Politics Mondays: May 13, 1985: What the Corporate Media Didn't Tell You. An Interview with Ramona Africa by Hans Bennett
Ramona Africa is the sole adult survivor of the May 13, 1985 massacre of 11 members of the MOVE organization. The FBI and the City of Philadelphia dropped a C4 bomb on MOVE's 6221 Osage Avenue home in West Philadelphia. Carrying the young Birdie Africa (the only other survivor) with her, Ramona dodged gunfire and escaped from the fire with permanent scarring from the bums.After surviving the bombing, she was charged with conspiracy, riot, and multiple counts of simple and aggravated assault. Subsequently Ramona served 7 years in prison. If she had chosen to sever her ties with MOVE, she could have been released far earlier. In the face of this she held true to her revolutionary beliefs and was uncompromising in the face of state terror. Since her release from prison, Ramona has tirelessly worked as the MOVE Minister of Communication on behalf of the MOVE 9, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and all political prisoners and prisoners of war.
A few months ago I rode my bike out to see 6221 Osage Ave. for the first time since I moved to Philadelphia. Upon arrival I was shocked to find "PERMIT PARKING FOR PHILA. POLICE CIVIL AFFAIRS" posted directly in front of the 6221 lot. I later verified that 6221 Osage is now an actual police station. Particularly striking is the presence of Civil Affairs: the Philly's political police. As Ramona Africa talks about in the interview Civil Affairs played a key role on May 13 in their role as the official diplomats.
This May, I spoke with Ramona about 6221 today. "Ever since they rebuilt the houses out there, they never intended to sell 6221. They made it a police station with police present around the clock, 24/7." Ramona does feel insulted by the police station there, but says that it "is indicative of this system. On May 13, 1995, councilwoman Jamie Blackwell (whose district includes 6221 Osage Ave.) introduced a resolution to make May 13 `kiss a cop day.' Why May 13 of all possible days? That is the mentality of these people and we don't expect anything different from them."
Things were tense when last Sept. New Jersey Judge Shelly Robbins New reversed an earlier decision granting supervised visits to John Gilbride for his son Zachary Africa who was under the full-time custody of his mother Alberta Africa (a MOVE member). Because of past psychological and physical abuse, Zachary Africa had told the previous judge that while he loved his father he was afraid to be alone with him, and subsequently only wanted to be with his father if his mother was with him also.
Seeing Judge New's decision as illegitimate, Alberta and MOVE said that they would not hand Zachary over for unsupervised visits and boarded up the windows of their Kingsessing headquarters in West Philadelphia because of the threat of a police assault.
While the Philadelphia PD officially stated that they were giving MOVE their space and did not want any confrontations, their actions showed otherwise. During the nights that I spent with MOVE late at night while they were on 24 hour watch at their front gate, I observed an unusually large number of police cars passing by. Besides this harassment, were two major incidents at this point.
On the night of Sept. 11, 2002 the police made an aggressive act in front of the MOVE's Kingsessing home. As a group of MOVE supporters was backing their car out the driveway following their visit, a police car drove up and blocked them (almost causing a collision). The MOVE supporters were suspicious of the police motives and when the cops demanded they leave their car without giving any reason for it, the driver hit the horn to alert MOVE inside the house.
When Ramona Africa and others came out of the house and confronted the police, the cops claimed to not have known that it was the MOVE home. The police claimed that the MOVE supporters' car with Virginia plates fit the profile of a vehicle suspected of kidnapping a young child nearby. During a Sept. 20 press conference at MOVE's house I asked Civil Affairs Captain Fisher about the Sept. 11 incident and he denied that it ever happened despite the numerous neighbors that witnessed the police cars there that night.
On Sept. 13, 4 cops came to the MOVE house to get Zack, even though the court order specified that the first unsupervised visit would be this upcoming Friday (Sept. 20). According to MOVE, the police claimed to have a court order saying that Gilbride would have custody, but when MOVE demanded to see it, they explained that Gilbride himself had it, so they could not show them. This supposed court order is also suspect because if he had one, Alberta Africa should have been given one also. However, Alberta and MOVE said they hadn't gotten anything of the sort. MAY
On Sept. 27 Gilbride was shot dead in his car by what looked to be a professional hit. While there was an initial fear that the police would blame MOVE for the murder, the police officially don't suspect MOVE and the murder remains unsolved.
