Hard-earned wisdom and hard-won strength: the MOVE 9
We're comparing notes on our gardens. Janet Africa tilled her soil with a plastic snow shovel. I envision trying to grow with a kid's sand kit for the beach. My husband and I had the entire arsenal of his tools from a small landscaping business when we planted this spring: plows, pick axes, rakes. And even still, I'd get tired and claim I had to go inside and return an email.
Janet is tiny and giggly. Despite her sweetness, her warm brown eyes, her engaging way, there is a ferocity. These aren't incompatible traits. They stand alongside one another. She's strong and tested. She knows what she's capable of. Growing food, tending soil and plant life with shoddy tools is a small hiccup.
And that's the way with the MOVE 9. Publicly, they're known as a family who didn't back down against the brutality and aggression of the city of Philadelphia. After withstanding an urban battle, largely unprecedented in the 20th century, they went on to receive sentences of 30-100 years each for the death of one police officer. The evidence presented at trial was flimsy and since that time the city of Philadelphia claims to have lost the majority of this evidence. In 1985, members of the MOVE 9 learned from prison guards that some of their children and partners had been killed when a bomb was dropped on the MOVE Organization.
They were on hunger strikes for over forty days the same year that protest killed Bobby Sands. They counseled other inmates, and even guards, to fortify them against the cruelty and isolation of prison. They saw some of their children raised by estranged family members.
Janet, and all of the MOVE 9 have a look in their eyes of profound compassion. It comes from knowing, intimately, a breadth of experience. I learned early on that I could say just about anything to the MOVE 9. Initially, I was shy. Well, as shy as I am. I'm an educated upper-middle class white woman who's never been incarcerated. I wanted to have some deference to the fact that I was well out of my depth. Meeting the MOVE 9 set me immediately at ease. Phil, with his broad smile and easy laugh. Playful Del, who can be his own version of Malcolm X while playing paddy-cake with a child. Chuck, always asking for more tablature to make music, or creating his own. Mike, with his profound range of study and curious mind. Janine, who continues to teach me so much, but among the lessons, more sensitive care for animals. Debbie's remarkable creativity. This woman creates recipes despite not having had access to a kitchen for over 30 years. Her resourcefulness is admired and quickly joked about. Janet's serious intelligence, palpable physical strength, determination, and warmth. Eddie, who cracks me up and refuses to sing in the visiting room. Who offers touching generosity and unselfconscious ease.
I quickly learned that I could say anything to any one of the MOVE 9 because within their experience as members of a family, they'd either personally experienced something closely akin to me, or knew someone within the family who had. There's nothing foreign or unknown to them. The big tragedies of human experience: loss, violence, incarceration-- they know them all. But there's another side to that truth. While knowing the depths of despair, they know the pinnacles of joy. Now, I didn't date that verb in past tense. Their joy is not a memory. They know joy. They live joy. They embody joy. And that reality defeated another preconception I had prior to meeting the MOVE 9. I expected jaded prisoners. Ask any MOVE supporter or person who visits the MOVE 9 and they'll absolutely share the same reflection; the MOVE 9 lift and encourage those who visit them more than they receive.
JOHN AFRICA said, “Application don't need no conversation.” The application of MOVE Law, the example of MOVE Law set by the MOVE 9, is powerful evidence. How can these people have endured what they have and not be broken? How did they survive? If you ask any of them directly, they'll likely pause before answering, and I'd wager that the pause is to recall those feelings of despair. They're felt because the MOVE 9 are profoundly sensitive people. But despair is not where they live. Prison isn't even where they live. The MOVE 9 are simply alive. Their focus is recognizably on breathing deeply, caring for living things (like plants, animals, and each other), being engaged and alert, and fighting anything that interferes with life's ability to move and grow.
The MOVE 9 have spent recent years educating guards about fracking and urging them to resist the practice. There are multiple accounts of MOVE questioning guards bragging about sport hunting. The women of the MOVE 9 advocated against more invasive searches, a strongly feminist/womanist stance. Their stands, analysis, and perseverance continue to inspire a deep loyalty from supporters around the world. The loyalty is a sense of gratitude for the sacrifice and work of the MOVE 9 as well as the relief of finding this family who believe fervently in life and fight for it.