in under 90 minutes at a row house containing children was clearly excessive and unreasonable. The failure of those responsible for the firing to control or stop such an excessive amount of force was unconscionable.”
Mayor Goode Refuses to Negotiate
As police ran out of ammunition and went to the armory for more, a quiet afternoon standstill began.
According to Philadelphia Tribune columnist and Temple University Professor Linn Washington, Jr., MOVE member Jerry Africa, who wasn’t in the house, attempted to negotiate with Mayor Goode during the afternoon standstill. He wanted to tell Goode that MOVE would disengage from the confrontation if Goode would agree to an investigation of the August 8, 1978-related MOVE convictions.
Jerry Africa was supported and accompanied by civil rights activist Randolph Means and former Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Williams, who at the time was the Democratic Party’s nominee for Philadelphia District Attorney. According to Washington, the three of them repeatedly tried to call Goode on the telephone, but he would not take their call. Instead, Goode declared at a press conference that afternoon that he was now ready “to seize control of the house … by any means necessary.”
Notably, Washington filed this story with the The Philadelphia Daily News, which he worked for at the time, but it was not published.
Dropping the C-4 Bomb
At 5 PM, Managing Director Brooks telephoned Mayor Goode and said that Sambor, in Goode’s words, wanted to “blow the bunker off and to blow a hole in the roof and to put teargas and water in through that process.” Goode’s response: “Okay. Keep me posted.”
At 5:27 PM, a state police helicopter dropped a C-4 bomb on MOVE’s roof. The bomb exploded and the roof caught fire.
Challenged at a press conference later that week, Goode was unable to offer a straight answer: “If … someone called on the telephone and said to me ‘We’re going to drop a bomb on a house,’ would I approve that? The answer is no. What was said to me was that they were going to use an explosive device to blow the bunker off the top of the house.”
Afterwards, Sambor continued to defend the decision to drop the bomb by arguing that the bombing was “a conservative and safe approach to what I perceived as a tactical necessity.”
The MOVE Commission concluded that “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable and should have been rejected out of hand by the mayor, the managing director, the police commissioner and the fire commissioner.”
The Commission also reported that “in January, 1985, an agent of the FBI delivered nearly 38 pounds of C-4, a powerful military plastic explosive, to the Phila. Police bomb squad. Delivery of this amount of C-4 to any police force without restrictions as to its use is inappropriate. Neither agency kept any records of the transaction. The FBI agent told the Commission that he ‘never had to keep any kind of records or anything’ regarding C-4. Nor did the bomb squad keep any delivery, inventory or use of the C-4, or any other explosives under their control … Because of the absence of record keeping by the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department, all the facts of the use of C-4 on May 13 may never be known.”
“Fire As A Tactical Weapon”
Initially, the fire was relatively small, but it was allowed to grow until it was so large and powerful that it burned down the entire city block.
According to Mayor Goode, he first learned of the fire “at about ten minutes of six,” at which point he contacted Managing Director Brooks and ordered that the fire be stopped. On behalf of Goode, Brooks told Police Commissioner Sambor over the phone to extinguish the fire, but upon discussing it, Sambor and Fire Commissioner William Richmond decided to continue to let it burn. Richmond would later claim that Sambor did not tell him about Goode’s order. Sambor denied this allegation and said that he did indeed tell Richmond about Goode’s order.
In defense of his decision, Richmond said that he let the fire burn because of danger from alleged MOVE gunfire, stating: “We regret what happened, but we are not going home with any firefighters with bullet wounds tonight, and I thank God for that.”
Explicitly challenging this argument made by Richmond, the MOVE Commission cited the use of water cannons, deployed for hours earlier in the day, at times alongside police gunfire. Even later in the day, the Commission notes that “from 5:20 to 5:25 P.M. the ‘squirts’ [water cannons] were turned on to protect the helicopter, which was preparing to drop the bomb [at 5:27],” and since firefighters were safe these other times, the fire could have been extinguished “without exposing police or firefighters to any possible danger.”
The Commission concluded that the decision “to let the fire burn constituted the use of fire as a tactical weapon” that “should have been rejected out-of-hand. That it was not rejected cannot be justified under any circumstances.”
Police Shoot at Fleeing Occupants
Today, Ramona Africa recalls escaping from the fire: “We opened the door and started to yell that we were coming out with the kids. The kids were hollering, too. We know they heard us but the instant we were visible in the doorway, they opened fire. You could hear the bullets hitting all around the garage area. They deliberately took aim and shot at us. Anybody can see that their aim, very simply, was to kill MOVE people — not to arrest anybody.”
Birdie later supported Ramona’s account of police gunfire when he testified that the children and remaining adults tried several times to escape the burning house but were driven back by police gunfire before he and Ramona successfully dodged the gunfire and escaped.
Despite official police statements denying the shooting, the MOVE Commission confirmed Ramona and Birdie’s accounts, concluding that “police gunfire prevented some occupants of 6221 Osage Ave. from escaping from the burning house to the rear alley.”
For our investigation of May 13, 1985 and the validity of the murder charges being currently sought by MOVE, we have cited evidence and testimony from a variety of published sources:
“Attention, MOVE! This Is America,” by Margot Harry, Banner Press, Chicago (1987).
Let The Bunker Burn: The Final Battle With MOVE, by Charles W. Bowser, Camino Books, Philadelphia (1989).
“Let It Burn!” The Philadelphia Tragedy, by Michael Boyette with Randi Boyette, Contemporary Books, Chicago, (1989).
Final Report of the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, a.k.a. the MOVE Commission (1986), reprinted in full in “Let It Burn!” by Michael Boyette with Randi Boyette, pgs. 269-294.