Interview by Steve da Silva
Basics Issue #10 (Aug/Sep 2008)
On the 30th anniversary of Philadelphia police’s terroristic siege on the MOVE organization on August 8, 1978, Basics linked up with MOVE member Ramona Africa . Ramona Africa is the only living adult survivor of the Philadelphia police’s second major attack on MOVE’s home in 1985, where 11 people died, five of whom were children. The following is a transcript from our interview with her.
Basics: Ramona Africa, can you tell us about MOVE and its history?
Ramona Africa: The MOVE organization is a revolutionary organization founded by a man called John Africa. John Africa brought people together from all different religious, political, socio-economic backgrounds and made us a family, cementing the bond of our family with one common belief and that belief is life. Whether it’s the air, water, the earth that feeds us, human life, animal life, plant life - all life - is important and is our priority. Toward demonstrating our belief, our first public demonstrations were at the zoo, at the circus, at unsafe boarding homes for the elderly, at the reservoir and water treatment plant, at meetings held by DuPont chemicals, corporations like that who poisoned the environment…
Basics: How long ago was that?
Ramona Africa: This was in the early 1970s. Because we demonstrated and put out such clear information about the wisdom of John Africa, the government started hearing what we were saying and seeing our example. They wanted to stop us from waking people up and setting an example for people. They initially tried to co-opt us by offering us by offering us funding and offices. But we made it clear that we didn’t want anything from them and we didn’t need anything from them. So when they couldn’t use that soft soap with us they came with the iron fist of brutality. When we would set up a peaceful demonstration at some institution of this system, they would come and tell us that we couldn’t demonstrate. We confronted them about it and said “Why, what are you talking about? Isn’t this America where people have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to protest? Does the constitution say, except MOVE?” Of course, they didn’t want to hear that, so that’s when the beatings began. Our brothers would be beaten bloody into broken limbs and consciousness; pregnant MOVE women would be beaten, stomped, kicked into miscarriage. MOVE took a strong position after this continuously happened. We said “We are a peaceful people, we are uncompromisingly opposed to violence. But we’re not confused and we’re not stupid. We understand clearly, based on the teachings of John Africa, the difference between violence and self-defense. We don’t believe in violence, but we do believe in self-defense. That is the law – the law of life. There is not a species on the face of this earth that does not instinctively defend itself when attacked. You’re not violent if you defend yourself, but you are violent if you are attacked and you refuse to defend yourself because then you’re encouraging violence, perpetuating violence. Because then you are masochistic, self-destructive, suicidal, and MOVE is none of those things. So when we made our position clear, the government really got its back up, because they didn’t want us influencing people with that kind of understanding and information. At that point, they just determined that they had to get rid of us, anyway they had to, even if it meant killing us. And that’s what the first major police attack on MOVE on August 8, 1978 was really all about.
Basics: What happened on August 8, 1978?
Ramona Africa: On that day, they used the excuse of our home having housing code violations to try to evict us out of our homes. This government has never cared about poor black people living in homes that have housing code violations. I mean, when did they start caring about that? That was the excuse they used to send hundreds of officers out to our homes to kill, not to arrest. In their fervour to kill off MOVE, they ended up shooting one of their own to death. Of course, there’s no question that they were going to blame MOVE for this. They failed to kill MOVE members so the next best thing was to put MOVE in prison for as long as possible. This is why they charged my family, the nine MOVE members, with murder and put them in prison for 30-100 years.
Basics: So the MOVE9 political prisoners, as we have come to know them, date back to that August 8, 1978, 30 years ago. Was that the last attack on MOVE?
Ramona Africa: Yes. In 1980, our home in Richmond, Virginia was attacked by police. Our sisters were arrested, they took our kids, put them in foster homes, and we had to fight to get them back. All of that in conspiracy with the Philadelphia government influencing the Richmond, Virginia government, because there was never any problems in Richmond, Virginia.
Then, on May 13, 1981, in Rochester, New York, the Federal government, the FBI, the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) attacked our family and arrested our family in Rochester. John Africa, being one of the people who was arrested, went on trial in Federal court in Philadelphia, were they brought him back to. In an unprecedented and historical act that the history books will never tell people about, John Africa – a money-poor black man with long naughty hair, wearing a sweat-shirt, boots, jeans – went into Federal court, representing himself, not presenting any evidence, not cross-examining any witnesses, not putting on any witnesses, not making an opening statement, and sleeping with his head down on the table through much of the trial, only speaking briefly to make a half-hour closing statement, was acquitted of every single charge that the Feds could put on him. That is historical, unprecedented by any black man in the federal courts or any white man in the federal courts.
