It has been 34 years since nine members of the radical group MOVE were convicted for the 1978 murder of Philadelphia police officer James J. Ramp during a police seizure in Powelton Village, and four years since eight members of the original MOVE 9 — Debbie Sims Africa, Janet Hollaway Africa, Janine Philips Africa, Williams Philips Africa, Delbert Orr Africa, Michael Davis Africa, Charles Sims Africa and Edward Goodman Africa — became eligible for parole.
The ninth member, Merle Austin Africa, died in prison in March 1998.
And depending on who is telling the story, the MOVE 9 are either guilty as charged, or a symbol of an oppressive judicial system hell-bent on silencing its critics and stamping out left-wing revolutionaries.
“Charles Africa’s parole hearing is coming up, and Debbie saw the parole board in June and was denied,” said MOVE spokesperson Ramona Africa. “The issue MOVE has is the demand for MOVE people to ‘take responsibility for the crime.’ MOVE people did not kill Ramp; we were in our own home when we were surrounded by thousands of cops. We didn’t go to [former Mayor Frank] Rizzo’s house, and we didn’t go to [former Police Commissioner Joseph F. O’Neill’s] house; they came to our house and attacked us in warlike fashion.”
Ramp was killed by a shot to the back of the head, and all members of the MOVE 9 were convicted of third degree murder.
The August 8, 1978, shooting of Ramp was the culmination of several confrontations MOVE had with the police department, and a chilling precursor to the infamous May 1985 Osage Avenue clash that resulted in a bomb being dropped on MOVE’s Osage Avenue compound, which led to the death of 11 people, including MOVE founder John Africa, and the decimation of several city blocks containing 65 homes.
Ramona Africa contends that “MOVE people didn’t kill anybody,” and believes there are holes in the theory that points to her organization as the culprits.
“If officials really believed MOVE killed Ramp, they wouldn’t have demolished the scene of the crime — but they demolished it within hours,” Africa said. “There should never have even been a trial once [the city] demolished the scene — that’s destroying evidence, leaving MOVE with no way to adequately defend itself.”
Africa contends MOVE 9 opted for a bench trial in front of late trial Judge Edward Malmed because the group didn’t want to appear before a slanted jury. But that decision came at a price.
“The burden was put squarely on the shoulders of Malmed, who is supposed to be learned in the law, objective and sworn to simply follow the legality that dictates procedure,” Africa said. “The judge did not do that, because if he had, he would have dismissed the case because of destruction of evidence.
“After the trial, Malmed convicted nine of my family members of third degree murder and conspiracy,” Africa continued. “And that is a contradiction. If he’s saying they conspired to kill a cop, wouldn’t that be first degree and not third? There are numerous inconsistencies here that clarify that my family was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 100 years, not because they committed any crime or any officials believe they did, but because they are MOVE people and committed revolutionaries.” Africa also contends that MOVE member and current life sentence prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal once asked Malmed to name the person responsible for Ramp’s murder, and Malmed allegedly responded that he hadn’t the faintest idea.
Officials with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole wouldn’t comment further than confirming the hearing dates, and the minimum and maximum time each member must serve. While all remaining MOVE 9 members have been denied parole at their most recent hearing, two were denied parole for curious reasons. Edward Goodman Africa was denied due to a negative recommendation by the Department of Corrections, while Michael Davis Africa was denied due to his “denial of offenses committed,” according to parole board spokesperson Leo Dunn.
“Most people know, if nothing else, that in order to convict someone, whether judge or jury, you have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Africa, who has been denied visitation rights with her incarcerated family members, despite being out of jail herself for 20 years and has had a clean criminal record since her 1992 release. “Judge Malmed, obviously, was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The fallout from the 1985 bombing of MOVE’s compound resulted in former Mayor W. Wilson Goode authorizing a commission to investigate the decision-making of officials involved, and make recommendations on ways to avoid such confrontations in the future.
Africa contends that both the mayor and district attorney’s offices aren’t adhering to the commission’s suggestion of keeping open the lines of communication.
“For a little over a month now, we’ve been trying to get a meeting with [District Attorney] Seth Williams and Mayor Michael Nutter to discuss the issues pertaining to my family,” Africa said. “Nutter is the mayor of this city and needs to know what’s going on. We are not going to allow him to feign ignorance; we want to meet them.
“We want to meet with Williams because as district attorney he has authority over any criminal case, and because he gave a negative recommendation as district attorney to the parole board,” Africa continued. “Seth Williams doesn’t even know my family, as he was just a kid in 1978.
“The thing is that commission Wilson Goode put together said the city made a terrible mistake by not meeting with us and keeping lines of communication open — that it never happens again and to keep lines of communication open. The mayor is not doing that, and the district attorney is not doing that.”
District Attorney Spokesperson Tasha Jamerson draws a stark contradiction to Africa’s claims. While not commenting on the merits of the MOVE 9’s conviction and subsequent parole denials, Jamerson did take issue with Africa’s claim of communication misfires.
“The district attorney gets swamped by piles of mail and requests, and anyone who requests to meet, I go over it with [Williams],” Jamerson said, noting the process calls for anyone wishing to meet with Williams to submit a formal written request — something Jamerson said Africa failed to do. “If Ramona Africa sent any kind of request, I would have asked about it. If she asked for a meeting, I think [Williams] would meet with her, but no letter has come, and no phone call has come.”
Jamerson noted that Williams isn’t ducking any confrontation; rather, he and Africa have been in the same building at the same time on numerous occasions, one being at a recent screening and discussion about Tigre Hill’s controversial film, “The Barrel of A Gun,” and said there was a time when Williams tried to approach Africa — only to be shunned.
“There has been some communication back and forth,” Jamerson said. “But I’d point out that before the election in November, Williams was at an event in Old City and wanted to shake her hand and talk to her a little bit.
“She brushed him aside.”
Mayor Michael Nutter’s spokesperson Mark McDonald confirmed that Nutter will not meet with Africa, as Nutter has no leverage or dealings in the matter.
“Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison handled the matter, and he says, what he learned from Africa is that her fight is with the parole board, and the mayor has no jurisdiction in this matter,” McDonald said. “Having a meeting for meeting’s sake doesn’t make sense. Ramona Africa has been informed of this some time ago. The mayor is polite and respectful of her, but won’t be meeting.”
In terms of release, Africa doubts her compatriots will ever be released before maxing out, meaning all MOVE 9 members are facing the prospect of dying in prison. And Africa doubts any of the incarcerated MOVE 9 members will ever cop a plea to somehow earn an early release.
“Our aim is not simply to get out of prison. Our aim is to expose and eliminate the rotten system that is the root of such injustices, so they will never say they are guilty. We continue to fight because we know our work is the same, whether we’re on the prison block or street block,” Africa said. “Guilt or innocence is not an issue with parole. What is supposed to determine parole is whether or not you’ve completed any designated programs, and my family has — they’ve even taught lessons. They also need an acceptable home and work plan, …
“None of my family members have bad conduct records,” Africa continued, allowing that one or two of her brothers may have had minor skirmishes while locked up. “Most importantly, their parole sheets don’t include any write-ups for misconduct. MOVE people aren’t going to lie, and more importantly, should not have to lie and say we are guilty if we are not.”