On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department bombed a West Philadelphia row home occupied by MOVE, a Black liberation organization—a family—committed to exposing the white supremacist corruption at the core of the city’s leadership. MOVE had become known for calling out Frank Rizzo, who served first as the city’s police commissioner, then mayor, and the injustice system that flowed from his administration. And on the day of the bombing, a stunned city sat glued to television screens and watched as 6221 Osage Avenue became engulfed in flames, and nearby residents ran for their lives.
The Philadelphia Police Department killed 11 people that day, including five children, ages 6 to 13: Tree Africa, Netta Africa, Phil Africa, Delisha Africa, and Tomaso Africa. The adults murdered were Raymond Foster Africa, Conrad Hampton Africa, Frank James Africa, Rhonda Harris Ward Africa, Theresa Brooks Africa, and MOVE founder John Africa. Sixty-one homes were destroyed in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood. More than 250 people were left unhoused.
There were only two survivors: Ramona Africa, then 29—who is currently battling cancer that she believes was caused by chemicals in the four pounds of C-4 military explosives that the police used to bomb the MOVE house—and the then 13-year-old Birdie Africa, who began using his birth name Michael Ward after the bombing, who died by accidental drowning in 2014 at the age of 41.
This was not the Philadelphia Police Department’s first time brutalizing MOVE. On August 8, 1978—seven years prior to the bombing that, despite its shocking cruelty, has flown largely under the nation’s radar, and two years after Janine Africa’s three weeks old newborn Life was knocked from her arms during a scuffle with police, his skull fatally crushed—nine MOVE members were incarcerated following a police raid of their home in Powelton Village. Police showed up allegedly to remove them because they had been squatting.
“…cops filled our home with enough tear gas to kill us and our babies, while SWAT teams covered every possible exit…we had 10 thousand pounds of water pressure per minute directed at us from 4 fire department water cannons…As the basement filled with nearly six feet of water we had to hold our babies and animals above the rising water so they wouldn’t drown.” —MOVE 9
During the orchestrated, militarized attack on the MOVE family, police officer James Ramp was struck by a single, fatal bullet. Subsequently, Chuck Africa, Debbie Africa, Delbert Africa, Eddie Africa, Janet Africa, Janine Africa, Merle Africa, Mike Africa Sr., and Phil Africa were convicted of third-degree murder in Ramp’s death and sentenced to up to 100 years in prison. Janine’s son Phil was killed in the MOVE house when it was burned to the ground, as was Delbert’s daughter Delisha.
At the core, MOVE’s story is about struggling to be free in a nation accustomed to Black subjugation and being met with the full, violent force of the state. It took almost four decades to free them all—or, rather, the ones who remained. Phil and Merle would die in prison before the efforts of the movement to free them bore fruit.
As noted by an exhaustive, two-year investigation by the Guardian, Debbie was the first to be released in June 2018. Then came Mike Sr. in October 2018. Janine and Janet were set free in May 2019; Eddie followed one month later; Delbert was released in January 2020; and Chuck, the youngest of the group when he went in at just 18-years old, was finally released in February.
Passing The Baton
Mike Africa Jr., son of Debbie and Mike Sr., and Chuck’s nephew, was born five weeks after his mother was incarcerated. She gave birth to him and kept him hidden for the first few days of his life. When he was discovered, guards took him and his mother to the hospital, where his grandmother came and got him. She would raise him with the help of the rest of the Africa family.
And the whole time, he was thinking about freedom.
“I started working on freeing my family when I was 13-years-old, and now I’m 41,” Mike Jr. tells ESSENCE. “I met with investigators. I met with local and state politicians. I met with street activists and we marched for countless miles and protested countless times.”
“And, still, getting them free was not an easy thing,” he continued. “The time that it takes for Black people to get released, even if they’re innocent, is much longer than other people. And, sometimes, it didn’t seem like it would happen.”
Africa said that he doesn’t believe in giving up, and because of that, their hard work was successful.
“We kept it going,” he said with determination still in his voice. “And, fortunately, we got MOVE 9 out of there.”