Freed After 40 Years, Debbie Africa Asks: When Will the Rest of the MOVE 9 Members Get Parole?

Web ExclusiveAugust 08, 2018
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Exactly 40 years ago today, the Philadelphia police besieged the headquarters of the black radical group known as MOVE. During the siege on MOVE’s house on August 8, 1978, gunfire was exchanged, and a police officer named James Ramp was killed. Two years later, nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder in Ramp’s death and were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison. Now, the first of the MOVE 9 has been freed. Debbie Africa spent nearly 40 years behind bars before being released earlier this summer. Newly freed, she has united with her son, Mike Jr., for the first time outside prison walls. For more about their incredible story, we speak with Debbie and Mike Africa, reunited on June 16 after nearly four decades. We also air footage from the documentaryMOVE: Confrontation in Philadelphia,” directed and produced by Karen Pomer and Jane Mancini.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today marks the 40th anniversary of a massive police operation in Philadelphia that culminated in the siege of the headquarters of a radical group known as MOVE, dedicated to black liberation and a back-to-nature lifestyle. The group was founded by John Africa, and all its members took the surname Africa. It was August 8th, 1978, when police tried to remove members of MOVE from their communal home with water cannons and battering rams, even as some continued to hide in the basement with children. This is how an eyewitness described the scene in the documentary MOVE: Confrontation in Philadelphia.

EYEWITNESS: I was standing on the porch, 3207—3207 Pearl Street. And I could hear—well, it’s only about 20 feet from MOVE headquarters. I could hear voices. I could distinguish who was calling. You know, I could distinguish the kids crying. You know, very clearly, he was calling out for help.

REPORTER: And two minutes later, hoses are blasted at the house to flood MOVE members out of the basement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During the siege on MOVE’s house, gunfire was exchanged, and a police officer named James Ramp was killed. MOVE members were beaten by officers as they were forced out of the home, including Delbert Africa, who was unarmed and half-naked as TV news cameras filmed police grabbing him by his dreadlocks, throwing him to the ground and kicking and stomping him. Two years later, nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder in Officer Ramp’s death. They were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison and became known as the MOVE 9.

Well, today we look back at the attack 40 years ago, in 1978, that preceded the 1985 bombing and led to the arrest of those who became known as the MOVE 9.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Debbie Africa, the first of the nine to be released from prison. At the time of her arrest, she was 8-and-a-half months pregnant with her son Mike Jr. He was born inside prison. Then, this past June, on June 16th, after nearly 40 years behind bars, she was released and reunited with her son Mike, who is joining us now, Debbie and Mike joining us from Mike’s house just outside Philadelphia because Debbie can’t travel into Philadelphia or come to our studio.

We’ve done in Part 1 of this interview, and we left Part 1 where you were describing, Debbie, the birth of your son, who’s sitting next to you—and I won’t exactly say towering over you right now, but he’s clearly taller. But if you could go back to the day that he was born in prison, and describe in detail for us how you did this? You were determined not to let the prison know, not to let the officers be involved with the birth of Mike, named for your husband Mike Africa, who remains behind bars and is up for parole in a month.

DEBBIE AFRICA: Yeah, I was determined to not let them know, because I didn’t want them to do anything that I didn’t want done. I didn’t want to be forced to the hospital. I didn’t want to be force-fed intravenously. I didn’t want any kind of violation against my body or him. I wanted to do whatever I could to protect him. And, you know, because of the past, that wasn’t always—that wasn’t always a city priority. That wasn’t always, you know, something that you could depend on, at that point, to not happen to a MOVE person, a MOVE baby, a MOVE child. And so I was determined not to let them know that, until I was ready for them to know, so that it could be—he could be safe. That was the main reason.

AMY GOODMAN: How many women were in your cell? I mean, Mike’s about to turn 40 on September 15th, so this happened almost 40 years ago. How did you do this by yourself? You were with, what, another woman in your jail cell?

