The Standoff: An Interview with MOVE member Mike Africa Jr.
Today, Philadelphia-based activist Mike Africa Jr. benefits from a kind of aura.
Mike Africa Jr.
I’ll give an example. During the RNC Republican National Convention in 2000, we were protesting across the street from the Philadelphia City Hall, and the police were arresting people by the hundreds. And one of the police officers grabbed me, zip-tied my hands behind my back, lifted me up off the ground, and started walking me to the wagon. They never gave me a reason. When I got inside the wagon, I could hear people outside saying, “They’re trying to take him. They’re trying to take him.” So one of the supporters went to the police captain and said, “Captain Fisher, one of your men just arrested a MOVE member.” And Captain Fisher’s response was, “Please don’t start that rumor.” So Captain Fisher walked over to the truck and he said, “We’re going to get you out of here.” And I said, “I’m sure you are.”
Mike is a member of MOVE, a political and religious organization founded in 1972 upon principles of environmental and social justice. It is perhaps best known, however, for how it was almost obliterated ― quite literally blown off the face of the earth ― when the Philadelphia P.D. dropped a bomb onto its headquarters, a rowhouse on a suburban street in West Philadelphia, in 1985, killing 11 people, including five children.
The 1970s was a ripe period for social justice activism and experimentation with alternative lifestyles. Riding the waves of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, the 1970s saw a sharp rise of interest in social progressive movements like feminism, environmentalism, and socialism, and alongside them, new age spirituality.
MOVE fit neatly into this backdrop. The organization was founded by an illiterate Korean war veteran named John Africa, who proselytized an anarcho-primitivist ideology. He and his followers identified as a family, took the surname Africa, and lived communally. They kept to a raw diet and composted their refuse, home-birthed and -schooled their children, and did not comb or cut their hair. They advocated for black liberation, animal rights, and environmental protections.
Mike Africa Jr.
The organization’s mission is to protect life, and to encourage other people to protect life, too. And when we say life, we’re talking about people, animals, and the environment.
And our guide is nature.
MOVE also advocated against many things. Africa and his followers were “anti-system” ― anti-government, anti-technology, and anti-corporation. And they made their opposition known. They staged raucous, bullhorn-amplified protests opposing everything from puppy mills and zoos to police departments, corporations, and capitalism. And it was this activity for which they were most visible.
Mike Africa Jr.
Our work is to expose the system for the corruption in it.
What is the “system” that MOVE is fighting against?
Mike Africa Jr.
The entire reformed world system. So when we say “reformed,” we’re talking about anything that is outside of the natural, original form. So, nature created the sun, and the system created the lightbulb. We’re not just talking about the political system, or the police system. We’re talking about the entire system. It is a global system that has been built, that is working against life.
Where do we draw the line?
Mike Africa Jr.
Probably when people started to want to make money. Everybody has to have shelter, right? That’s natural. Birds build nests, animals create dens. That’s natural. But when they take these things, and they try to hoard it, and then make you pay for it, and you can’t live unless you pay for it, like, you have to go to the system for every basic necessity… There’s a system that intentionally created obstacles for us so that we can’t live independently. Because there’s this money that the government stands to make, they don’t care about what the people want.
Today, the movement for a reversion to a more environmentally friendly, post-capitalist, hunter-gatherer-like existence (not just paleo diets) is becoming more widespread and mainstream in response to growing concerns about climate change, automation, and the rise of tribalism and fake news due to social media. Less disruptive responses to these concerns have been championed and popularized even by presidential nominees ― Andrew Yang in particular, whose universal basic income, the Freedom Dividend, would be step one in the evolution of capitalism towards measuring success by human and environmental wellbeing as opposed to profit at all costs.
Mike Africa Jr.