Last month when 7 year-old Zachary Africa and a friend were in Alberta Africa's backyard in Cherry Hill, NJ, they spotted a man wearing all black with dark paint on his face. Given the recent events with Alberta and Zachary Africa, it appeared as if this may have been related. While concerned about who was in their backyard and why, Ramona is unsure about it. "We really don't know whether it was the government, grandparents, or some nut. We just keep a close eye on our kids. That's all we can do."
Hans: Can you please talk about the weeks leading up to May 13, 1985?
Ramona: Things were relatively quiet. The biggest thing that happened was on April 29. We heard our dogs barking and upon checking it out, we saw cops out back that were counting the dogs or something. We knew they were up to something sneaky, so we turned on our loudspeaker. Note that we didn't have our speaker on 24/7 like the media attempts to portray.
With the loudspeaker, we let the neighborhood know that there were cops in the back of our house, and we didn't know what they were up to, but we knew it was no good and we didn't trust them. We weren't going to let them sneak in and attack MOVE people without the neighborhood knowing what was going on.
Civil Affairs cops (the official diplomats) like George Draper, Ted Vaughn, and others came to our home that day and knocked on the front door. My sister Theresa Africa and I came out and talked to them at length-with them standing right on the steps of our house for at least a half hour. We explained to them why we turned on the loudspeaker. That's all that happened that day.
Two weeks later, on Saturday, May 11, DA Ed Rendell got officer Ted Vaughn to charge us with terroristic threats, disorderly conduct, and nonsense like that stemming from April 29. Rendell then had the arrest warrants approved by Judge Lynne Abraham (now Philadelphia's DA) who was acting as the emergency judge for that Saturday. Based on the events of April 29, Abraham signed warrants for myself and 3 others.
People need to understand that this incident happened two weeks prior. How in the hell can it be an emergency if it waited 2 weeks? Second, if we were guilty of terroristic threats and officers Vaughn and Draper felt threatened by us, why would they talk to us on our steps for over a half hour. It's nonsense, but that's the excuse they used for the warrants, because they had absolutely nothing else to use.
The City of Philadelphia tells people that there were complaints from neighbors about us. That may very well be true, but they've never been able to verify for us who complained and what they specifically complained about. Even if this is true, you explain to me when this government ever cared about black people's neighborhood complaints. Since when is it such an issue that the FBI & the Justice Department get involved in something like that?
If the government is saying that their solution to a neighborhood dispute is to bomb the neighborhood and bum it down, then there wouldn't be a single neighborhood standing. All neighborhoods have disputes, but they aren't bombed. Look at 8th & Butler here in Philadelphia-a known drug area. The residents of that area have demonstrated, sat out in the middle of the street, and stormed City Council representatives' offices demanding some kind of relief from the drug trafficking. It is so bad that if you pull up at a red light in that area, people will come up to your car to try and sell you drugs. Parents say that they're upset because in the summer they can't even let their kids play outside because they're afraid of a shooting. You don't see any bombings in that neighborhood. You don't see cops en masse coming out to that neighborhood.
In our case, they claim that the bombing was a response to a handful of black people's complaints. Anybody with half a brain cell has to know there's something wrong with that. People also need to understand that when I went to court after the bombing, every charge listed on Rendell & Abraham's May 11 warrant was dismissed. During the pretrial motion, trial judge Michael Stiles was forced to dismiss every single charge. This means that they had no valid reason to even be out there.
They did not dismiss the charges placed on me as a result of what happened AFTER they came out. This is illegal, and an inconsistency because if the police had no valid reason to be out there, that should mean that anything coming after that would also be invalid. They wouldn't drop the other charges because I would have been released. People's emotions were so high at that time after May 13, there not about to put me back out in the streets.
