MOVE furor

Mumia's comrades tear themselves apart in bitter internal feud

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PHILADELPHIA — Louise James Africa is so angry she can barely speak. She’s seated in the immaculately furnished living room of her sister’s row house on a narrow, hardscrabble block of Mantua, in West Philly.

It’s a warm spring afternoon, and sunlight glistens off a heavy soapstone chess set that dominates the small coffee table.

Along the wall leading to the stairs is a long array of framed family pictures. Most of the people in the pictures wear MOVE’s characteristic dreadlocks. Some wear orange prison garb.

In disbelief

Louise James Africa and her sister, LaVerne Sims, both siblings of John Africa, the deceased founder of the controversial movement espousing anti-racism and naturalism, are perched on the edge of their chairs, desperately trying to explain just how grievously MOVE’s current incarnation has departed from John Africa’s teachings.

“They socialize,” Louise says in disbelief. “They have birthday parties and Christmas trees for the children.”

John Africa, they explain, taught that whenever you were socializing, there was work that wasn’t getting done. After 16 years on that block of Reno Street, LaVerne says proudly, not one neighbour has ever been invited through her door.

“They have flowers in pots,’ she says of the current MOVE home — both halves of a three-storey twin on Kingsessing Avenue near 45th Street. John Africa, she claims, didn’t believe in confining flowers.

John Africa would barely recognize MOVE today. It’s a largely female-run organization now, and claims an Internet-organized support network spanning North America and Europe.

Led by Ramona Johnson Africa, MOVE’s spokespeople have become sought-after speakers on college campuses on both continents. The hulking stone-faced houses on Kingsessing are also home to an international effort to spring MOVE supporter and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal from death row.

Previous MOVE headquarters often featured wood-slatted gun portals in the windows. The windows at 4506 Kingsessing have curtains.

More serious

But there’s something more serious than potted plants and Christmas trees going on in that household — a bitter ongoing custody battle between a prominent MOVE member and her ex-husband.

According to an official “MOVE alert’ on an affiliated Web site, the courtroom struggle threatens to turn into yet another confrontation between MOVE and law enforcement authorities.

Louise and LaVerne say Internet MOVE alert threats of “another May 13” based on a custody battle brazenly dishonour what transpired on that date 15 years ago.

By May 13, 1985, MOVE had already reigned in Philadelphia’s consciousness for nearly a decade as an enigmatic “back-to-nature’ cult with a seeming grab bag of paradoxical beliefs.

All the members took the surname Africa, and most, but not all, were African-American. They obeyed as law the edicts of their founder, a self-educated handyman who called himself John Africa. They revered harmony with nature to the point of not combing their hair and refusing to corrupt their children with reading and writing.

In 1978, a gunfight between MOVE and Philadelphia police left one police officer dead and nine MOVE members imprisoned for murder. Almost seven years later, on May 13, 1985, a bungled police effort to serve warrants on several MOVE members resulted in more shooting and a raging house fire that incinerated an entire city block, leaving 11 MOVE members dead, including founder John Africa, and 250 people homeless.

Now, on the 15th anniversary of the fiery death of MOVE’s founder, there is a bitter and growing generational divide over who should rightly tend to John Africa’s legacy — Ramona on one side, LaVerne and Louise on the other.

In the past year or so, both MOVE factions have held raucous, profane demonstrations in front of each other’s houses, although Ramona clearly has the upper hand.

More troubling is the not-so-vague threat of yet another round of MOVE-related unrest, this time involving the custody of Alberta Africa’s son. Are those curtains at 4506 Kingsessing quite literally window dressing for an organization that is still capable of violence in the name of self-defence?

Ramona Africa is calling late at night from a Holiday Inn in Kent, Ohio. It is the 30th anniversary of the day in 1970 when National Guardsmen killed four students during an anti-war protest at Kent State University. Among the celebrities invited to mark the occasion are radical theoretician Noam Chomsky and de facto MOVE leader Ramona Africa.

Ramona Africa is the sole adult survivor (along with a small boy, Birdie) of that conflagration 15 years ago. She remembers crouching in the basement with all the other MOVE members and their children, feeling the heat and smoke as their row house burned.

She would spend a month in the hospital getting skin grafts for burns to her legs, arm and back. Later, she became the only person convicted of any criminal activity on that day. Sentenced to a maximum of seven years for riot and conspiracy offenses, she was offered her freedom after 16 months on the sole condition that she cut her ties to the MOVE organization.

She refused, and wound up serving the full seven years.

“People outside the country can’t believe that this happened in the U.S.,” she says. “When they learn that residents of this country were bombed and babies burned alive, they can’t believe it.’

