Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Endless incarceration Of The Move 9

They were convicted to 30 to 100 years in prison for murder in the 3rd degree, the members of the „MOVE 9“: the 4 women Debbie, Janine, Janet, and Merle Africa, and the 5 men Delbert, Phil, Mike, Chuck, and Edward Africa. In 1998, Merle Africa died in custody, and it is only in January 2015 that one of the men, Phil Africa, also succumbed to the conditions in prison.

What horrific crime are these people accused of, such that every single survivor by now has had to spent almost double the time in prison that Nazi criminal Albert Speer had to and more time than most mass murderers in Europe?

The MOVE organization emerged in 1972 in Philadelphia under the spiritual leadership of John Africa, who, like the other members, changed his name and adopted the surname “Africa” in order to distance himself from his former “slave name” and to point to the origin of humanity in Africa.

MOVE (the name is no abbreviation, but simply means “movement”) was given to a sort of “back-to-nature” ideology, but apart from that, it was a decidedly anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist group, which by this very nature was a thorn in the side of the authorities. Their protests, particularly against the abuse of animals, but also against all sorts of dignitaries of politics led to countless arrests and prosecutions, and by the mid-1970s, MOVE had become “enemy of the state no. 1” in Philadelphia.

Politics and media descended into a virtual smear campaign against the movement, even though there were hardly any concrete accusations against it. The police acted with particular sadism. Between 1974 and 1976, four female MOVE members suffered miscarriages following violent abuse by the police. In March 1974, the newly-born baby Life Africa died from scull injuries inflicted by police nightsticks.

One of the few journalist to give a voice to MOVE members themselves in his reports was a radio reporter who by now in no longer an unknown quantity, namely, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Towards the end of the 1970s, the background just sketched led to total confrontation. In March 1978, the city administration instigated a two-month siege against the “head quarter” of MOVE to “smoke them out,” which could be ended only by the rallying around MOVE by their neighbors, who decisively took the side of MOVE despite often harsh critic of the organizations perceived “backward” and “unhygienic” lifestyle.

At the beginning of August, Mayor Rizzo posed an ultimatum to MOVE to either immediately leave the house or to be evicted. After the uncompromising rejection by MOVE the house was violently stormed in the morning of August 8, 1978. More than 600 cops surrounded the house, and both a crane and a bulldozer were used as battering rams, which forced those in the house including their children to seek refuge in the basement.

In the basement, they all were soon in danger of drowning, since the Fire Department soon flooded their refuge with water from high pressure hoses, forcing the beleaguered to do what they could to keep the children and pets above the water which by then reached to the basement windows. Thereafter, there was a two-minute fusillade of shots which wounded MOVE members, firefighters, cops, and passers-by, and that killed Police Officer James Ramp.

The people under siege were soon forced to leave the basement. After brutal maltreatment, they were arrested, and later on, they were accused of multiple accounts of physical assault and the murder of James Ramp. The trial was the longest and most costly in the history of Philadelphia and was no less unfair than the one against Mumia Abu-Jamal one year later. Two statements should be sufficient to characterize it.

Thus, immediately after the events Mayor Frank Rizzo fulminated: “The only way we're going to end them is--get that death penalty back in, put them in the electric chair and I'll pull the switch.” With that, a fair trial in Philadelphia was practically no longer in the cards.

Quite fittingly, the trial judge excluded all evidence pushed by the defense and ruled in all the material brought by the prosecution. Testimony saying that MOVE didn’t begin the shooting or hints that the MOVE members locked in the basement had hardly been able to fire any shots at all, he confidently ignored, only to find ALL of the MOVE members guilty in the end and to subject them to the draconian sentence already mentioned.

Asked, how nine people could shoot and kill one man, he responded: “They were tried as a family, so I convicted them as a family” – a breathtaking proposition coming from a judge, and, in principle, a sure reason for overturning the trial result.

But neither this nor the fact that there has long been testimony saying that the shot that killed James Ramp had been accidental “friendly fire” is enough to bring Philadelphia’s criminal justice system to its senses. There seems to be no chance for a new trial for the MOVE 9. And not even for a release after the minimum sentence of 30 years already reached in 2008. The Kafkaesque official reason: The accused would first have to confess their guilt – even though at most one of them killed Ramp, and most likely none of them did.

As in the case of Mumia, the motive seems to be revenge on the part of the representatives of the status quo, and if they have their way, after Merle and Phil Africa, the remaining “MOVE 7” will also die in prison. The only hope for them lies in making this absurd miscarriage of justice more widely known, generating the outrage that it should automatically spark. The movement for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal considers this as one of its most important tasks for the future.

Michael Schiffmann

February 2015

The German original version of this article will appear in the 2015 issue of the annual special supplement for the “March 18 - International Day of the Political Prisoner,” of the quarterlyRote Hilfe, published by the German prisoner support organization Red Aid,

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