You can see how this was nothing but a setup. Meanwhile, the media sat back and did everything possible to justify what this government did. They had warrants for four adults, but they knew there were many children in the house. On the morning of Sunday, May 12, one of our supporters (Gloria) went to the Italian market for us and took a couple of our children with her. By the time she came back, they had cordoned off the street.But when Gloria pulled her car up, the Civil Affairs cops (including George Draper) looked in the car (seeing Gloria and the children) and let them through the barricade to return to MOVE's home.
They let the children back into the house knowing what they were getting ready to do. All that nonsense about looking for every opportunity to remove the children from the situation is a bold-faced lie. They're aim was to kill everybody in that houseparticularly the children. According to Police Commissioner Sambor at the time, they saw MOVE children as being as much, if not more of a threat than the adults. So, we understand why they let the children back into the house.
In terms of what led up to May 13, we feel it was simply a matter of the government looking for an excuse to attack MOVE again. For over a year they tried to come up with a plan of action to do it. On Aug. 8, 1984 they hundreds of cops out to Osage without actually doing anything. This was just a drill while they were putting together a plan. All of this came out in the Commission that Wilson Goode put together.
Anybody can see that their aim, very simply, was to kill MOVE people-not to arrest anybody. They had overwhelming opportunity to arrest MOVE people if that's what they wanted to do. They knew our schedule as well as we did. They would follow us around when we left the house. I walked the streets by myself and would often stop and speak to the Civil Affairs cops. They could have snatched me up anytime.
Hans: Could you please give your personal account about what happened inside 6221 Osage on May 13?
Ramona: There's unfortunately not a whole lot I can say because I was in the basement with the children the whole time. When it had begun to get dark at around 8 or 9 Sunday night, we saw cops in houses across the street, and we knew they were set to attack us. In response, we took the kids to the basement and after a while down there water started pouring in from the hoses.
Then the tear gas came. They said that they used explosives to blow 3-inch diameter holes in the wall to insert tear gas. But photos show that the whole front of the house was blown off. The police estimate shooting over 10,000 rounds of bullets into the house during the first 90 minutes. They said they used all of the ammunition they had brought and had to get more from the armory. I did hear a lot of gunfire. Then for a pretty long time things were pretty quiet. It was then that they dropped the bomb without any warning.
At first, those of us in the basement didn't realize that the house was on fire because there was so much tear gas that it was hard to recognize smoke. After a while it seemed to be getting hotter and the smoke was thickening and choking us. That's when we started realizing that it was more than just tear gas. Conrad opened the door and we started to yell that we were coming out with the kids. The kids were hollering too. We know they heard us but the instant we were visible in the doorway, they opened fire. You could hear the bullets hitting all around the garage area. They deliberately took aim and shot at us.
I personally tried to get out with some of the kids at least twice before the last time when it was so hot with the flames everywhere. After I escaped with Birdie, they immediately took both of us into custody. I didn't realize how badly I was burned when they threw me onto the ground and handcuffed me.
On the 13 minute police video given to us in court, they were across from us on Osage and you could hear the cops talking in the background. There was a shot where you could see the house fully engulfed in flames and you can hear the cops talking and laughing in the background. You can hear them say: "That's the last time they'll call the commissioner a motherfucker." It shows you their mentality. This wasn't about an arrest.
Hans: In their coverage of the May 13 bombing, the "A&E" television show "American Justice" argued that mayor Goode's physical safety was threatened by a letter signed by you. What did this letter say?
Ramona: First, as I explained it court, I didn't write that letter. Someone from another chapter probably wrote the letter and signed my name to it, as was usually done because I was the Minister of Communications.
Second, after reading the letter in court after it was entered in as evidence, I didn't see anything threatening Wilson. I did see the tone of the letter being "if you come at us, you can expect us to defend ourselves." This government blames the victim. They are brutal and vicious towards you and then accuse you of being vicious and violent. They're saying that a letter was sent to Goode, but he dropped a bomb on us. That went past words, didn't it?
