It was a high summer’s day in August 1978 in West Philadelphia’s Powelton Village district. Suddenly, the neighborhood’s tranquility was shattered by a concerted outbreak of gunfire. Police and members of a radical African-American group called Move were shooting it out. And seven years later, the conflict between Move and the authorities was to reach a horrifyingly violent crescendo at another West Philly address.
Move was an extraordinary anti-establishment organization that traced its origins to a predecessor group, the Christian Movement for Life. The founding father was John Africa – all members of the group took the surname of “Africa” in recognition of what they saw as their common place of origin, the continent of Africa.
The group’s philosophy, as described in a creed called “The Guidelines,” was an eccentric mix of beliefs. Some were influenced by 1960s hippy culture, while others reflected the tenets of black power. Among other things, Move members were deeply committed to animal rights, strongly suspicious of modern technology and medicine, and believed in the ideal of communal living.
A telling insight into the group’s philosophy came in a handwritten letter that one member of Move, Janine Phillips Africa, sent to The Guardian journalist Ed Pilkington from prison in 2018. “We exposed the crimes of government officials on every level,” Janine wrote. “We demonstrated against puppy mills, zoos, circuses, any form of enslavement of animals.”
“We demonstrated against [nuclear power plant] Three Mile Island and industrial pollution,” Janine continued. “We demonstrated against police brutality. And we did so uncompromisingly. Slavery never ended, it was just disguised.” This disparate collection of issues was a defining characteristic of Move.
In August 1978 John Africa was living in the Powelton Village house at 311 N 33rd Street, West Philadelphia, with 11 other adults, 11 children and no fewer than 48 dogs. Move members took in strays because of their belief in animal rights.
By some accounts, the Move commune folks on N 33rd Street were not ideal neighbors. Their large pack of dogs, their propensity for hollering their radical philosophy through bullhorns at random times, and their use of explicit language did little to endear them to local residents.
In fact, in 1977 the city – led by Mayor Frank Rizzo – had obtained an eviction order against Move. You can get a flavor of Rizzo’s attitude towards the Move group from the following words, which were quoted by Pilkington in The Guardian. “You are dealing with criminals, barbarians, you are safer in the jungle!” Rizzo had asserted. Certainly, Move seemed to have a sinister side. On occasion, some of its members would stand in front of the house armed with rifles.
Rizzo decided to act. In June 1978 the house was put under a siege that would last for 56 days. No food was allowed in and the water was cut off. Then, early in the morning on August 8, the police resolved to enter the building. They started their operation by firing water cannons on the house and its occupants.
During the siege, Rizzo had boasted that the city would “show them more firepower than they’ve ever seen.” And that’s exactly what happened. Who opened fire is hotly debated to this day, with the police and Move blaming each other. What’s indisputable is that a hail of bullets rained down on the house.
What’s also beyond dispute is that a police officer, 52-year-old James J. Ramp, was killed by a bullet wound to the head during the shoot-out. Seven other officers and five firemen were also hurt, while one of the Move contingent suffered a bullet wound. It was the death of the police officer that brought the full wrath of the authorities down on the Move members.
Eleven of the Move activists, including John Africa and Janine Africa, were charged with murder, conspiracy and aggravated assault. In the summer of 1980 nine of the Move members – four females and five males – were found guilty of Officer Ramp’s murder. They came to be known as the “Move 9” and were given jail sentences of 30 to 100 years.
You might think that following this exceptionally violent confrontation, Move’s day as an active group would be over. But you’d be wrong. In 1981 Move members – at least those not under lock and key – set up another communal home on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood.
And just as with the previous Move residence, people who lived nearby weren’t too keen on having these activists as neighbors. There were mutterings about trash around the property. And in a familiar complaint, the occupants were accused of using a bullhorn to disturb the peace with political diatribes and profanities.
Mayor Wilson Goode publicly called Move a terrorist group, and on May 13, 1985, the authorities acted. After evacuating surrounding residences, almost 500 officers came to empty the Move home and arrest its occupants on a string of outstanding warrants. When the activists refused to leave the building, the police decided it was time to use force.
After the police had thrown teargas into the house, gunfire erupted. The police fired more than 10,000 rounds in total. And then they decided that even more drastic action was necessary. Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor ordered that the house should be bombed from a helicopter. Two bombs were consequently dropped onto the roof of the house, the sole occasion upon which American police have ever resorted to aerial bombing.
The house caught fire as a result, and the flames spread until some 65 neighboring homes were also burnt to the ground, leaving 250 people homeless. Firefighters were on hand, but Commissioner Sambor ordered them to let the fires burn. Eleven of the Move contingent were killed in the blaze, including five children aged between 7 and 13.
John Africa was one of those who died, as was 13-year-old Delisha, the daughter of Del Africa. Del had been among those sentenced to life in prison in 1980. Also killed in the fire was 12-year-old Little Phil, son of Janine Africa, another of the “Move 9.” Just one of the adult Move members, Ramona Africa, escaped the blaze alive. However, after being found guilty on charges of riot and conspiracy, she then spent seven years in jail.
A special commission was later formed to investigate the circumstances of this shocking episode. Its findings included the assertion that “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.” Mayor Goode went so far as to issue a public apology, but no city official was ever held to account, although Commissioner Sambor did resign in November 1985.
Today, six of the nine Move activists sentenced to life imprisonment after the 1978 shoot-out are still in jail. Two of those originally sentenced have died while in custody. Just one of the nine, Debbie Africa, has been released. She was freed on parole in June 2018 at the age of 61 after four decades in jail.