DEBBIE AFRICA: Yeah. Well, Janine was in the room with me, but I did it by myself, and I did it just with—armed with the principle of motherhood and just the teachings of John Africa that had been given to all MOVE women at that point, because I wasn’t the first MOVE woman to have a baby at home. Sue Africa was the first one, actually, to have a baby naturally, in the era, that era, when people were saying that women could not have babies naturally. And so, she was the first one. I believe I was the third. And so, I had had a baby before, two years before that. But anyway—

AMY GOODMAN: What did you do with the placenta?

DEBBIE AFRICA: You want to know that on TV? Well, I’ll put it this way. We did dispose of it. You know, we did dispose of it, you know, but we just flushed it. Yeah, so—

AMY GOODMAN: And what about when baby Mike, who’s sitting next to you, a grown man now, when this infant cried? How did—I mean, you were with him for three days before the authorities understood what had happened?

DEBBIE AFRICA: Oh, well, we just—I mean, it was just common sense to us. People just started making noise and singing. Merle stood right in front of my doorstep, and she just started singing a song or just, you know, diverting the audio, diverting the ear, and, you know, sang, talked, just talked loud whenever he was—whenever we heard the officers getting close to that area, because we were locked behind another door, you see? And there’s 63 cells, and then we were locked behind a door in isolation, so it was eight cells there. So, while Janine was in the cell with me, you know, she just lay there and watched me, because she had also had two babies by then—no, three.

And, you know, she just—I mean, she didn’t—I did everything myself, because that’s the way John Africa told us, that we were not—we’re not cripple. You know, he’d always explain to us, in the old days, that having a baby was natural, it was not sick. Hospitals were sick, for sick people. And because John Africa aided us in the principle of motherhood by showing us that we could do it, through the example of eating right, exercising, being healthy, being strong, and so these were the principles that we adopted. And as young people, you know, young people are indoctrinated easily and easily influenced, so, you know, we were more malleable. Like I was what? In my early twenties. And so, there was no fear. There was no fear there, because I had not actually been, you know, real, real, real and systematically indoctrinated yet, at that point. And so, it was easy for John Africa to create that example through we MOVE women at the time. And so, by the time I was arrested in 1978, I felt pretty confident that I could do it, you know. And I was strong enough, and there was nothing wrong with me. I was healthy. And that was the result.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask both of you about the second major MOVE confrontation, in 1985. That would have been seven years later. So, Mike, you would have been 7, and your mother would have been obviously still in prison. That was the the confrontation that the entire world really was shocked at. And I want to turn to Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the 1985 attack on the MOVE house, in which she was describing what happened after the bomb was dropped on her house.

RAMONA AFRICA: In terms of the bombing, after being attacked the way we were, first with four deluge hoses by the fire department and then tons of tear gas, and then being shot at—the police admit to shooting over 10,000 rounds of bullets at us in the first 90 minutes—there was a lull. You know, it was quiet for a little bit. And then, without any warning at all, two members of the Philadelphia Police Department’s bomb squad got in a Pennsylvania state police helicopter and flew over our home and dropped a satchel containing C-4, a powerful military explosive that no municipal police department has. They had to get it from the federal government, from the FBI. And without any announcement or warning or anything, they dropped that bomb on the roof of our home.