If we wanted to attack Goode, we knew where he worked every day and could have done it. That's not how we do things and this government knows that. Cops have trampled a 3 week-old MOVE baby to death. Police have beat, stomped, and kicked pregnant MOVE women into miscarriage. They've beaten MOVE men and locked up innocent MOVE people. When did you ever see us go out and try and shoot a cop? Absolutely never.
If we didn't do it then why all of a sudden we want to go and attack Goode? It doesn't make any sense.
Showing who Goode was really afraid of, he wrote in his later book (In Good Faith) that he didn't come out to 62nd and Osage because police threatened his life and subsequently felt that his life was in danger.
Hans: The corporate press often reports that MOVE was shooting guns at the Fire Department as well as the police. What evidence was presented in court in regards to MOVE firing weapons from their house?
Ramona: I don't recall them presenting anything other than saying that MOVE shot at them with automatic weapon fire and that they heard it. But then they got messed up because after digging through all of the rubble, they couldn't find a single automatic weapon. Then they said they found a handgun and some type of shotgun or something. I've never seen a gun in a MOVE house. Not in the Osage house or any other. That's all I can say about that. After digging through the rubble with those big claws, who knows where that came from? Even if those were our weapons, that couldn't have created automatic weapon fire.
During the later civil trial, two or three firefighters said they never heard or saw MOVE people shooting at them at all. They said they did hear automatic weapon fire but that it was from the police. The fire commissioner tried to say that he didn't fight the fire out of fear of putting firemen in danger. Meanwhile when the whole thing started, he had 4 huge hose on our home for over an hour. If they weren't in danger then, why couldn't they do it later when the house and block was on fire?
By their own admission, they're saying that MOVE gunfire was a response to the use of explosives to blow holes through the walls of our house they. Even if that were true, you're blowing up a house and then you have a problem when someone defends their home?
They will wreck havoc all over the world. They will beat you, kill you, lock you up, shoot at you, bomb you, and do all this crazy stuff to you, but they want to be seen as respectable and righteous. They will say that what they do is in defense of freedom, justice, or national security.
Meanwhile, the right of self defense is lost when cops attack an individual like they did to Amadou Diallo or Abner Louima in New York, or that brother Thomas Jones here in Philadelphia. We're just supposed to accept whatever this government and the kill-crazy, blood-thirsty cops do. You're supposed to accept that as necessary and righteous. In other words, it's acceptable for the government to turn guns on people, but its never acceptable to turn guns on this government. MOVE is saying that the instinct of self-defense is just that: it's instinctive. It's god-given and comes from mother nature. There is not a species alive walking this earth that doesn't defend itself when attacked. Humans are no different.
This government cannot explain how you are wrong to defend yourself. You are wrong if you refuse to defend yourself because that is violent because it endorses and encourages violence. It makes you suicidal. MOVE is not suicidal or masochistic. We do believe in defending ourselves, no question. This government is never going to take that away from us and will never convince us that we are criminal and wrong for that.
What the hell do they say this country was founded on? Every 4th of July these motherfuckers celebrate the so-called "American Revolution." They say that these founding fathers were courageous and brave men who defied legality and went to war against cops called "red coats" and the government of King George. They said "give me liberty or give me death" and went to war. Every day these people are celebrated and applauded in 2nd and 3rd grade history classes and beyond. What makes Nathan Hale a "freedom fighter" for defying legality in favor of what is right but makes Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, or Delbert Africa and other MOVE prisoners a "criminal?"
I've heard that Police Commissioner Sambor made an announcement before the May 13 assault saying "Attention MOVE! This is America!" If this was 1776 and he was a British soldier saying to Nathan Hale or Patrick Henry "Attention! This is an English colony and you have to abide by the laws of England," what do you think would have happened to him? He'd be a dead man right about now and the person who killed him would be celebrated as a hero for over 200 years. But he's going to stand in front of our house and say that.
Hans: It seems that some are willing to support Mumia, Leonard Peltier, and the MOVE 9 because the evidence available strongly suggests that they are innocent of the crime they are accused of. Unfortunately there seems to be less support for political prisoners and prisoners of war like Ruchell "Cinque" Magee, Assata Shakur, or Russell "Maroon" Shhoats, who were forced to break the law in order to protect themselves from their oppressor.
