Just hours after the murder of John Gilbride statements were being released to the press that were clearly intended to deflect suspicion away from MOVE, this as the investigation into his death had barely begun.
And while you are right to assume that MOVE and it’s support network sprang into spin mode as reports of John’s murder hit the airwaves, they had an unlikely champion. His name is Captain William Fisher and he is the head of the Philadelphia Police Departments’s Civil Affairs Division.
The Civil Affairs Unit, was started back in the 1960's with the idea that the Police Department could be more effective in handling the social upheavals of that decade if they had a squad of Officers trained specifically to manage demonstrations and other symptoms of the nation’s growing civil unrest.
Civil Affairs is recognized by the Philadelphia Police Department as the primary enforcement body at any public assembly, labor dispute, or political protest. It’s officers receive special training with regards to preserving peace and order, with an emphasis placed on ensuring the protection of people’s civil rights. It also acts as a kind of liaison between various protest groups and the police department.
At this point, I think it worth mentioning that I attempted to interview Captain Fisher through the Police Department’s Press Office, first over the phone, and than via email. On the phone, the officer on the other end of the line practically hung up on me as soon as the word "blog" escaped my lips. Apparently, I am a bottom feeder and the police don’t do interviews with people like me. I was told that I could submit a request for an interview in writing, which I did, and had no luck. Finally, I attempted to reach Fisher through a mutual acquaintance, and again received no response.
My reason for attempting to contact Captain Fisher is to allow him the opportunity to explain the comments he made to the media concerning John Gilbride’s murder back in 2002. Clearly, he has no interest in doing so, which to me only makes his pronouncements about John that much more suspect.
To be very blunt, and to the point, Captain Fisher, who at the time of John’s death, had led Civil Affairs for five years, gave an official voice to MOVE’s conspiracy theories about the murder.
In September of 2002, as MOVE was barricading it’s home, evoking images of the May 13th 1985 bombing, Ramona Africa cryptically told reporter Gwen Schaffer that "The window boards should tell people we have to protect our family because this government is not going to do it," she says. "They don't give a damn about our babies."
Capt Fisher was quoted in the same news article where he said that he was "shocked" to see the MOVE house boarded up. He added that "The boards on the windows are a flashback to 1985, but the current administration is less likely to react. My main thing is the safety of everyone involved.... We've been through two tragedies and I don't want to see a third."
In an article published just two days before Gilbride’s death, written by a MOVE supporter, it was noted that the cult had altered it’s strategy. MOVE, whose long-standing party line has been that it acts only in "defense", was observed to be taking an "offensive" position. The article starts off by saying "The MOVE organization has taken the offensive to stave off a threatened police assault."
In yet another MOVE statement, this one written practically on the eve of John’s death, the cult again reiterates it’s clear-cut position on the soon to be murdererd, John Gilbride " we know the father's abusive, a dead beat dad, and a threat to the child's very life and safety" The rambling statement was hardly ambiguous when it came to the prospects of John being allowed visitation with his son as it was spelled out again for all to see. MOVE claimed "there's a line that must be drawn between a man seeing his son, and a man being given the go-ahead to mistreat, abuse and possibly threaten his son's life". MOVE drove home one point again and again, and that was John would never be allowed un-supervised visitation with his son, never.
Contained in the last paragraph is the statement from MOVE that "John Gilbride is in Las Vegas gambling and partying instead of visiting with his son" . Law-enforcement sources later revealed that they advised John to skip that visit, in order to avoid a confrontation with MOVE.
On the day of the ordered visitation, MOVE had kicked their protest apparatus into full gear with a media spectacle that culminated in a two state protest, the whole point of which would be that John would not be allowed to see his son and that MOVE would fight any attempts for him to do so. Suspciously enough, there was no such plans for a protest on John’s next planned visitation, which would have been the first of it’s kind. That visitation, incidentally enough, was set to be for the day after he ended up being killed.