So, the things that we, in the early ‘70s, talked about, that was frowned on, are now becoming topics at the forefront of many conversations, right? In the ‘70s, when MOVE first started, the ethical treatment of animals did not exist. People never considered that a tiger is not supposed to be jumping through rings of fire in a circus. But that tiger was brought from the endless acres of freedom, and shipped to Philadelphia, and beaten and starved to be trained to be jumping through rings of fire. The MOVE organization connected that treatment to Africans being brought to this country as slaves. As long as there’s a mentality of enslavement, then you’re always going to have a problem of slavery. The same is true for the environment. All of this stuff about going green, these things didn’t exist back in the 1970s. So to see these things talked about on a global scale is really, really powerful to me. And the stance that MOVE took, that was seen as so extreme, you can now understand a little better why we took that type of stance.
The 1970s was also a period rife with violence, the likes and extent of which we do not witness today. The violent crime rate increased by 126% between 1960 and 1970, and by another 64% between 1970 and 1980. Not only were serial killers like Ted Bundy, the Zodiac Killer, the Dating Game Killer, Son of Sam, the Hillside Stranglers, and the Death Angels (just to name a few) piling up victims during these years, but death cults were fresh in the public consciousness as well. They might be overtly hostile, like the Manson Family, but also, death lurked behind even the most benign appearances and best intentions, as was the case with Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, which advocated for social justice, but ended with the mass suicide and murder of nearly a thousand people.
Terrorism was also more prevalent. Between 1968 and 1972, more than 130 American airplanes were hijacked. In 1975, there were two assassination attempts against President Ford in less than a month.
In Philadelphia, MOVE’s disruptive activism and lifestyle drew complaints from neighbors and were scrutinized by law enforcement, particularly under the administration of Mayor Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner. There were violent, and sometimes even fatal, altercations.
We were always under surveillance or scrutiny. We couldn’t even walk to the store. It wasn’t just the police that were harassing us. It was neighbors. You could get spit on on your way to the store. Or a cop pick you up by your hair and throw you across the street.
[What] was the first major tragedy to befall MOVE?
Mike Africa Jr.
I guess it depends on what “major” means.
Mike Africa Jr.
I mean, we had situations where the police attacked MOVE women that were visibly pregnant, and caused miscarriages.
Mike Africa Jr.
Yeah, and that was before August 8. There were four miscarriages at the hands of the police before the MOVE confrontation on August 8, 1978.
The MOVE confrontation of August 8, 1978 marked their transition towards militancy. Following years of targeted, aggressive policing, MOVE members armed themselves in the same spirit as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Then, in 1977, when the Philadelphia P.D. obtained a court order demanding MOVE members vacate their commune…
MOVE took a stand and said, “You’ve been beating and killing our family behind closed doors. The world is going to see what happens now.” So MOVE took a defensive stance around our headquarters armed with every type of weapon that existed at the time ― rifles, shotguns, machine guns, handguns ― and Delbert Africa read a statement, saying, “If you come in here with fists, we’ll fight you back with fists. If you come at us with clubs, we’ll use clubs. If you come in here shooting and killing our brothers and sisters, we will shoot back in defense of our lives.” That led to a standoff where the police built a barricade around the house. Frank Rizzo ordered everything to be shut off. Shut off the phone, shut off the water, shut off the food. Rizzo said, “We’re going to put a barricade around this property so tight that a fly won’t get in.” They even shut off the U.S. mail. That lasted for almost a year. It ended because the city decided to make an agreement. MOVE’s demands were, number one, free our political prisoners; there were four members of the organization that were unjustly imprisoned, and we wanted them out. Demand number two was for Jimmy Carter to be in a helicopter accompanying the MOVE members when they released them. The government’s demand was for MOVE to turn over all of the weapons and vacate the premises.
Mike Africa Jr.
MOVE received one demand, for our people to be free, but Jimmy Carter wasn’t with them. So MOVE gave one demand to the city, turned over the weapons, but they did not leave the premises.
The city of Philadelphia was not obligated to negotiate with MOVE members, but tellingly, the way Mayor Frank Rizzo and the Philadelphia P.D. responded to MOVE’s resistance was less like authorities serving a legal eviction, and more like an exterminator flushing out a nest of rats.
