I was more than happy and moved to see that PBS was showing “Let the Fire Burn” a documentary about the Move Organization that ended in tragedy in Philadelphia of 1985.
The Move Organization was founded by John Africa in 1972. They lived communally and vowed to lead a life uninterrupted by the government, police or technology. They were passionate supporters of animal rights and members adopted vegan diets. Members also adopted the surname “Africa.” Often times they would engage in public demonstrations related to issues they deemed important.
The Move Organization’s way of being drew unwanted and sometimes unnecessary attention from neighbors and eventually police, whose encounters with the Move Organization became more confrontational. It didn’t help that neighbors (some who were Black), complained about the group’s appearance and living style. One neighbor (who was Black) even suggested they should “kill them all.”
Move members were harassed and beaten by police and sent to jail for over a decade. As the tension grew, Move members resorted to seeking protection of their own. They occupied the Powelton Village Home on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, PA., where they built bunkers to monitor the building’s surroundings. This of course became a high alert to city and police officials who were organizing an end all confrontation with the Move organization.
It was no surprise that their unique and seemingly deviant sub-culture perpetuated them to be deemed as terrorists and un-abiding citizens of the law.
In 1978 a confrontation between Move members and the Philadelphia police resulted with one officer, James J. Ramp being killed. Nine Move members were charged with 3rd degree murder due to his death. Members stated that the shot to the back of the head must have been done by the police as Ramp was facing them at the time. Meanwhile Delbert Africa was caught on tape being attacked and killed by several police, suffering with kicks to the head as officers shouted to “kick him in the head.” None of the cops were found guilty.
What’s so amazing about this event, is that I often hear people say Black people don’t stick together, they don’t create their own organizations. Well here is a prime example of a group of Blacks that were criminalized and forced into a corner that resulted to a defensive behavior. The infiltration of the Move Organization on May 13, 1985 was surrounded by over 200 police officers, who shot 10,000 rounds and last but not least resorted to an unnecessary bombing of the Powelton building, in which members were held between a blazing fire and armed forces who were killing men, women and children.
Clearly the Philadelphia police were aware that the bomb would result to such obliteration and destruction of adjacent homes and was informed to “let the fire burn.” Mayor W. Wilson Goode’s order to put out the fire was not followed or “appeared to have been given” as the fire destroyed 60 homes. He then ordered an investigative commission which constituted “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable,” but the city was not criminally charged.
No cops died but ELEVEN members including founder, John Africa were killed. Despite the automatic arms police claimed were being used by Move members, none were found. The surviving Move members were Birdie and Ramona Africa.
Watching the documentary you hear Birdie, who was a child at the time, tell the media he saw officers shoot and kill Conrad “Rad” Africa who came out of the burning building on his knees, defenseless. The cops then explained their story and somehow painted it differently. You hear police commissioner state that the women holding the children were using them as ploys, disregarding their lack of defense and pleas to not be killed. His face was expressionless when he was questioned.
I then thought of similar sub-cultures like the Amish who live independently with their own customs. They are not deemed as terrorists nor harassed (if at all to the extent) like the Move Organization was. You hear in the end of the documentary, former Move member Louise James expressed with tears that the Move Organization “Were happy people…just like you…who had feelings.”
Could this have been handled differently? Yes. The treatment of a people who live by customs that do not harm others aren’t the terrorists or a threat. When I think of terrorist groups that have killed many and defied laws, I wonder why the KKK is still in existence. But when I take a look at the actions the Philadelphia police took, I start to wonder WHO really was.
It has been 19 years as we remember May 13, 1985 and the death of Birdie Africa also known as Michael Ward, who died September 20th, 2013. Ramona Africa still lives as she fights for surviving members to be released from prison.
We remember a group of Blacks who stuck to their convictions, who fought against the injustices held against them, and who were able to reveal the mishandling of people of color when it comes to the police force and government. This is a part of our history, American history. Continue to spread the knowledge and their memory will live on.
For more information visit ONAMOVE.COM and also check out the 2013 documentary “Let The Fire Burn” which also airs on the PBS channel. Be sure to check the provoking trailer below.