Finally, when John Africa came home and we stepped up our campaign to free the MOVE9, there was a second attack in 1985 when police came out to our home again, hiding behind a lie that neighbours were complaining about us. They used this as an excuse to come out to attack us, determined to do what they failed to do in 1978. They came out in 1985 with the makings of a bomb supplied by the Federal government, a helicopter supplied by the Pennsylvania government, and using Philadelphia city cops to attack us. They dropped a bomb on our bomb igniting a fire. Now the fire department was at the scene from the very beginning putting water into our home trying to flush us out. But when the bomb ignited a fire they refused to put the fire out.
When we who were in the basement realized that our home was on fire, we made several attempts to get our children, our animals, and ourselves out of that blazing inferno. And ever attempt was met with a barrage of police gun fire, deliberately aimed at us to try to prevent us from escaping. As a result, men, women, and babies – five babies and six adults – and numerous animals, were all burned alive and shot to death. The bodies were found to have many bullets in them.
I am the only adult survivor, along with one little boy who survived. People ask me how did we survive, how did I survive, and I have no answer other than that it must have been some miracle and that I still have some work to do.
Basics: The repression against MOVE is quite evident. From the perspective of those who have power in this society, what does MOVE represent to them? Does it represent a threat to their power?
Ramona Africa: Absolutely those in power see MOVE as a threat, and we are. We don’t believe in this system. We’re not impressed with it, we’re not intimidated by it, and we don’t want anything that it has. They can’t bribe us with anything or threaten to take anything away from us. They have nothing that we can’t do without – and that gives us all the leverage in the world. What they do with other organizations is try to intimidate them, if not try to seduce them with things, positions, money, or whatever. But they can’t do that with us. We don’t believe in this system at all, and we can substantiate why we don’t believe in it.
Look at this country. When at when this continent was invaded: the air was pure, the water was clean, the earth was fertile and productive. There were no hospitals or prisons. But since this so-called civilization was introduced to North America, look at the mess that it’s made. And we’re supposed to believe in this? No, we won’t. We can substantiate our positions, but they can’t substantiate their’s. They cannot trick or fool us. We’re not imprisoned by their concepts, like legality. They can tell us what’s legal and illegal all day – we don’t care, that doesn’t mean anything to us. Tell us what’s right, and we’ll deal with that. A lot of things were legal, but they were wrong. Slavery was legal, apartheid was legal, slaughtering the Natives of this country was legal, the Holocaust was legal. None of these things were right. Resisting all of those things – slavery, apartheid, the Holocaust – were illegal, seen as crimes. But it wasn’t wrong. So we’re not going to be imprisoned by the concepts invented by our enemy. And because they can’t trick us or fool us, that makes us a threat to them.
MOVE people, we keep on fighting: they keep coming at us, and we keep coming right back because we don’t see any alternative option. It’s not an option to just throw our hands up and give in. We have children to think about it, who will have children, who will have more children, and we’re raising our children to be revolutionaries with that fire that John Africa put in us. We will never give in to this system. They don’t have enough cops, guns, jails, prison guards, sheriffs, courts to make MOVE people give in to this rotten system.
Basics: Close to home, Toronto, where Basics is based out of, there is a land reclamation struggle being led by Six Nations right now, especially the Mohawk Warriors. One of the principles that they live by is to preserve the earth and life for the seven generations to come. Would you have any principles to offer up to other peoples struggling for justice and freedom?
Ramona Africa: The foundation of our belief is life – you have to put life first, on a very personal level. For example, MOVE people have things, but we don’t beat or chastise our children for breaking or losing something. Life is our priority, and the feelings of our children who are alive are more important to us than some dead thing that has no feelings. This is how people must begin to think and live: putting priority on life, all of life. Until people do that, we aren’t going nowhere. Those people who are oppressing us, life means nothing to them. It’s the root of criminality, for instance. Young teenagers may kill another for a pair of sneakers or a jacket. They may take a life for something that’s not a life, that has no feelings at all. But they do that because life means nothing to them, and that’s the example that they’re getting from this system.
For instance, when that situation happened in Littleton, Colorado at Colombine highschool where some of the students were shooting up all those other students, Clinton was on the news telling people that we need to teach our children how to resolve conflict by means other than violence, while at the same time Clinton was bombing kids in Kosovo. What message are children getting when they see cops shooting at people 41 times and hitting them 19 times?
The bottom line for MOVE is to make life a priority.
Basics: Well, with love and revolutionary thanks for this interview, are there any final thoughts you may want to add?
Ramona Africa: On a move to my MOVE family, to Mumia Abu-Jamal, long live Leonard Peltier, the Puerto Rican independistas, the Zapatistas, long live all freedom fighters: The Earth Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Front, long live all those who love life enough to fight for life and freedom. Long live the spirit of resistance, long live revolution! Long live John Africa, and down with this rotten-ass system! ON A MOVE!
Basics: ON A MOVE! Basics Community Newsletter, Philadelphia.