Now, at that point, we didn’t know exactly what they had done. We heard the loud explosion. The house kind of shook. But it never entered my mind that they dropped a bomb on us. But the bomb did in fact ignite a fire. And not long after that, it got very, very hot in the house, and the smoke was getting thicker. At first we thought it was tear gas. But as it got thicker, it became clear that this wasn’t tear gas, that this was something else. And then we could hear the trees outside of our house crackling and realized that our home was on fire. And we immediately tried to get our children, our animals, our dogs and cats, and ourselves out of that blazing inferno.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Ramona Africa, speaking on Democracy Now!, describing the 1985 police attack on the MOVE compound. I remember, by then, I was already a reporter in Philadelphia. I covered that event, and I was right there with my co-worker Linn Washington of the Philadelphia Daily News, as we watched the bomb being dropped on the house. But then the amazing thing is that for over an hour, as the house burned, the police department and the fire department, with all the fire trucks surrounding it, they didn’t turn on any water to douse the flames. They actually let the fire spread, and it ended up destroying an entire city block. I’m wondering, Debbie, your reaction, when you were in prison and you saw what was happening to your comrades in MOVE at the time, and also, Mike, your reaction, as a young boy, hearing about what had happened.

DEBBIE AFRICA: I was—we were horrified. At the time, we were not only in prison, but we were in a special part of the prison called the RHU, which is restricted housing area, also known as the hole. And so, we couldn’t see it, you know, live, but we were told about it. We were told about it by some officer that just came up and said, “You know, your baby’s dead.” We were horrified. We didn’t not believe it. We were just—you know, it was just such a—not only a shock, but it was just so—it was heartbreaking. And it was just an anger, you know? It was angry, because, you know, for us to be told like that. Although I didn’t suffer a child being lost in the house that way, you know, Sue—Sue was there. Janet was there, Janine, Consuela. You know, and all of them had children and babies in the house. And so, that was just—you know, it was just unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mike, you were what? Seven years old now. It was 1985. You were born in ’78. Do you remember that day?

MIKE AFRICA JR.: I do. I do. I was—at the time, I was living with my grandmother a few miles away from the house. And I remember looking up. I mean, the house, 6221 Osage Avenue, was a few miles from the house that we lived in, on 39th and Reno. And I remember looking up in the sky and seeing black smoke. And I didn’t know what it was. I just remember seeing black smoke, and I remember seeing a lot of it. And I remember seeing that it seemed like it was never going to end. And I went in the house, and I saw my aunt and my grandmother. They were all watching the news. And when they—as they were watching the news, I saw my aunt on the news, and she was talking about it, and she was saying, “You burned down our house!” and she was going crazy. And I said, “That looks like—that looks like Louise.” And my other aunt, she looked at me, and she said, “It is.” And I saw the house. I saw our house, that was—and I just started thinking about the kids and Tomaso and all the other kids that I was growing up with. And, you know, it was just—it was just such a tragic day, and it was so confusing. I mean, I didn’t understand why this would happen.

I remember being very afraid of police, because of them always attacking us and taking us and putting us in foster homes and always trying to like comb our hair and ripping our hair out of our scalp. And I just remember those bad days. And May 13th, when that happened, it was just—even now, just thinking about it, I just—it just—I was in disbelief. And I think I still haven’t even really fully come to grips with what actually happened. But I do remember that time. Even now, when I look up, and if I’m doing something, you know, at the age that I am now, if I’m driving or running or somewhere and I see black smoke in the air, although the confrontational atmosphere of MOVE in the city of Philadelphia is not the same as it was in 1985, I still find myself calling all the MOVE houses to make sure that it’s not our house that’s on fire.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the election of Larry Krasner to be DA of Philadelphia made a difference for either of you? I mean, he was a person who—oh, I just want to take this moment, as I know this is a horrifying moment for you, as you both wipe tears away, thinking about 1985, especially Debbie behind bars learning about it and Mike a little boy. But, Mike, Larry Krasner becoming DA, who for so long represented, oh, everyone from Black Lives Matter to activists in Philadelphia challenging the police, now the DA of Philadelphia, does that encourage you, Debbie?