Being that John’s job allowed him to fly pretty much anywhere he wanted, he flew to Las Vegas, and attended a concert, thereby allowing him to be out of the eye of the storm, this according to his family members. Moreover, John’s family emphatically denies the whole notion of him being some kind of "gambling", "party animal". Considering that John poured all of his money into his fight for his son, to the point that he went bankrupt, the idea that he would squander what cash he did have on gambling seems to be clearly absurd.
Despite there was no proof of John having a problem with gambling, or even any evidence that he even spent a moment in a casino on the weekend in question, the notion of him being a man with a gambling problem has attained a curious kind of traction.
Undoubtably this credibility given to a one sentence rumor from MOVE is in large part due to Captain Fisher’s statements to the media not long after John was killed.
He was quoted as saying "I understand that Mr. Gilbride was something of a gambler. I would take a long, hard look at whether he had any outstanding gambling debts if this was my investigation."
A couple of things stand out from Fisher’s statement. He doesn’t make clear that his "understanding" of John’s alleged gambling issues stem from MOVE. The second is his admittance that it was not his investigation.
Why was a high-ranking member of the Philadelphia Police Department commenting on a killing that was not in his jurisdiction, to the media, thereby spreading innuendo, about a murder investigation that was in it’s infancy?
One has to wonder whose interest did Fisher’s inappropriate and proven inaccurate statements serve?
Fisher’s insinuations about John’s vices were not the only ones he made about the case to raise eyebrows. He was quoted in the Philadelphia City Paper as saying that ...this case is like the Kennedy assassination, a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma."
Captain Fisher’s evoking of the Kennedy assassination played right into MOVE’s conspiracy theories about John’s death. Back when MOVE members and supporters would still address the issue of John’s murder, they floated any number of stories about how he met his demise, some of which even went so far as to claim that John was still alive.
The first statements to come from MOVE after John’s murder as reported by The Temple News placed the blame on government forces,"MOVE knows that it's the government that is behind John Gilbride's actions in the custody case, and it's the government that's to blame for the death of John Gilbride," In another statement from MOVE released just after his death, the blame was again thrown onto the government as MOVE claimed that the government had murdered John in order to "further persecute the MOVE Organization." In one of the only interviews MOVE’s leader, Alberta Africa, has given since John’s death she actually claimed that John was killed to "hurt" her.
After a time however, MOVE began to shift blame away from the government onto some of their other enemies. Jack Gilbride, who is John’s father, has said little publicly about this case, aside from defending his son’s honor and refuting some of the grotesque rumors about John that MOVE has spread, such as the one about John’s "gambling problem". Despite John's relative silence about the case, he remained under a withering rhetorical attack by the group. Jack, who was libeled and defamed during the custody dispute by MOVE was later blamed by MOVE for his son’s murder. In a rambling and sadistic letter sent to him by the Organization, the cult showed itself for what it trully is by claiming that Jack was "a jealous, hateful old man, and its you, if its anybody, who's responsible for John's death".
And when MOVE was not blaming the "government" for John’s death or laying the responsibility at the feet of his grieving father, they were crassly questioning whether John was even dead. Not long after his death, MOVE supporters, myself included, were told that John was sitting on a beach somewhere "sipping Muay Thais". His bogus demise supposedly orchestrated by un-named elements of the "system" who would use the fake murder as justification for another attack on MOVE, similar to the 1985 attack that would be designed to destroy the cult and predicated on a murder investigation of a man who was very much alive.
What is clear about all of MOVE’s absurd stories about John’s death is that they are all designed to first and foremost deflect attention away from the group. As many have noted, the group changed it’s tune about John the moment that it was known he was dead. All of a sudden he went from their number one enemy to somebody that the group "loved", a man who was on the verge of reconciling with Alberta and re-joining the cult. As someone who was "in" MOVE at the time all of this went down, I saw no evidence at all of any kind of accord between John and Alberta. If anything, the relationship between the two had become more acrimonious as time went on. Alberta's frustration with not being able to beat John in court or force his submission by her cruel antics became more palpable, and frankly very scary.
