Saturday, May 08, 2010

Unsettled legacy of MOVE

Unsettled legacy of MOVE
By Craig R. McCoy

For a tiny band of Philadelphians, the MOVE confrontation has never ended.

All they need do is step out onto their block - Osage Avenue, ground zero for the lethal city bombing and fire May 13, 1985. Up and down the street, homes sit empty and decayed.

"It's not over, not by a long shot," said Ernest Hubbard, 67, one of a group of holdouts who have refused city payments to leave. "You don't forget it, because there's always something to remind you every day."

And for a time, when the ashes were still smoldering, just after the bodies of children were hauled out of the rubble, it seemed as if the entire city would never get the smoke out of its nostrils.

But a quarter-century after the disaster, which left 11 dead, 61 homes destroyed, and 250 people homeless, its legacy is uncertain.

For some, including Hubbard and his neighbors, the day remains unshakable in their minds.

"This unprecedented action by the city on Osage Avenue and on the MOVE members will, I think, forever be etched in the memory of the city and the nation," said Andre Dennis, the lawyer who represented MOVE leader Ramona Africa in her successful 1996 lawsuit against the city.

But for others, the disaster has faded from memory - and perhaps even from meaning.

"It kind of exists in its own strange zone," said playwright Thomas Gibbons, whose drama 6221 is named after the address of the MOVE compound.

MOVE was "so singular and so unique that what happened with them didn't really reverberate in the city or have any impact."

Certainly, among the far left and right nationwide, MOVE has been eclipsed by other deaths and other causes - Waco, Ruby Ridge, Mumia.

In the Philadelphia region, the fading imprint of the disaster seems to reflect MOVE's peculiar nature and Philadelphia's response to it.

While the cult was primarily African American, the disaster seemed to spawn little long-term racial tension, quite possibly because those whom MOVE victimized were also African American.

It certainly helped that the mayor and the managing director on May 13, 1985, were black. Indeed, even though W. Wilson Goode had presided over Philadelphia's most deadly municipal mishap, black voters rallied strongly behind him in 1987, when he won reelection.

It helped, too, that the MOVE Commission set up to investigate the disaster acted as a kind of domestic "truth and reconciliation" panel, swiftly holding televised hearings, publicly grilling Goode and his cabinet, dispelling rumors, and affixing blame.

"The plan to bomb the MOVE house was reckless, ill-conceived, and hastily approved," the panel found in its final report. "Dropping a bomb on an occupied rowhouse was unconscionable and should have been rejected out of hand."

And while no one could argue that MOVE provocations justified the bombing, let alone the deaths of five of their children, it turned out that not even its victimization could make MOVE sympathetic.

Ever-mystifying MOVE

MOVE is not an acronym. It stands for nothing.

In a nutshell, that is MOVE's problem. Despite decades of coverage, MOVE remains mystifying and its message incoherent.

The group's prophet and founder was a Mantua handyman named Vincent Leaphart. In the 1970s, he flourished in Powelton Village, a last bastion of 1960s fervor, for a time joining with others in a housing co-op.

"All decision-making is nonhierarchical, nonauthoritarian, and open to the entire membership," read the co-op's manifesto. "The collective does not claim to be a substitute for revolution in our oppressive society."

Before long, Leaphart had adopted a new name - John Africa - and had attracted a small following, all of whom also adopted the last name of Africa. He preached a philosophy extolling animals and rejecting technology. In fact, Africa was so distrustful of modern bridges that he would not cross one without carrying a life preserver.

"Monkeys don't shoot people, but people will shoot monkeys. Yet monkeys are seen as unclear and people as intelligent," he once said. "You can go as far as you want in the forest, and you won't find no jails. Because the animals of the forest don't believe in jail. But come to civilization, that's all you see."

"Back-to-nature" became journalists' unhelpful shorthand for describing the group. As it staged protests for animal rights and other causes, disrupting community meetings and tangling with leftist groups as well as police, MOVE soon became anathema to many of its liberal neighbors. Worry grew after John Africa and others were indicted in 1977 on federal charges of stockpiling 50 pipe bombs, as well as rifles and other firearms. (Africa was acquitted.)

