Nearly four decades behind bars have not diminished Debbie Sims Africa’s commitment to MOVE.
“Jail didn’t break that belief,” she said.
But much has changed around Africa since she was sent to prison at 22 years old along with eight others for charges related to the 1978 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp during a shootout at MOVE’s Powelton Village compound.
Now 62 years old and a grandmother many times over, Debbie Africa was released from the State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs in June. She moved in with her son, Michael Africa Jr., in a borough of Delaware County, where he lives in a three-story home with his wife and four children.
Of the so-called MOVE 9 who were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison for the killing, including Debbie Africa’s husband, only she has been paroled; two others have died in prison. The remaining members in jail have been eligible for parole since 2008.
Debbie Africa adamantly maintains her innocence.
“It’s not what I believe, it’s what I know: I did not kill anybody,” she said.
Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, said Debbie Africa’s release comes with mixed feelings.
Muhammad noted the lingering uncertainty about who actually shot and killed the police officer in 1978, and said Debbie Africa and the other MOVE 9 members never should have been sent to prison.
“You’re always welcome to see people come home, but at the same time you can’t stop wondering: Why were they in prison in the first place?” Muhammad asked.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 and the Philadelphia Police Department declined to comment about Debbie Africa’s release.
‘In a time capsule’
Prison is never far from Debbie Africa’s mind.
While sitting on her son’s living room couch on a recent weekday, Debbie Africa rolled up her right pant leg to reveal an ankle-monitoring device she must wear as part of her parole. She is restricted to staying in Delaware County and she has an 8 p.m. curfew.
“It’s annoying physically and mentally,” she said about the tracking device.
Debbie Africa said she was attempting to continue her life from where it was before prison — although that has its challenges.
“I was in a time capsule,” she said. “It feels like nothing stood still while I was in jail because I had a regular routine. But when I came out here, it made me feel like I did stand still. … It’s almost like everything was still back then — to me.”
Debbie Africa spends her days exercising, walking the family’s dogs, tending the backyard garden and inputting data for Michael Africa Jr.’s landscaping business on their home computer. She also home schools Michael’s 6-year-old daughter, Alia.
Debbie gave birth to Michael Africa Jr. while she was in prison and he was raised by other MOVE members, so she had never known him outside of the prison walls. Spending time with him and her family is her primary goal, and she recently celebrated Michael Africa Jr.’s 40th birthday with him and friends.
“We’re just starting to really know each other,” she said.
Adjusting to the world outside prison has its challenges. Relearning how to cook remains an ongoing project.
“The first time I tried to scramble eggs, they weren’t too good,” she said with laugh.
Adapting to the ubiquity of modern technology has been among her biggest challenges.
“That phone gave me a lot of grief,” Debbie said, as she looked down at a cellphone and winced.
Debbie avoids social media.
A Different MOVE
The MOVE Debbie was a part of in the 1970s styled itself as a Black revolutionary, anti-technology group that pushed back against the violent tactics of the Philadelphia Police Department at the time.
The organization clashed with police on several occasions, including the shootout in 1978 and the infamous police bombing of the organization’s headquarters in 1985. Eleven MOVE members were killed and 61 homes destroyed when police dropped explosives from a helicopter onto the organization’s fortified row home.
MOVE members will never forget the bombing, Michael Africa Jr. said.
“Even though it was 33 years ago, we talk and think about our family that was in that house everyday,” he said. “Those things bother us. We think about it, we talk about it, we cry about it.”
Debbie Africa, who was in prison during the bombing, questioned whether MOVE members and the city can ever get beyond the bombing.
“I’d like to see things heal,” she said. “I don’t know if it can. When you think of the loss of life, it’s hard, it hurts.”
Many of the clashes between MOVE and the city were the result of a racist criminal justice system, including police brutality and double standards of justice, said Linn Washington, a journalism professor at Temple University.
Those systemic issues have not disappeared.
“These problems that gave birth to the MOVE organization, the systemic abuses of police departments still persist today despite the presence of Black police commissioners, and Blacks in the hierarchy of the police department,” Washington said.
But “the MOVE that you see today is totally different from the MOVE that was existing back then.”
Today, MOVE members in the area no longer live the strict, back-to-nature lifestyles that John Africa endorsed, but they remain steadfast to his teachings. Members carry cellphones and use other modern conveniences.
Michael Africa Jr. said some MOVE members hold meetings in their homes. While the group does not actively seek followers, it doesn’t turn people away, either.
MOVE has always been anti-violence, anti-guns and anti-confrontation, but that does not prevent members from protecting themselves, Michael Africa Jr. said.
“We are peaceful people, but we are defensive people, too,” he said. “And I think people get those things confused because they equate fighting or defending yourself with violence … but it’s not the same thing.”
Michael and Debbie Africa carry on the teachings of MOVE’s founder, John Africa, in a less confrontational way than decades ago.
One of the 21st-century manifestations of MOVE is the nonprofit The Seed of Wisdom Foundation, which Michael Africa Jr. founded shortly before his mother’s release.
Michael Africa Jr. described the nonprofit as a sister organization of MOVE that advocates the teachings of John Africa and “natural law,” which includes living a healthy lifestyle and focusing on social justice issues and environmental protection, among other things.
“The organization is still actively involved and informing people of the dangers of a systematic oppression of life, but we try to focus on the softer side of it — of the revolution,” he said.
When they come home ...
The remaining MOVE 9 members in prison continue to weigh on Debbie Africa.
“When we were arrested, we were arrested together,” she said. “We were sentenced together. We were arraigned together. We went to court together. The judge said — we were sentenced as a family together — he said we were a family so that’s the way he was going to sentence us.
“And then when it came time to get out, we didn’t get out together,” she added. “That’s just something that’s like a thorn there.”
Pam Africa, a long-time MOVE member who lives in Philadelphia, said MOVE members and supporters continue to advocate for their release from prison.
“I turn that rage into work,” she said. “That’s when we’ll be happy: When all of them come home.”