Interview with Ramona Africa on the 1985 Philadelphia Police Bombing of MOVE

The only adult survivor of the brutal 1985 police bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia tells her side of the story. This interview by Rob Sewell, editor of the British Marxist journal Socialist Appeal, was conducted in 2000 after a protest demanding freedom for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia is a former Black Panther and journalist who has spent 30 years on death row following a frame-up trial internationally decried as flawed, unjust, and racist. He remains in prison to this day. The bombing is a particularly horrific chapter in American capitalism’s long history of racism and police brutality.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a wave of political and industrial militancy as workers, youth, and oppressed people sought radical solutions to the problems of racism, oppression, and exploitation under capitalism. In the absence of a mass workers’ party and revolutionary Marxist leadership, new organizations arose attempting to carry the struggle forward.

One of these was MOVE, founded in Philadelphia in 1972. The small organization blended opposition to racial oppression, police brutality, and imperialist war with environmentalism, skepticism of modern technology, and a strong emphasis on animal rights. Highlighting their connection to the ongoing upsurge of black militancy, all members adopted the surname Africa.

During the 1970s, MOVE was viciously targeted for repression from Democratic Mayor Frank Rizzo’s administration. Rizzo was a former Police Commissioner and notorious racist. His violent campaign against the organization culminated in a 1978 shootout at MOVE headquarters in the Powelton Village section of West Philly.

One of the officers involved was killed by “friendly fire” from fellow police after being struck by single stray bullet. Despite this, nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 100 years in prison each. Merle Africa died in prison in 1998, and the remaining eight were released on parole between 2018 and 2020.

Ramona Africa served 7 years in prison for the crime of surviving the police bombing of the MOVE house. / Image: Joe Piette, Flickr

MOVE regrouped in the early 1980s, relocating to a row house on Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia.

The city’s first Black mayor, Democrat W. Wilson Goode, took office in 1984. Goode was born to North Carolina sharecroppers. When he was 15 years old, his family moved north as part of the “Great Migration” and joined the ranks of Philly’s working class.

Life as a Philadelphia proletarian didn’t impress Goode. He later said, “the quality of our life didn’t improve much; we traded in the farm for a piece of sidewalk.” Rather than fighting to improve his life through class struggle in the labor and socialist movements, Goode resolved to escape his class and ascend into the petty bourgeoisie.

Eliminating MOVE was one of Goode’s top priorities. Philadelphia’s first Black mayor wanted to succeed where the racist Rizzo had failed. Goode and Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor devised a plan for evicting the group of seven adults and six children from their Osage Avenue headquarters. On May 13, 1985, Sambor kicked off the confrontation by addressing MOVE members via bullhorn, saying, “Attention MOVE: this is America.”

Sambor and Goode’s lesson in “Americanism” began with tear gas and over 10,000 rounds of ammunition. When this assault failed, a police helicopter dropped two one-pound bombs—constructed from Tovex explosives provided by the FBI—on the MOVE house. As the building burned, police fired live rounds at those trying to escape. The brutal attack killed six adults and five children. The inferno also destroyed 61 neighboring houses as fire fighters stood idle, ordered not to intervene.

For the crime of surviving this atrocity, Ramona Africa served seven years in prison.

Q: What happened in May 1985 and the bombing of the MOVE headquarters?

There are nine MOVE brothers and sisters—political prisoners—who are innocent and were wrongly accused of killing a police officer in 1978. It was obviously not possible for MOVE to have done this, but the government has used that situation (45 armed police had raided their offices, and one officer was fatally wounded) as an excuse to put MOVE in prison because they failed to kill MOVE in that first attack. In their frenzy to kill MOVE they ended up killing one of their own police officers.

Nine people were accused of shooting one cop with one bullet. All nine were given 100-year sentences.

MOVE people were not going to sit back quietly and watch. And we have put so much pressure on the government that they had to do something to relieve the pressure. They decided to shut us up, stop our protests, stop us exposing them.

Q: How did the government justify the action?

What the government told people was that the police came out to our home on May 13 (1985), as neighbors had complained about us. And we say that is so ridiculous. When did this government start caring about Black people complaining about their neighbors? When did the FBI start getting involved in neighborhood disputes? This is absolutely ridiculous. They wanted to stop MOVE. To quote Wilson Goode, the black man who was mayor of Philadelphia at the time, he said “We want a permanent end to MOVE.” Now why would he say that if it was just a neighborhood dispute? That is what the May 13 bombing was about. This government was determined to do what it failed to do in 1978.

Q: And how did you view it?

They know we are innocent, but they wanted to silence MOVE, they wanted to stop MOVE’s revolution. And this is nothing new in this country. From day one, anybody that stood up against injustice, against exploitation, and oppression, this government has tried to stop them, whether it be through money, giving them money, banging them up, which didn’t work with us, giving them a job, a position, but that didn’t work with MOVE either. When those things don’t work then the government has to start with the brutality and intimidation. And that’s what they did with us in 1985.

It was not a situation where things got out of hand, there was no bad judgement. They did exactly what they were intending to do. They came to our home with a powerful military explosive. They brought it with them, fully intending to use it.

It was not a matter of bad judgement when the bomb they dropped ignited a fire. And the fire department as well as other city departments decided that they were going to let the fire burn. They were going to do nothing to put it out. Since when does the fire department sit back and allow a fire to burn anywhere? But particularly in a home where innocent men, women, and children were in that building. And when it is a row house connected to other houses. You know, they made a conscious decision to let it burn. That was no an accident. That’s not bad judgement. That’s deliberate.

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Q: What happened on May 13?

When we learned that our house was on fire we were in the basement. We immediately started to try and get ourselves out of that building. We were immediately met with a barrage of police gunfire, deliberately aimed at us to prevent anybody from escaping the blazing inferno. That was no accident. That was deliberate.

Q: You were the only adult survivor?

Yes. As a result of this situation, I was the only person to see the inside of the jail, to go to trial, to be convicted of anything. Not one single official; not one person was held accountable for the murder of my family. Not one of them was ever charged with anything.

They don’t have to justify it. Why do they have to? I mean a bomb was dropped, babies were burned alive, do you see people in the streets turning this country out? No. So why couldn’t they think of just doing it?

Q: What happened after that?

I took a law suit out against various people over this incident. It took eleven years before the law suit finally went to trial. By the time it went to trial there were only three defendants: the police commissioner, the fire commissioner and the city of Philadelphia. A white suburban jury saw all the evidence, and the testimony and they were compelled to find these people guilty. They did, they found them liable, guilty. The judge didn’t like that verdict. So after the verdict he came back and decided to throw it out of the window and grant immunity to the police and fire commissioners after the verdict.

That is quote, unquote, justice in America.

Q: You were sent to prison?

I did seven years in prison. I had maybe thirty charges against me. Some were dismissed; others I was acquitted of and I was convicted of riot and conspiracy. I was sentenced 16 months to 7 years. I had a 4.5 million dollar bail. Murders don’t get that kind of bail. After 16 months I was interviewed for yearly release. They said they were willing to release me, on condition that I sever all my ties with MOVE; disassociate from them; have no contact with any MOVE member. Then you are out of here. I wouldn’t do it! They approached my other brothers and sisters to do the same. Carlos over there did 12 years in prison. My sister Sue did 12 years. My sister Consuewella also over there lost two babies in the bombing. She did 16 years in jail. None of us would accept that stipulation. So we spent every last day of our sentences in jail.

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