The next year, police and MOVE had their first fatal confrontation. It took place after the cult barricaded itself inside a large Powelton Village building, refusing entry to city inspectors investigating complaints that the compound had become a health hazard - a shelter for dozens of dogs and a breeding ground for rats.

After a months-long standoff, police tried to force MOVE out with fire hoses. Gunfire broke out, and a police officer, James J. Ramp, 52, was killed. Nine MOVE members - five men and four women - were arrested and charged with murder.

At the trial, prosecutors presented evidence tying the bullet found in Ramp's chest to one of 11 rifles found inside the MOVE house. Prosecutors also said a "palm print" on a federal firearms-purchase form demonstrated that a MOVE member had bought the rifle before the shoot-out.

The prosecutors never showed which of the nine fired the deadly shot; indeed, none of the four women had ever been seen brandishing a weapon. The District Attorney's Office argued that all nine shared responsibility.

Judge Edwin S. Malmed agreed. Without a jury, he found all defendants guilty and sentenced them to 30 to 100 years apiece, triple the typical Pennsylvania sentence for third-degree murder. They are still behind bars.

"They have repeatedly shouted they were a family and that they act in concert," the judge said. "I have therefore treated them as a family with equal guilt shared by all."

The cult's mission

MOVE resurfaced, and winning freedom for its imprisoned members became its mission, indeed virtually its sole reason for being.

Before too long, it had begun to disrupt a new neighborhood: The cult set up shop in the rowhouse at 6221 Osage Ave., owned by one of John Africa's sisters. She had fled the house, chased away by her hatchet-wielding son, Frank James Africa.

John Africa was living there, too. After his indictment on the bomb charges in the 1970s, he became a fugitive and was not in the MOVE headquarters in Powelton Village during the 1978 shoot-out. He was arrested later in Rochester, N.Y., and returned to Philadelphia for the federal trial that ended in his acquittal.

To draw attention to the MOVE Nine, the group began broadcasting harangues over loudspeakers hour after hour.

"We knew exactly what they were doing. They were using us as political prisoners," said Hubbard, a retired Acme employee. "They figured that if they aggravated us enough, we would start contacting city officials to get them to do something.

"They were talking about getting their members out of jail, which we had nothing to do with."

The strategy worked, sort of. As in Powelton Village, the neighbors began to complain - but about MOVE, not on their behalf.

In heartbreaking testimony before the MOVE Commission, neighbors talked of how hungry children from the cult would go through their trash cans (prompting the residents to buy new and clean ones to stash food for them), of how the group hung raw meat from trees, of how vermin began to spread from the MOVE building into their homes.

As their predicament mounted, and as MOVE erected on its roof a steel-reinforced bunker with gun slits, the neighbors were ignored. Goode's administration adopted what the MOVE Commission blasted as a "hands-off" approach.

When the city did act, it did so with terrible swiftness and lethality. The city's approach laid waste not only to a neighborhood, but also to Goode's reputation as a superb manager, the ultimate technocrat.

Even though the city knew well that its last confrontation with MOVE had ended in death, the approach in 1985 was a horror show of inadequate intelligence, inept planning, and slapdash execution.

That Mother's Day, May 12, police surrounded 6221 Osage, carrying arrest warrants for petty violations for four MOVE members inside.

The next morning, police and MOVE exchanged 90 minutes of gunshots. Much of the gunfire on police was "friendly fire," investigators concluded, as they had established sharpshooter posts diagonal from each other.

Police fired thousands of bullets at the MOVE house. MOVE was armed with a rifle, a shotgun, and two handguns, according to the weaponry pulled from the wreckage.

Even though the neighbors had seen the group carry tree trunks inside, police were dumbfounded to discover the place fortified from within.

At a midday news conference in City Hall, a grim Goode made his agenda plain. "We intend to evict them from the house. We intend to evacuate them from the house. We intend to seize control of the house," he said. "We will do it by any means necessary."

To knock out the bunker late in the day, police improvised on the spot. Using a state police helicopter, they dropped a satchel filled with four pounds of the military explosive C-4 and the commercial explosive Tovex onto the building's roof.

Though the bomb failed to destroy the bunker, it started a small fire. Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor and Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond then made the worst decision in a unbroken line of bad decisions: They let the fire burn.