According to prosecutors at the time, when police officers attempted to enter the MOVE house to enforce the eviction, shooting erupted from within. A shootoff ensued, lasting a full hour before the MOVE members surrendered, but not before an officer, James Ramp, was killed in the crossfire. But MOVE members remember the fatal encounter very differently.
So the police, on August 8, 1978, surrounded the house with hundreds of cops, and they shot tear gas and smoke grenades and high pressure water cannons. Those hoses were shot directly at children inside of the house. The police cut a hole in the first floor of the building and shot the water down on top of the people in the basement of the house. And when that didn’t drive the members out of the house, the police opened fire. They shot hundreds of rounds of ammunition at the house. Police admitted to shooting in corners where they heard babies crying. They were trying to kill Phil Africa, one of the members. He talked about how he picked up a sheet plywood and put it up to the window with his back to it, trying to stop the water from coming in, and he could see the bullets going through the plywood, tracing around his body like some type of a cartoon.
I mean, it sounds like a war zone.
Mike Africa Jr.
It was a war zone. Nine members of the organization were arrested. While they were in jail, they learned that a police officer had been killed. A police officer was shot with one bullet from one gun, and many witnesses said it came from the police.
Mike wasn’t present to witness these events, but he did witness the consequences. Despite testimony that contradicted the state’s version of the events and suggested Officer Ramp may have been the victim of friendly fire, the nine arrested MOVE members were collectively charged and convicted of Officer Ramp’s murder, and were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison. Mike’s father, Mike Africa Sr., and mother, Debbie Africa, were two of the nine. Debbie was pregnant at the time, and gave birth to Mike alone in her jail cell. From the first moments of his life, and with his parents effectively sentenced to life, Mike was at the mercy of the very system his parents had so passionately protested against.
My grandmother came and got me from the prison a couple of days after I was born, and she took me to what was our sister chapter, the Seeds Of Wisdom. It was a portion of the organization that John Africa created to get the children away from the confrontational atmosphere in the city. So we went there to regroup and seek refuge. While we were there, the Philadelphia Police drove from Philadelphia to Richmond, Virginia, which is a six hour drive, completely out of their jurisdiction, arrested the members of the organization, and put the children in foster care. That was probably the worst experience of my life. We were beaten, and when we fought back, we were beaten worse. The children that I still talk to today, they recall the nuns throwing us down the basement steps because we would not cooperate. We were starved. These people did not change my diaper for 11 days. I had a diaper rash almost to my knees, up to my stomach. And so, to go through that at three years old, no mother, no father, and none of the family members that were caring for us, that experience was gruesome.
How did you get out of that system?
Mike Africa Jr.
Some of our family members were not willing to follow the court order and watch us be abused. They got us out of there.
And then we get back to Philadelphia, we feel like this may be the turning point. We were going to the park every day. We were eating our raw food. It was good, we loved it. And then the government decided to drop a bomb.
That’s not a metaphor. The MOVE organization had relocated their headquarters in 1981 to a rowhouse in West Philadelphia. They were not welcome. Neighbors complained to the city about trash, confrontations, and bullhorn announcements. This led the Philadelphia P.D. to obtain arrest warrants charging four MOVE members with parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terrorist threats.
But when they refused to vacate their home once again, on the evening of May 13, 1985, the city of Philadelphia dropped a satchel bomb of Tovex and C-4 on the MOVE headquarters, knowing full well that the building was occupied by men, women, and children.
The blast killed eleven people, five of them children. Only two MOVE members survived, a woman and her minor-aged brother, who narrowly escaped volleys of gunfire and emerged severely burned. The offensive destroyed sixty-one nearby homes, and left hundreds of citizens homeless.
It’s so unfair. I mean, it’s unfair for adults, too, but the adults could make decisions, whereas with us, we were at the mercy of the system. There was nowhere we could go. People ask me all the time, “Why don’t you just leave?” And go where? We went to Virginia to leave. And they came and tracked us there. What could we have done? So to just know that my brothers and sisters never found that peace, that’s the worst part of this whole experience.