DEBBIE AFRICA: It actually does, because we did get his recommendation for parole—I mean, his office, his office’s recommendation for parole. And that’s something that we had not gotten from the previous DA’s office, for so many years. And, you know, anything, anything that’s going to encourage—that’s going to encourage justice, that’s going to encourage, you know, a more—a peaceful way about, so to speak, ending things, you know, is always encouraging for me. And so, you know—

MIKE AFRICA JR.: I think the point should be made, too, that MOVE is not against what’s right. I mean, if—John Africa said, “If the city can tell us something that’s right, we’ll accept it.” He said, “If anybody can tell us something that’s right, we’ll accept it. But if they’re going to tell us something wrong, we ain’t accepting it. And we ain’t going to be beat into doing what’s wrong.” So, the fact that Larry Krasner is in office and he’s doing things that are positive and in the way of fairness and justice and equality, we’re all for it and happy to have him.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike, can you tell us about your father? You visited your mother and father in jail for 40 years, going back and forth between penitentiaries.

MIKE AFRICA JR.: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s going to be up for parole. When will—is his hearing? Same charges as Debbie and the MOVE 9. We showed this image, a photograph of all these awards Mike Sr. has won behind bars.

MIKE AFRICA JR.: Yeah, yeah, my father is awesome. That’s the best way that I could describe it. My father was my first hero. My father is Mike Africa. Oh, man, to be his son is one of the biggest honors that I’ve ever had to experience. And just like thinking about him and the kind of person he is and the effort that he puts into being right and the love that he has for his family and, you know, all those—those are—when I sent the message out there about these awards, these are just 20 percent or less maybe of the accomplishments that he has. And as far as like—I mean, he’s in everything, whether it’s music or sports or just academic achievements in sociology or whatever. I mean, he has so much.

But more than that, his love for his family and the understanding and the patience that he has with dealing with issues, helping me figure things out and helping to strategize on his case or in the other people’s case. I mean, for so many years I’ve talked to him and said, “Dad, listen, we’ve got to—I want to help you get this thing or get that,” or “You need any money?” whatever. He’d say, “Yeah, no, send it to your mother. Make sure your mother has it. Is the girls up there all right? I ain’t worried about me, Mike. Just make sure that we get the women out, man. As long as your mom come home, as long as Janet and Janine come home, I’m all right. We got this. If nobody”—he said, “I will do this prison activity a thousand times, if it meant that no other MOVE member or no other person that don’t need to be behind them bars is not behind those bars.” I mean, his his energy toward just being right is just so strong. And, I mean, he is the reason that I am the man that I am today, the husband, the father and all these good things. You know, just—and he got what he got from the teaching of John Africa. So, it just all comes full circle, you know. And we just want our family to be whole for the first time ever.

DEBBIE AFRICA: Yeah, that’s the truth, because, I mean, he puts 100 percent into whatever he does. And just like the awards that he’s won and—the awards that he’s won and the achievement that he’s accomplished while being in prison, listen, he just—anything he does, he does 100 percent. You know, I mean, he, as other MOVE people—I mean, he didn’t do those things just to win an award or just to win a trophy. You know, he runs—Mike runs because he is coordinated to run, because that is what’s going to make him healthy. He runs for health. He runs for fitness. He runs for his belief. You know, he plays sports to help him release energy. So, these awards are really just being presented so that people can see that the things that was said on his previous parole interviews—lack of motivation for success—are just—it’s not true, because this is—he’s been doing this for years. And so, that’s why these are really—the point is being made that, you know, MOVE people are not successfully unmotivated. We are very much successfully motivated. And that’s why—that’s the point that’s being made here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Debbie, I’d like to ask you about another incarcerated individual, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who became a MOVE supporter and who was, as you well know, been accused, also in prison for the rest of his life, for supposedly having killed a Philadelphia police officer, who he has continuously denied having been involved in the killing. Could you talk about Mumia and his importance?