Richmond assured Sambor that his firefighters could put the blaze out after letting it grow to destroy the bunker. He was wrong.

As it happened, the threat of MOVE gunfire kept firefighters at bay while the flames spread out of control. As firefighters tried to fight the blaze, Richmond said later, police repeatedly "chased them out."

"The policemen would say, 'There's movement, there's shooting, take cover,' " he said at a civil trial.

"We gave it all we had, given the constraints of the situation," Richmond said. "We did everything we could, all night long."

Bodies in the rubble

It wasn't enough. Over the next week, crews kept pulling bodies out of MOVE rubble. Killed were John Africa, his nephew, and four other adult MOVE members.

And five children were dead, too: sisters Katricia, 14, and Zanetta, 12, and three unrelated youngsters, Delicia, 12, Philip, 12, and Tomasso, 9. The parents of all five were imprisoned MOVE members.

Five years later, the city agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of the dead children. With this money, MOVE bought its latest headquarters, putting down $265,000 in cash in 1991 to buy a Victorian house on Kingsessing Avenue near 45th Street, still in West Philadelphia.

Ever since, MOVE has lived there, for the most part quietly. There have been no loudspeakers. Members watch TV, use a refrigerator and a washing machine, and live a lifestyle seemingly little different from those of their neighbors.

One worrisome note was struck in 2002 when a bitter custody battle arose between John Africa's widow, Alberta, and John Gilbride, a supporter she had married and divorced.

Just hours before his first scheduled visit with the boy, Gilbride was gunned down in the parking lot of his Maple Shade apartment complex. The homicide remains unsolved.

Aside from the MOVE members still behind bars for Ramp's murder, the organization has perhaps 40 members. Its growth, such as it is, has essentially come as children of members have been incorporated into the fold.

"We're not recruiting," Ramona Africa, the group's main representative, said in a recent interview. "MOVE is here to set an example for people, to give them information that people need to protect themselves and their families."

Besides, Africa added, MOVE makes strong demands of recruits, and that "may be a little bit intimidating."

Africa, now 54, was the only adult to emerge alive from the 1985 fire. She served seven years in prison for her role in the confrontation and was the only person ever charged in connection with it. In 1996, a federal civil jury awarded her $500,0000 in damages in her lawsuit over the clash.

For a time, MOVE seemed to catch a bit of fresh wind because of its connection to Mumia Abu-Jamal, an acolyte of John Africa's who became an international cause célèbre after his conviction for murdering a Philadelphia police officer. But once a federal judge set aside Abu-Jamal's death sentence in 2001, much of the force went out of the campaign on his behalf.

John Edgar Wideman, author of the MOVE-inspired novel Philadelphia Fire, said he was struck by how much Philadelphians had distanced themselves from the disaster. Wideman recalled how only about a hundred people turned out for an event to mark the 10th anniversary. "It was sad," he said.

He added: "What we learned from the event was almost nothing."

An elusive quest

MOVE's mission remains unchanged, said Ramona Africa: "To get our family home."

This quest remains elusive.

The MOVE Nine are down to eight. Merle Africa died in 1998 of natural causes in prison. The others became eligible for parole two years ago - having served their minimum 30 years - but the state parole board has rejected their release, citing their "refusal to accept responsibility" for Ramp's killing.

To mark the anniversary this week of the Osage Avenue debacle, MOVE plans to go into Philadelphia criminal court Wednesday to file a motion demanding that Goode, former Managing Director Leo A. Brooks, Sambor, Richmond, and other former officials be arrested on murder charges for the 1985 deaths.

Last month, the District Attorney's Office rejected MOVE's private criminal complaint asking for the arrests. MOVE is to appeal that decision in its filing Wednesday.

Curiously, the group has nothing scheduled for Thursday, the 25th anniversary.

Perhaps this should be no surprise. Tony Allen, a former supporter who has become a severe critic of the group, argues that MOVE's time in the spotlight is long past.

"Whatever MOVE could have meant or was intended to mean, it doesn't mean now," he said recently. "It just really exists for the benefit of the older members."

Allen was blunt about this in a recent message on his blog ( MOVE, he wrote, was "fading into oblivion. . . . MOVE will disappear, and is disappearing."


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