Sunday, March 20, 2005

A Bloody Precedent

On November 5, 1979, former MOVE member William Whitney Smith left his wife and three young children to go to work. It was the last time that his family would see him alive.

Nearly a month later, his decaying body was found in the Schylkill River, not far from where he worked in Philadelphia. The death of William Smith was officially ruled a suicide, but authorities considered the man's death to be suspicious.

Smith was more than just a former member of a cult. He was a former member of a cult that had, plead guilty to weapons and conspiracy charges. He was a former MOVE member whom, only a year earlier, "turned traitor" and testified against his former MOVE comrades. This testimony helped to convict two MOVE members, Samuel Sanders and Gregory Howard of weapons charges, landing them in jail with three year sentences (Sanders and Howard would eventually leave MOVE.)

More importantly, however, is the factor that Smith was supposed to testify against MOVE founder John Africa in the trial that MOVE billed "JOHN AFRICA vs. The System."

Had Smith survived to tell the tale, he would have told the federal jury that John Africa and his co-defendant Alphonso Robbins had ordered him to relocate an illegal cache of weapons and bombs.

This weapons cache was part of a larger terrorist plot allegedly orchestrated by John Africa to plant bombs in foreign cities throughout the world in order to pressure than Mayor Frank Rizzo to "leave MOVE alone." Integral to the case against Africa would be Smith's testimony, but it would be testimony that the jury would never hear.

Although transcripts were available from the previous trial where Smith had testified against other MOVE members, the presiding Judge would not allow them to be read to the jury in the case against John Africa. According to Judge Green, "the interests of justice would not be served" by the reading of the transcripts to the jury.

The absence of Smith's testimony dealt a serious blow to the prosecution’s case. Without it, prosecutors would have that much harder of a time corroborating the testimony of their prime witness, MOVE co-founder Donald Glassey (There will be more details about Glassey's role in this investigation, as well as his partnership with John Africa, at a later date.)

It is rather important to note here that MOVE has long used the fact that they never went after Donald Glassey as proof positive that they are a peaceful Organization that would never seek to physically punish those they consider "traitors" or their "enemies." The fact is Glassey went into the witness protection program. William Whitney Smith, for one reason or another, opted not to do the same and ended up dead. The result of this man’s death was that the men that he was to testify against, John Africa and Alphonso Robbins walked out of court as free men. The jury found them innocent on all counts.

When asked by reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer why they had acquitted the MOVE members, the jurors indicated that the prosecution simply did not have enough corroborating evidence. This kind of evidence would have been presented by Smith, had he been alive to testify at the trial
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For MOVE, the death of Smith was a vindication, or a total victory. His “suicide” gave credence to their proclamations that anyone who left MOVE was subject to terrible suffering as payment for their traitorous ways. It also severely damaged the already precarious case against John Africa.

It is what MOVE told the public and their supporters about the death of Smith that is most interesting, and curious, about this whole scenario.

Upon hearing of Smith's death, MOVE told people that the police had killed him because he was considering reconciling his differences with the sect and coming back to MOVE. Louise James, a former MOVE member and the sister of John Africa, allegedly contradicted this “police assassination” theory in 1984 when she allegedly told authorities that MOVE was “responsible” for the death of Smith. It is unclear whether they took her admission seriously or whether the matter was pursued further.

If this line of a “government hit” sounds familiar coming from MOVE, it is because it is the same one used by Alberta Africa at a press conference the day that her ex-husband John Gilbride was killed. According to Alberta, "I've experienced a lot of pain at the hands of this government, and I believe this government is behind this." She would go on to say that her and John were on the verge of reconciliation and his return to MOVE was imminent. Something contradicted by court records as well as by the family of Gilbride

Perhaps, it is the government behind all of this. But before one falls for MOVE’s conspiracy theories of g-men out whacking people to hurt MOVE’s leader’s feelings, as Alberta has alleged, one might want to consider the words of former MOVE member, Jeanne Africa.

Testifying at John Africa’s federal trial in 1981, Jeanne claimed that John Africa told her that her husband Ishongo, whom she alleged had been abusive to her, was to be killed. According to Jeanne, her husband would placed in the front line of an upcoming confrontation between MOVE and the police. During the MOVE inspired chaos, John Africa allegedly told her that Ishongo would “hopefully get a bullet.” He went on to assure her that in case the police did not do the job (i.e. shoot her husband), that MOVE members “would do it and make it look like the cops did.”

At some point, Jeanne had a change of heart towards her allegedly abusive mate and got word to Ishongo that his life was in danger and he left the Organization and surrendered to police before the “confrontation” began. It was a brave act on her part, one that may have saved her husband’s life.