DEBBIE AFRICA: Well, I don’t really know—I don’t really know his case except for what I’ve read. I just know him as a—when he was a journalist, you know, when he was a journalist. And he would come to the prison to interview—you know, to interview us or to talk, and we just started getting really close, just because of his interest in MOVE and in our case. And so that’s actually how I met him. He would just come to the prison and do interviews, especially when we were on trial in the '70s, late ’70s, early ’80s. And, you know, but I—like I said, I don't know the specifics of his case except for what I’ve read. But I don’t believe he’s guilty. That’s all I really can say. I don’t believe he’s guilty.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you Mumia Abu-Jamal’s most recent commentaries. It’s titled “For Debbie Africa: Freedom.”

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: For Debbie Africa: Freedom. Debbie Africa is one of a group called the MOVE 9, survivors of the August 8, 1978, police attack on MOVE in Philadelphia. From that day to less than a week ago, Debbie has been in a cell, serving out an outrageous 30- to 100-year prison sentence, one of seven surviving MOVE members. And like other MOVE members, she served 10 years over her minimum term before release on parole. Upon her release, in comments published by The Guardian of London, she remarked on two MOVE sisters who were not granted parole, Janine and Janet Africa. Debbie said, “Having to leave them was hard. I was torn up inside, because of course I want to come home, but I want them to come with me. I was in shock when it didn’t happen that way.”

When Debbie was first arrested, she was 8 months pregnant, and in September 1978 she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Michael Africa Jr. Fed by her sisters, who smuggled food from the mess hall, she spent three days with her son before it was discovered she gave birth, when the two were immediately separated. Mike Jr. tells of the first night living with his mother. He knocked on her bedroom door, and when she told him to come in, she was standing there barefoot. He looked down at her feet and realized it was the first time in his life that he had seen his mother’s feet. His friend Benny told him that 2-year-old babies and infants knew more about their mothers than he, a man almost 40 years old.

But the story is, Debbie Africa, after 40 years behind bars, is free. May freedom come swiftly for the rest of the MOVE survivors of August 8, 1978. From in Prison Nation, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Mumia Abu-Jamal, no longer reporting from death row, in prison for the rest of his life in Pennsylvania. Now, Debbie Africa, one of the MOVE 9, is the first of the MOVE 9 to be freed. Two other MOVE 9 members died in prison. The others, between the ages of 58 and 72, remain eligible for parole. Mike Africa, tell us who you were raised by. You would go from prison to prison, visiting your mother and father, but who raised you?

MIKE AFRICA JR.: The best answer that I could come up with—I’ve thought about the way to answer this for a lot of years, and the best answer that I could come up with is I was a community kid. Right? So I was raised—I mean, I have so many different women, especially women, that I was with for a year, two years, three years, here and there, all the way up until I was an adult. And one of the MOVE brothers, Mo Africa, was the majority male figure in my life, and his wife, and staying with them. And so, I bounced around from house to house until I was an adult.

AMY GOODMAN: In these final minutes we have together from Mike’s home, where Debbie is staying, Debbie and Mike, your final thoughts?

DEBBIE AFRICA: My final thoughts—my final thoughts are just—just free the MOVE 9. Free the rest of the people that are still in prison. Like I said, we were arrested together, tried together, tried as a family. So, release us as a family.

AMY GOODMAN: And Mike Jr.?

MIKE AFRICA JR.: My final thought is the same. My final thought is the same. I want my father home, so that we can—you know, so that he can live out the rest of his life without having to be restricted to having a certain amount of water or a certain amount of food that they give you, or even though the people there have diabetes, the prison still serves them food that increases diabetes. I want my father home. I want Eddie home for the same reason, so that they can drink clean water and so that they can eat healthy food and so that they can live the rest of their lives free.

AMY GOODMAN: We thank you both so much for being with us, Mike Africa and his mother Debbie Africa, Debbie one of the MOVE 9. On June 16th, after nearly four decades behind bars, she became the first MOVE 9 member to be released from prison. It was on this day 40 years ago, on August 8th, 1978, the police siege happened of the MOVE home, a police officer was killed, and the MOVE 9 were arrested. This is Democracy Now! Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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