MY FIRST VISIT to the MOVE SISTERS
I first visited the MOVE sisters years ago, in 1995, the year of Mumia's PCRA... and his unexpected first stay of execution, a victory of the people against judge Sabo's dreadful rule and weeks of intense emotion and international solidarity in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
I had read about the sisters in the local Philadelphia press and learnt how their babies had been killed by the Philadelphia police, how Mike junior was born in jail after the MOVE house was attacked by the police on August 8, 1978, how Delbert Africa had almost been beaten to death by the cops, how the members of the family who had survived police brutality were bombed on May 13, 1985.
I had read a lot, but the day I met the sisters was a turning point in my life and my commitment to the family. I visited them with Pam and Mona and the family which meant a full night drive in the truck, a quick breakfast at the local coffee-shop in Cambridge Springs and briefly getting into clean clothes; then it was the final drive to the State Correction Institution for women, as they say in America (we just say 'prison' here) which is a former College, a shock for a French visitor - we still abide by Victor Hugo's saying, : 'Build a school and you will close a prison'.
After getting through the long excruciating process of checking identity, clothes, getting rid of every personal item except the twenty dollars to buy food and the ticket to take a picture it's another long wait for the sisters in the visiting room, watching the door open and close till finally the family recognizes the first sister allowed in... but we must not show your emotion if we don't want the visit to be cancelled before it starts; papers have to be checked and the guards are watching, watching...
The light radiating from the sisters' faces, when they see us, is worth waiting a thousand hours! Janine, the tallest one, is taking charge, choosing seats and negotiating with the guards whether we can sit together this very day; rules are ever changing, a way to make sure prisoners are always unsure, as Janine says. Debbie is looking for her son Mike, born in prison, seventeen years ago, the spitting image of his father Mike senior, also incarcerated in another prison; Janet and Merle are hugging us. Janine and Janet want to know everything about France, recipes, countryside, pets about my family and my home city... Janine is trying to learn French and she will soon be able to write some of her letters in French. They all look so healthy and strong in spite of so many years in prison for a crime they never committed (the death of a white policeman obviously caught in 'friendly crossfire' as testified by journalists and students who witnessed the attack on the Powelton house in 1978).
The sisters ask about the family, about their husbands they have not seen for years and speak about the teachings of John Africa which help them survive the days in the hole and their unfair sentence: 9 MOVE members sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison for a crime they didn't commit; as declared by judge Malmed who passed the sentence, when asked by journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal as who shot the policeman James Ramp: “I have the faintest idea” and went on to say that since MOVE members wanted to be tried as a family, he convicted them as a family!
These beautiful sisters are an example for all of us. I didn't know I wouldn't see sister Merle again; she passed away in 1998, her death the responsibility of the prison system.
The sisters are innocent, strong and self-reliant; they are political prisoners, imprisoned because they resist the system and stand by their principles.
We must not stop harassing the system till they walk home free to their family.
As Janine says 'they don't belong here.'
Translated from G.P Guillaumaud-Pujol, Prisons de Femmes, Janine, Janet & Debbie, une histoire américaine, Le Temps des Cerises, Paris 2012.