There is a tremendous amount of difficulty to be able to conclude that the words of Jeanne, the death of William Smith, and the murder of John Gilbride were merely coincidental. The more one diggs into the history of this group, the more a trend of violence and death emerges.

For if one is to accept the testimony of Jeanne Africa, the conclusion becomes an acceptance that the founder of MOVE ordered the death of one his disciples. If one takes the statement of Louise James to be true, than it is likely that a witness in a high-profile federal case against MOVE’s leader was killed to prevent his testimony from being heard.

Twenty-five years later, there is yet another disturbing event. MOVE has already provoked two “confrontations” with authorities and have suffered disastrous consequences for so doing. Eight MOVE members are still incarcerated as a result of the 1978 conflict with the Philadelphia Police department, which a ninth member died in prison. Six adult MOVE members and five children died in the 1985 confrontation with authorities. And what does MOVE have to show for all of these lives lost and logged years in prison cells? Not much.

The leadership that has guided the reigns of the organization for the past two decades all had lost close loved ones in the 1985 conflict with police. It is hard to accept that they would steer the sect into another violent clash with the city of Philadelphia, but in the summer of 2002, it certainly seemed like this would be the case.

MOVE, it seemed, was preparing for war. MOVE members and supporters were out on Kingsessing Avenue boarding up their West Philadelphia headquarters. Ominous statements were flowing forth from the group on a daily basis that promised that John Gilbride would never, under any circumstances, have custody of his young son, court orders be damned.

All seemed to be spiraling again into a scene of chaotic hopelessness. MOVE was on the brink of another unwinnable and potentially bloody conflict with the police. For those of who were close to MOVE, there was a sense that the doors were closing and that there were no options left. All seemed lost.

That is until Sept 22, 2002, when John Gilbride’s bullet ridden body was discovered in front of his Maple Shade, New Jersey, apartment only hours before he was to have his first unsupervised visit with his son. Remember, MOVE members vowed that such a visitation would never take place.

John Gilbride was dead and a cloud of suspicion hung over the MOVE Organization and those within the groups orbit, but the immediate danger of a war between MOVE and the police was at least, temporarily avoided. MOVE quickly switched from a group that was preparing to go the distance with the civilized world to a group that wanted nothing more than to fade into quiet anonymity.

The wooden slats that were placed over the windows at MOVE Headquarters were unceremoniously removed. The crude signs protesting the “oppression” of the sect disappeared almost over night. MOVE supporters were told not to speak or write about John’s death because the “system” wanted to frame a MOVE supporter for the crime. Everyone was told that the cops had done the deed in order to hurt Alberta.

William Whitney Smith and John Gilbride have a lot more in common than just being involved with MOVE. They were both people that MOVE would like the public to know little or nothing about. Neither one is listed upon any roster of MOVE martyrs, a peculiar factor when one considers that MOVE is a group whose whole post-1985 existence is predicated upon people believing that they are victims of a heartless and vicious “system.” They were both allegedly killed by the police according to MOVE, despite the fact that the police would have absolutely nothing to gain from killing these relatively young men.

Both William Whitney Smith and John Gilbride were fathers, both of whom had come to reject MOVE’s authoritarian cultism and were attempting to reclaim their lives and reconnect with their true and respective families. Perhaps the most important tie that binds John Gilbride and William Smith is the fact that those who stood to benefit the most from their deaths were the leaders of the MOVE Organization.

MOVE’s defense to these allegations against them, even the convictions that they are serving lifetime sentences for, is that people need only to look at their thirty-something year history to show their innocence and reverence for life.

Well, that is a good idea. The truth is that an honest study of the history of MOVE is exhausting and elusive. It is shrouded under a haze of deliberately confusing rhetoric. The law enforcement community and city government has a very hands-off, ‘let them do what they want’ disposition in an effort to avoid repeating the failures that created the 1985 confrontation. And then there is the undeniable discomfort of most people in openly discussing MOVE, due to the intimidations of its membership upon any one with a disagreeable posture towards the group.

Even without the ability to delve as deeply into the proper research of the MOVE cult, it is not difficult to see that it is blanketed by disaster, violence, and a level of narcicissim that can only lead to catastrophe. MOVE does not tread the path of revolution, of moving forward and making changes, such that it boasts. Rather it is a loathsome bastion of self-destruction that is at its best, a failed religion of a tiny number of zealots, and at its worst a murderous, manipulative, and degraded sect that primarily causes its own adherents tragedy.

Which ever way one tethers with MOVE, the rope always tightens back and collides with the foundation that it bases itself with. The question is, with a group that is bound to the fate of fading out of existence under the weight of its own contradictions, how many victims will be dragged down with it in the end?

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