Ramona: There is no way in the world that this government (which has the blood of Leonard Peltier's ancestors on their hands) is going to convince us to see him as a murderer. We don't care what happened on the Pine Ridge reservation because it isn't the issue. The very people that dropped a bomb on my family and burned babies alive are going to convince me to see Leonard or Mumia as a murderer?
To make it clear, I do believe that both Leonard and Mumia are innocent, but people are confused and misled by this system. With issues like Mumia, Leonard, or MOVE the government tries to convince people that the issue is whether or not they actually pulled the trigger and killed somebody. Mumia and Leonard are not in prison for the accusation of murder, but rather because of who they are and because they dared to stand up.
If murder was truly the issue it would be applied across the board. If it was about murder, they'd have to charge with murder and imprison those who murdered my family, who murdered Thomas Jones, Amadou Diallo, and Winston Hood back in the 60s. Why aren't they if murder is the true issue? Anytime you don't apply the same principle across the board, you're not talking about equality and justice.
Hans: What do you think were the facts presented in the later civil trial that most convinced the jury to decide in your favor?
Ramona: The point that we made in that civil suit was that first of all this was not an accident that got out of control. This was a planned murder and wasn't an isolated incident. I had to go to war with the attorneys representing me on this case. I told them that we had to deal with Aug. 8, 1978 and the unjust imprisonment of our family because it was the root of our protest prior to May 13.
The lawyers didn't want to deal with it because a police officer had been shot and they didn't want to prejudice the jury by bringing that up. I said "The hell with that! They attacked my family that day. They destroyed the house, the evidence, they know my family is innocent, and that is what we were protesting. They wanted to stop the protest and shut us up permanently. Also, this isn't an isolated incident, but an ongoing problem of police attacking MOVE and killing their babies." I felt that the jury needed to get the clear picture and entire history.
We showed a video of the Aug. 8, 1978 beating of Delbert Africa and the city just went crazy. They did not want that in. When I testified I talked about the history of MOVE with this system and I think the jury didn't have a choice because we made clear that all of the charges justifying the May 11 warrants had been dismissed.
There was nothing the city could say to justify the assault. That jury did not want to find in my favor. Besides an Asian man and a black woman on the jury, the rest were white suburbanites. It took them about 5 days to come to a verdict. They were in there battling. In fact, a white man got discharged during the deliberations. He just couldn't take it. We know they didn't want to find in my favor because they just ordered police commissioner Sambor and fire commissioner Richmond to each pay me one dollar a week for 11 years. That was their penalty. The jury decided the City of Philadelphia had to pay me $500,000. Especially after paying my legal fees, that wasn't much money. A woman got a one million dollar award for spilling hot coffee on herself at McDonald's
To add insult to injury, the judge comes back after the jury arrived at their verdict and overrules them in regards to Sambor and Richmond (granting them immunity). The judge never expected the jury to find Sambor and Richmond liable. He was willing to take the chance of finding the city liable. The City of Philadelphia is a faceless entity. They had already given Wilson Goode and many others in the city immunity.
This judge was an old white man. He didn't relate to me but rather to Sambor and Richmond and he never expected the jury to find them individually liable, but they did. In justifying his move,
the judge said that he believed Commissioner Sambor's statement that had never given the order to let the fire burn.
Hans: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Ramona: People had better wake up for their own protection, because where this government is heading and what its involving itself in is very dangerous and a threat to all of us. People need to wake up and start taking charge of their own lives and make their own decisions because that's the only way all of this insanity can be stopped. Those running this country are completely out of control. Taking control isn't easy. It takes a lot of commitment and hard work, but when you look at the alternative there is no choice and that's the bottom line.
This article was published by Insubordination magazine in 2003. Hans Bennett is an anarchist and independent photojournalist currently working with Philadelphia's INSUBORDINATION and AWOLmagazines. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com
Monday, May 9, 2005