Why do you think all of this happened?
Mike Africa Jr.
I think all of this happened because John Africa, the founder of MOVE, found a way to be not dependent on the system, and that was a huge threat. If you don’t support their systems, their systems can’t exist. John Africa didn’t pay taxes. He didn’t have a water bill. He didn’t have a heating bill, an electric bill. The system wants you to be completely dependent on them for everything. Where you learn, where you eat, where you drink, where you live. Everything that you do, your complete and entire life is wrapped up into the system from the day you get a birth certificate to the day you get a death certificate. And John Africa had a way of extracting himself and others outside of that system, so that you not only don’t depend on the system, but you work to get rid of it, because it’s not working for you.
He was on federal trial facing 100 years in jail because the government said that he was making bombs to blow up the ice caps in the north pole to flood the earth. John Africa went to court dressed in dungarees and a sweatshirt, with his hair in natural locks, and told the prosecutor, “You know you’re not gonna win this case, don’t you? You ain’t gonna convict me because I’m innocent and I’ll prove it.” John Africa represented himself. He said, “It ain’t me that that’s guilty. I’m not the one making bombs. The government don’t even really care about who’s making bombs and who’s not making bombs. The only thing they care about is who can control the bombs? This country has stockpiled enough explosives to blow up the entire earth, and they talking about me. I don’t have a bomb. Bombs are disruptive and they backfire on the people that make them. But if you want to call life a bomb, then I got the biggest bomb that existed, and the MOVE organization is constantly dropping it. That is my bomb. I’m about promoting life, not destroying life.” And the jury found him not guilty. That is why they came after us the way they did. I believe that the instant he walked out free, they decided to drop a bomb on him.
John Africa has mythic, if not messianic, status within the MOVE community. And he became that way in no small part due to the actions of the authorities he defied. His and his followers’ violent end at the hands of the state left a mark on the consciousness of Philadelphia, and on Mike Africa Jr.
I believe people are awakened when they see these tragic things happen, but then, after seeing it so much, they become desensitized. Change will not happen unless the people actually does something to affect the change. And what I believe needs to happen is people got to fight back. They got to fight back.
Mike Africa Jr.
Any way possible. Because we’re not dealing with a system that is kind or fair. We’re not dealing with a system of justice. The people have to fight back, however it takes to be free. And I mean, whatever it takes, because, as Martin Luther King said, “America is the biggest purveyor of violence on the face of the earth,” and you see what happened to him. You see what happened to Malcolm X. Anybody that speaks to truth, that tries to evoke some type of change, becomes a target. And even people that are not trying to evoke change, they’re just living their lives, are targets, too. As John Africa said, “You don’t have to be a criminal to become a victim of the system. The only thing you need to be is available.” We’re available because we’re here and the system is here. We’re in trouble. Even if you’re not talking about the police killing people, the air is more polluted than ever. Everything’s all out of balance. We got to fight back on every level, all the time.
You don’t have to agree with MOVE’s vision of a just society to understand the power of stepping outside the social constructs that frame our problems, the power of reimagining the world from scratch. In this regard, the modern day technologists are surprisingly aligned with the radical activists of the ‘70s. The difference is in how such radical visions are framed and responded to. Are ideas that challenge the very foundations of our society “innovative” or “terrorist”? And why?
The standoff continues. On the one hand, we have our democratic government and its institutions of law enforcement ― the culmination of enlightenment ideals imperfectly put into practice by flawed systems and individuals. And on the other hand, we have people who were born into a world they didn’t create, who would opt out, or even uproot, the corruption they see as threats to our wellbeing and very survival. At the heart of this conflict is a fundamental breakdown of trust. How exactly to reestablish that trust isn’t clear, but it is necessary, and chances are, it will take some radical reimagining and unorthodox thinking to do so.