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What caused Philadelphia officials, in collusion with state and federal agencies, to drop a four-pound bomb made of C-4 plastic explosive and Tovex, a dynamite substitute, onto the roof of the Osage Avenue headquarters of the MOVE organization in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985? Why did six adults and five children have to lose their lives that day? Why did firefighters allow an entire neighborhood go up in flames while they sat idly by?
Born Vincent Leaphart in 1931, John Africa was a 41-year-old handyman with a third-grade education who was known as a street-corner philosopher in his Powelton Village neighborhood in West Philadelphia when he met a militant student activist named Donald Glassey.
Glassey had come to Philadelphia as a grad student and social worker. Glassey, a white radical student, was so taken with the urban black activist, that he transcribed some of Leaphart’s ideas into a manuscript called The Guideline, a blueprint for a neighborhood activist group that at first was simply called “Vinnie’s Gang” and then the Community Action Movement, later shortened to MOVE.
The 1970s was a tumultuous decade in Philadelphia – with urban unrest, gang warfare and the iconic law-and-order regime of tough-cop-turned-mayor Frank L. Rizzo. The group lived communally and frequently engaged in public demonstrations related to issues they deemed important.
MOVE’s early protests centered around treatment of animals in zoos and circuses and poor housing conditions for the elderly. As time went by, MOVE began to protest chemical companies such as Dow Chemical and DuPont. As the decade wore on, MOVE began to be targeted by the Philadelphia Police Department for its views on technology and its “getting back to nature” mentality.
On August 8, 1978, an end was negotiated to an almost year-long standoff with police over orders to vacate the Powelton Village MOVE house. MOVE refused to relocate as required by a court order. The eviction notice was served by an astonishingly large police presence.
When police later attempted entry, Philadelphia police officer James J. Ramp was killed by a shot to the back of the head. MOVE representatives claim he was facing the house at the time, which would therefore negate the notion that MOVE was responsible for his death. As a result, nine MOVE members were found guilty of third-degree murder in the shooting death of a police officer and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in jail.
Seven of the MOVE 9 became eligible for parole in the spring of 2008, and all seven were denied parole. Parole hearings now occur yearly. Following the 1978 shoot-out, or “shoot-in” as it has been called by some, the MOVE house was immediately bulldozed despite a court order against its destruction — as well as the fact of it being a crime scene — by the city on the orders of mayor Frank L. Rizzo. This destroyed any and all defense evidence. (See video of the 1978 MOVE Confrontation on the video page.)
For the next seven years MOVE worked tirelessly to free the MOVE 9 and other members of the organization who had been jailed. MOVE relocated to Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.
After neighborhood complaints about dirtiness, rat infestations, and MOVE’s refusal to use electricity and gas, another eviction notice was drawn up to relocate MOVE members.
This time 500 to 600 armed law enforcement officers descended into the Osage Avenue neighborhood and residents were ordered to evacuate their homes.
On the morning of May 13, 1985 MOVE headquarters was bombarded with water from fire hoses. Then came the tear gas. At 5:20 p.m., the four pound C-4 bomb was dropped and MOVE headquarters caught fire. Despite using fire hoses to try to get MOVE members to evacuate the house on Osage Avenue, after the fire started, the fire department turned no hoses towards the flames. Instead, the flames of the fire were left to burn destroying MOVE headquarters and 58 other houses in the neighborhood.
Neighborhood residents were shocked and appalled by what had transpired. Eleven people – six adults and five children – were massacred, an entire neighborhood was burned to the ground and over 280 people were displaced from their homes.
What about the MOVE organization threatened Philadelphia officials to the point that Philadelphia became “The City that Bombed Itself”?
Ramona Africa, Minister of Communications for MOVE and the sole adult survivor of the 1985 bombing, has her own definitive answers to these questions.
“It sounds so ridiculous that sometimes it is hard for most people to digest,” said Africa. “John Africa shared a belief with MOVE that was very simple and yet so revolutionary. John Africa taught MOVE people to believe in life. All of life. Without categorization. To believe in the force that moves the water, that moves air, that pushes food up through the ground to feed living things, the force that gives the sun its heat and brilliance, to believe in the coordination of that force to give us that instinct of hunger to push us to food and the instinct of thirst to push us to water, the instinct of mating to keep this species going.”