The second aspect about MOVE’s conspiracies about John is that they feed into the paranoia of the cult’s members, by fostering a "bunker mentality". MOVE knows full well that people who are in a perpetual state of fear are less likely to think rationally. Things to an outsider of such a group that appear to be completely unbelievable, are readily accepted by those on the inside. MOVE's supporters, who were scared, had heads full of propaganda, and whose critical faculties were under daily assault, were all to willing to believe absurdities that correspondingly allowed them to turn a blind eye to the atrocities that were and are going on around them.
Although, I never had one inkling of doubt about who killed John and why. I knew plenty of people who believed every single thing that MOVE said about the man. Even to the point that if MOVE was saying it was the government who killed him one day or if they were saying he was alive on some extended vacation the next, all was believed without question. Such is the state of mind of someone who has completely given up themselves over to an authoritarian entity like MOVE. If they say "drink the Kool-Aid" than you had better drink up, you had better do it quickly, and don't dare ask any questions.
The statements by Captain Fisher, in my view, were reckless, inexcusable abuses of the public trust, the motivation for which he made them, we are left to wonder. We do know that his statements literally coincided with those of MOVE and served to give the cult credibility where they otherwise would not have had it.
It is one thing for a violent and destructive cult caught up in a murder investigation to assail the character of a man that many publicly suspected them of killing. It becomes something else all together when a high-ranking police official echoes this character assassination, when he says things like " I would just say my investigative instincts would lead me to look at his background before Kingsessing Avenue (MOVE’s Headquarters)". This inspite of the fact that the only people who raised questions about John's background just happened to be living at Kingsessing Avenue.
Captain Fisher knows full well that nine MOVE members are in jail for the murder and attempted murder of Police Officers and that MOVE devotee, Mumia Abu-Jamal sits on death row for his killing of another Philadelphia Police Officer. As someone tasked with monitoring MOVE’s actions, Captain Fisher knows their violent history as well or better than most others.
On the one hand, it is well within reason to expect Captain Fisher to want to keep good relations with the group that so often he is put in the position of having to work with as his role as head of Civil Affairs. That he would not want to publicly go on the offensive against them is completely understandable.
However, Captain Fisher, as a representative of the Police department of the nations sixth largest city, has a larger responsibility to uphold the law and to protect and serve. His job is not to aid MOVE in their propaganda efforts, or comment about investigations that he knew nothing about. Had he simply made the point that the investigation was not a Philadelphia matter because it happened in New Jersey, nobody could or should find fault with him. He would have been doing his job.
While I am fully aware that there are some who believe that because John had been with MOVE that he was some kind of bad element to begin with. The view espoused by some that gang members killing each other in the street is just a matter of one vile creature devouring another comes to mind. As someone once remarked to me about John on a message board that "when you lay down with dogs you get fleas". It is a statement that is sadly accurate in my view
But what is also true is that despite John’s past mistakes he deserves justice just like anyone else would. That he was once a part of MOVE does not diminish his humanity or somehow relegate him to some kind of second class citizenship.
The fact that the child he was fighting to save from a cult of death is still hidden deep in the cult’s secret world only compounds the tragedy of John's murder. A tragedy that is lived out every day by those who love John and must deal with the very real possibility that those who are responsible for his death walk the streets and as I write this are steadily rotting the mind of John’s little boy.
Captain Fisher told the press in between spouting MOVE’s lies has "been wrong before".
I argue that with regards to John Gilbride, Captain Fisher was very wrong. Just his very act alone of speaking out of turn about the victim of a violent crime in such a defamatory manner before any facts had been established is reason enough for him to come forward and set the record straight.
One does not have to admire John Gilbride in the way that I do, or understand his sacrifice, but what everyone should take away from all of this is that murder is still murder. And no matter who the victim is, the pain and loss is still the same. John deserves justice. It can begin with Captain Fisher coming clean.
(Editors Note: Most of the quotes from Captain Fisher came from the Philadelphia City Paper as did a number of the quotes from MOVE members. Other quotes from MOVE came from "The Revolutionary Worker" and the letter to Jack Gilbride was first published on this website.)