While some members of the militant back-to-nature group are still in prison, others still live peacefully in the city where police once set fire to their home.
Today is the 25th anniversary of the MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia, which killed six adults and five children. While some members of the militant back-to-nature group are still in prison, others still live peacefully in the city where police once set fire to their home.
31-year-old Michael Africa was born in prison, where his parents still live.
“I’ve never had my parents,” he says. “It’s not like a situation where I was five years old and they went to prison. I don’t really know how it feels like to have parents. So that’s how that goes. I mean, I was raised by a lot of different people. It’s not a normal situation I guess, but I’ve never known any different.”
Michael’s parents are part of the MOVE 9 — nine people sentenced to 30 to 100 years for the murder of police officer James Ramp during a Powelton Village shoot-out with police in 1978. Eight of the nine are still alive behind bars.
MOVE founder John Africa preached a return to nature lifestyle, in which members ate raw food, fed animals raw meat, and refused to send their kids to school. All changed their last name to Africa.
MOVE also practiced confrontational politics. Living on Osage Avenue in the early eighties, the group harangued neighbors with bullhorn rants, thinking this would step up pressure to release the MOVE 9. They fortified their rowhouse and built a rooftop bunker with gun ports.
MOVE’s neighbors, exasperated by the noise, insects and rats the group generated, demanded action from the city.
On May 13, that action turned into disaster.Police surrounded the house and fired 10,000 rounds of ammunition. A state police helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof.
A fire raged out of control, killing MOVE members and consuming the entire block.
A commission convened to investigate the fiasco concluded the city had let things fester, rather than deal with neighbors’ complaints about MOVE.
Ramona Africa was the lone adult survivor of the bombing.
She says MOVE members don’t believe in killing, but they do believe in self-defense.
Nowadays, MOVE members hold to their philosophy, but try to get along with neighbors. Ramona says today there are other ways to “get the information out.”
“In the very early days, when the MOVE organization emerged in Philadelphia, people knew nothing about MOVE,” says Ramona. “So MOVE had to get people’s attention. So we talked loud. We used profanity, yes we did. We were on a confrontation. As time went on, people that heard it began to understand the information of MOVE and so it wasn’t as necessary to speak as loud and be as confrontational, so we weren’t.”
Today, Michael Africa lives with his wife Robin, three sons, three cats and a dog on a tidy street in the Mantua section of Philadelphia. He’s written a children’s play about animal rights.
The green-shingled home has bright red roses in the small front yard. Michael gathers up children’s toys as he walks to the backyard, where young fruit trees grow next to a newly planted garden of kale, green peppers and lettuce.
“We believe in what’s right, we believe in the air, the water. We believe in the soil, we believe in the trees, we believe in food. We believe in natural. People are running around talking about ‘go green,’ ‘save the planet,’ ‘the food is messed up, you gotta eat organic food because the regular food is messed up. These are the things that happened as a result of the system, as a result of industry as a result of people trying to make money.”
Michael says MOVE members talk to their children about May 13, to teach them not to trust a government that did what Philadelphia did.
“We talk to them about those kids all the time. We talk to them about those people that were in that house all the time.” Stories about them – Do you remember when Rad said this, or when Tomasa said this, stuff like that. Just so they keep that memory going.”
Michael says Move will always be at odds with the government and the “system.”
“It’s a war, really, between God and the devil,” she says. “It really is.”
Especially, she says, after May 13, 1985.
“After May 13, after seeing that example, and these people murdering our family, burning babies alive – I mean, that changed me forever,” Ramona says. “There was no way in the world that I could ever become part of a system that could do that.”
MOVE says it continues to fight to free those still in prison for the 1978 murder of Officer Ramp. The eight members were denied parole several years ago.