“All of that is coordinated. We don’t control any of that, but people don’t seem to understand that there is a force that coordinates all of that. John Africa taught us to believe in that force, to revere that force and to understand that there is nothing more important than life — than the force that keeps life moving and keeps us alive. Those things don’t seem to mean anything to most people. They didn’t mean anything to me before MOVE. People just take these things for granted and buy into the concepts that go against life,” Africa said.
The concepts of MOVE are not far removed from the idea of natural law. Natural law, or the law of nature, is a system of law that is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature—both social and personal—and deduce binding rules of moral behavior from it. Natural law is classicaly contrasted with the positive law of a given political community, society, or nation-state, and thus serves as a standard by which to criticize said positive law.
A reading of Frederic Bastiat’s The Law can help shape a better understanding of MOVE’s philosophy. Bastiat asserted that the sole purpose of government is to protect the right of an individual to life, liberty, and property, and why it is dangerous and morally wrong for government to interfere with an individual’s other personal matters.
From this, Bastiat concluded that the law cannot defend life, liberty, and property if it promotes “legal plunder,” which he defined as using government force and laws to take something from one individual and give it to others (as opposed to a transfer of property via mutually-agreed contracts, without using fraud nor violent threats against the other party, which Bastiat considered a legitimate transfer of property).
Bastiat explains that, if the privileged classes or socialists use the government for “legalized plunder,” this will encourage the other socio-economic class to also use “legal plunder,” and that the correct response to both the socialists and the corporatists is to cease all “legal plunder.” Bastiat also explains in The Law why his position is that the law cannot defend life, liberty, and property if it promotes socialist policies. When used to obtain “legalized plunder” for any group, he says, the law is perverted and turned against the only things (life, liberty, and property) it is supposed to defend.
MOVE is not far off from Bastiat’s thought process. Bastiat argues that perversions of the law will develop into systems that will no longer protect those things – life, liberty and property – that were originally intended to be natural rights of all men.
“The Bible tells you things like God gave man dominion over the earth,” said Africa. “God is not synonymous with inequality, superiority and inferiority. If God did give man dominion over the earth, why are things so screwed up?”
“Animals live in harmony with life. They only have problems when humans impose on them and their environment and their coordination. You don’t see any other species of life, but humans, paying thousands of dollars and going to hospitals regularly for something as natural as having a baby. What other species of life goes to hospitals to have babies? I’m saying all this to say that John Africa taught us that life is the priority. It is the only thing that is important. But, those running the system have twisted humans so badly that humans are taught that money is the priority, social standing is priority, things like jewelry, cars, a certain kind of house and things like this are what is important.”
“This is proven by situations like parents smacking or beating their children for breaking a glass or touching their jewelry. These things don’t have feelings. They are not alive. People are trained to put priority on those things and not life. Not living beings. And, that is really what has put MOVE in conflict with the system and those running the system. We are stepping on their toes. We’re showing people what is really important, and that cuts into the training that the system is pushing.”
“The lie that this system is pushing is used to keep people locked in the system. If people really understood that we all are equipped with the coordination to be ourselves, to take care of ourselves and understand what is important – the whole interpretation of life – where would that leave the system? Where would that leave the president, the governors, the congress, the industrialists? Where would it leave all them?”
“If people really understood the value of the air and the water and uncompromisingly refused to allow these industrialists to poison these things, where would that leave the system? And, that is why those running the system – not only the politicians but the rich industrialists – feel so threatened by MOVE and want to get rid of MOVE. They said ’78 happened because MOVE people were living a certain way and wouldn’t allow government officials to come in our homes and inspect them. Since when has this government cared about poor people, mostly black people, living in a home that wasn’t up to inspection standards?”
“When this system encountered John Africa, his beliefs and the MOVE organization who were moving away from the system and its training they felt threatened by that,” said Africa.
“They had to stop that. They couldn’t have us influencing others in this kind of belief. It would be the end of the system. As a result of our position against the system and being arrested and going to jail and still demonstrating in accordance to our beliefs and against the madness of the system it led to the August 8th police attack on MOVE. That really made things explode.”
“MOVE people only believe in what’s right, and it is absolutely wrong and unjust for these people to arrest, try and convict our family even against their own laws. Not to mention that our family is innocent. Pure and simple. We will never accept them being treated as if they are guilty when it is clear they are innocent. And, it is that kind of example that is threatening to the system because they want people to accept that whatever the system does is right, and even when you know it is wrong accept it anyway. We don’t accept or endorse crime, but the system does.”
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