After the MOVE fire, court settlements compensating parents of the dead children enabled MOVE to pay $265,000 cash for twin three-storey houses on Kingsessing Avenue, where by all accounts they have lived quietly for more than nine years.

Message honed

With her message honed by years of public speaking, Ramona discusses even the most painful memories — of the hospital, the fire, prison — in a calm and measured voice. She’s only slightly rattled by questions about MOVE’s culpability in the two standoffs with police, and when LaVerne and Louise’s criticisms are passed on to her.

“I could care less what they think,” Ramona says. “We don’t burn our energy on them. They don’t have a life. So they consume themselves with our life, with what we’re doing. We have more important things to do.’

But then there’s that threatening missive on the Internet, warning of an impending MOVE confrontation. For the first time, Ramona grows evasive.

“I don’t have the Internet, so I don’t know about that,” she says, adding, “People know how we feel about our children. MOVE people will fight and die for our children.’

The Move alert contains almost the same words.

Despite the overblown prose, a Swarthmore College sociology professor who has studied MOVE says the custody battle is a serious cause for concern.

“It’s not surprising that a custody controversy might potentially precipite another confrontation,” says Robin Wagner-Pacifici, author of Discourse And Destruction: The City Of Philadelphia Versus MOVE. “Children and their status have always been at the centre of these conflicts.’

John Gilbride and Alberta Africa were married in February 1992 and lived at the MOVE house on Kingsessing Avenue even after their little boy, John Zachary “Zack’ Gilbride was born in May of 1996.

Kept returning

By 1998, Gilbride, a supervisor with U.S. Airways, tried to get his family away from MOVE by buying a house in Cherry Hill, but when Alberta kept returning with the boy to the MOVE house, Gilbride left and filed for custody.

“My client had to get out of there,” says Sheryl Rentz, Gilbride’s attorney. “He just couldn’t handle that communal, isolated, secluded, closed environment, with these people trying to torment him and control his life.”

Through Rentz, Gilbride explains that he’s avoiding discussion of the case until after the next court hearing. Alberta Africa and her lawyer have also refused to comment.

Ironically, John Africa’s two sisters had moved out of the MOVE house by the time tensions with police escalated to the breaking point back in 1985.

Today they say they were simply tired of the work demands put on them, but at the time they told police their brother had gone insane, threatening to kill members who didn’t obey him and to test their loyalty by having MOVE members kill each other.

Louise (whose only son, Frank, was killed during the 85 onslaught) and LaVerne now affirm their allegiance to the spirit of the brother they could not abide when he was alive. On the computer in the dining room, they print out letters to Attorney-General Janet Reno begging for a federal investigation of the 1978 MOVE confrontation with the hope that their imprisoned loved ones will be set free.

The activities, the “blasphemies,” of the “new’ MOVE people are a source of constant pain for them.

Recently, MOVE sponsored a “hiphop fundraiser’ for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s defence fund. The event was co-sponsored by a local tavern. Alcohol and dancing at a MOVE event. Louise moans, “Oh, it’s enough to stop your heart.”

But LaVerne and Louise have clearly moved on in their own way, too, from their days with MOVE. They make soup now, for instance, despite John Africa’s prohibition against cooked foods. Besides the computer, there is a television in the house, appliances that are hardly an easy fit with John Africa’s primitivist doctrines.

But the more important question is what will happen if Gilbride is granted custody of his four-year-old son. Will MOVE “fight to the death to protect its babies”? Will they risk another confrontation with the law — considering that this one would probably be beamed around the world live on CNN?

Shared podium

On Sunday, MOVE activists Pam Africa and Ramona Africa shared a podium with former New York mayor David Dinkins and actors Ossie Davis and Ed Asner in the 5,000-seat theatre at Madison Square Garden for a special sold-out fundraising event to benefit Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The inescapable fact is that after two violent clashes with police that resulted in the deaths of its founder and 10 other members, eight members in prison for up to 100 years and one of its most eloquent defenders sitting on death row, MOVE has never been more widely known and never more warmly received among the western world’s radical-chic set.

But that wasn’t won with raw carrots, dreadlocks and the respect for nature espoused by John Africa.

It merely required a steady supply of victims and martyrs.

From the Philadelphia City Paper

From the Philadelphia City Paper

From the Philadelphia City Paper

Number of MOVE members killed in police encounters: 17
Number of officers indicted for 1985 firebombing of MOVE: 0
Number of police officers killed in MOVE encounters: 1

Number of MOVE members currently imprisoned: 9
Length of these prisoners’ terms: 30-100 years

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