PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s been 28 years to the day since the City of Philadelphia dropped explosives on the MOVE headquarters on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia that set fire to an entire residential block.
The fire destroyed the homes of neighbors, who had grown impatient with the noise and conditions at the “back-to-nature” MOVE house.
Eleven people, including 5 children, were killed.
After nearly three decades, the memories of Monday, May 13th, 1985 are still etched in Ramona Africa’s mind.
At 58, she says she looks at the raised, scarred flesh on her arms and prays she’ll never forget the day the City of Philadelphia unleashed military force on her home.
“A lot of people have told me that these burn scars could be removed,” she says, “but why would I do that? I want to remember, and I don’t want others to forget.”
MOVE, the group Africa called “family,” was viewed as “radical” by the police. Africa says they were peaceful environmentalists that had a strong love for animals.
Authorities have said neighbors complained that members, who were mostly black, harassed passersby and lived in filth. Africa refutes the charge.
She claims MOVE was targeted because they refused to give up the effort to free the MOVE 9– the four women and five men convicted of the 1978 murder of Philadelphia police officer James Ramp.
Africa says members wanted them freed, so hostility between police, the city and the group escalated. It culminated in the 1985 bombing.
“The whole house shook, but we didn’t know what it was,” says Africa, recalling the moment the city dropped explosives on the MOVE home on Osage Avenue. “We didn’t even know initially that there was a fire.”
Africa says she was in the basement when the bomb hit.
She and her family were holed up, in a standoff with police and other city officials.
Africa says the authorities employed water tactics and tear gas…then the explosives.
“We tried to get our children, our animals, ourselves out of that blazing inferno,” she says. “And as the cops saw us coming out, they opened fire.”
Accounts of the day vary. Philadelphia police have disputed Africa’s account. She escaped, with injuries, along with one child survivor, Birdie Africa, who was 13 at the time.
“We never saw Birdie again after that until my criminal trial,” she says. “He testified. His mother was killed in the bombing.”
Africa spent seven years in prison for her part in the standoff, but no one from the city was ever charged. She filed a civil lawsuit against the city and won after years of litigation.
“I’m not bitter,” says Africa, “It was no coincidence or accident that I’m the one that survived.”
Africa has served as MOVE’s spokesperson for decades, appointed to the post by the group’s founder John Africa in 1979. She says her focus, her reason for continuing 28 years after one of the most horrific days of her life, is to gain freedom for the eight surviving members of the MOVE 9.
“Our family members have been in jail for 35 years now for a crime they didn’t commit,” says Africa. “They have seen the parole board numerous times, but the parole board refuses to give them parole.”
These days Africa hold lectures and other events on behalf of MOVE. And she seizes opportunities to tell her story and to keep the spotlight on the MOVE 9.
“My family is innocent and they know it,” she says, “so we’re not going to shut up, we’re not going anywhere.”