Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Black movement

Streets of fire

Nick Wall tells the story of the brutal repression of a radical black organisation
A Move meber surrenders with her baby, but still the police continued firing

On 26 April Geronimo ji Jaga, a former Black Panther and associate of Mumia Abu-Jamal, won an estimated $4.5 million from the FBI and the Los Angeles authorities in an out of court settlement. A Vietnam War veteran, in December 1969 Geronimo successfully defended the Los Angeles Black Panther Party office in an extended gun battle with the LAPD. Later he was framed for murder on the evidence of a police informant.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is not the only political prisoner in the US. Indeed, it was his campaigns in support of prisoners of resistance which helped to lead to his own incarceration. As he wrote at the time of Geronimo's release, 'Countless revolutionaries languish in American gulags. For many of them, their trials were about as 'fair' as Geronimo's, with 'witnesses' just as tainted and 'evidence' just as twisted.'

One such case involves the Move Nine. Move is a utopian black radical organisation, formed by John Africa in Philadelphia in 1972. Its members opt out of mainstream life and espouse a 'back to nature' philosophy. However, their lifestyle and campaigns against police abuses attracted the attention of the city police, who arrested hundreds of Move members in the 1970s. In August 1978 police stormed Move's Powelton Village compound following a year long siege. A cop died in the battle, caught in police crossfire. In the subsequent trial, nine Move members were convicted of murder and given prison sentences of 30 to 100 years. The guns allegedly found in the Move house had no fingerprints and the defendants, before being banned from the courtroom, denied any knowledge of them.

After the trial, Mumia confronted the judge on a Philadelphia radio talk show. The judge admitted that he hadn't 'the faintest idea' who killed the cop. Mumia was never in any doubt: 'They were guilty only of adhering to a teaching of resistance,' he wrote. Mumia's own arrest and conviction followed in 1981.

Move refused to be intimidated. In the early 1980s they took over a house at 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek area of Philadelphia. The city authorities had no idea how to deal with this group who didn't pay water, gas or electric bills, refused to send their kids to schools, rescued or adopted many dogs, wore their hair in dreadlocks, and sometimes berated their more conformist neighbours with a loudspeaker system. The police decided on a Rambo-style attack. There was to be one crucial difference compared with August 1978, nobody--man, woman, child or dog--was to leave the building alive.

On 12 May 1985 some 500 Osage Avenue residents were ordered by police to evacuate their homes. Gas and electricity supplies to the whole block were then cut off. At least 77 special police moved into position around the Move building. At 5.35am on 13 May Police Commissioner Sambor, with the words, 'Attention Move! This is America!' began making his final ultimatum. Move were given 15 minutes to surrender. But they knew that anyone stepping outside was likely to be mown down by some racist, trigger-happy cop.

When the 15 minutes were up police began firing tear gas, smoke bombs and automatic weapons into the fortified building. Although the police later strenuously denied having started the firing, Move did not possess any automatic weapons. Two pistols, a shotgun and a .22 calibre rifle were found afterwards in the burned remains of the building. Two teams of police armed with powerful explosives entered the adjoining houses and let off a series of explosions. Finally, the shooting and the explosions trailed off, and a grim standoff began that was to last for several hours. Then, at 5.25pm, a helicopter hovering 60 feet over the house dropped a bomb with a 45 second fuse. The bomb started fires burning on the roof. The police and City Hall watched the fires burn, condemning 61 other homes in Osage Avenue. Shortly after 7pm, the inhabitants of 6221 made a desperate attempt to surrender, only to be driven back by gunfire and killed. Of the seven adults and six children in the house only Ramona Africa, 30, and Birdie Africa, 13, survived to tell the tale.

Ramona Africa was arrested and put on trial in early 1986. Every day she entered the courtroom shouting, 'Long live John Africa! Down with this rotten-ass system!' She argued that the authorities had conspired to murder her comrades. She was convicted of riot and conspiracy.

Shortly after the trial, an independent commission set up by the mayor released a report which was highly critical of the actions of the city and the police department. However, it did not lead to any prosecutions or resignations. No police were indicted and Wilson Goode, Philadelphia's black mayor who had been fully aware of all aspects of the police operation, kept his job. A decade later, a jury awarded Ramona Africa and two of the bereaved families $500,000 each. Other claims were settled out of court by the city.

The Move Nine remain in jail, although there are now eight, following the death in prison of Merle Africa in 1998. Parole is denied to them as they refuse to agree never to associate with Move. All have spent many years in solitary confinement for refusing to violate their religious beliefs--by not cutting their hair, by refusing to give blood samples, and by refusing to be tested for TB. Their courage and fortitude puts America's racist justice system to shame.

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