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Meet Debbie Africa: First MOVE 9 Member to Be Freed in 40 Years & Now Reunited with Her Son, Mike

StoryAugust 08, 2018
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Today marks the 40th anniversary of a massive police operation in Philadelphia that culminated in the siege of the headquarters of the black radical group known as MOVE. The group was founded by John Africa, and all its members took the surname Africa. It was August 8, 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. During the siege on MOVE’s house, 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. They were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison and became the MOVE 9. We speak with Debbie Africa, the first of the nine to be released from prison, and her son Mike Jr. At the time of Debbie’s arrest, she was 8-and-a-half months pregnant with her son, who was born inside prison. They were reunited on June 16 after nearly four decades separated.

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

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, 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. The documentary was directed and produced by Karen Pomer and Jane Mancini.

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 Ramp’s death. They were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison and became the MOVE 9.

AMY GOODMAN: Philadelphia police attacks on MOVE would later reach new levels on May 13, 1985, when they surrounded the MOVE house, fired thousands of rounds of ammunition, then dropped a bomb on the house from a helicopter. The fire from the attack incinerated six adults and five children and destroyed not only the MOVE home, but 65 homes in the neighborhood.

Well, today we look back at the attack 40 years ago, in 1978, that preceded the 1985 police bombing of MOVE and led to the arrest of those who became known as the MOVE 9. We’re joined now 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 the prison. On June 16th, after nearly four decades behind bars, Debbie Africa was released and reunited with her son, who now also joins us. They’re speaking to us from Mike’s home just outside of Philadelphia. Debbie is on parole and unable to leave the county she’s in to travel to our usual studio in Philadelphia or here in person in New York City. I should note that two members of the MOVE 9 died in prison. The others, including Debbie’s husband, Mike’s father, remain eligible for parole.

Debbie and Mike, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Debbie, how does it feel to be free?

DEBBIE AFRICA: It feels good. It feels good. Feels like a heavy load has been lifted off of my heart, you know, and particularly talking about my son and being united with him, I should say, because it’s not even a reunification because I’ve never been with him. So, you know, it just feels really good.

It also feels a little bit heavy just because—just because my sisters were not released at the same time. We were all up for parole in May. I was released, but they weren’t. And so, leaving the prison was a good feeling for me, but it was also, you know, not a good feeling, because they did not get released. And, you know, as I’ve been saying, that we were all arrested the same day, not only my sisters, but also the rest of the MOVE 9. We were all arrested the same day. We were charged with the same charges. We were tried together. We were given the same sentence, as was stated by the judge at the time. He said, “Since you say you’re a family, I’m going to oblige you and sentence you as a family.” So we were all given 30 to 100 years each. But when it came time for us to be released, we were not released as a family, as the judge said. We were not released together. And even more blatantly, Janine and Janet were not released with me. And so, their case, everything was the same.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Debbie, I wanted to ask you—you came up for parole several times before they finally granted your parole. Could you talk about that process of applying for parole and what made the parole board this time change their mind, if you have a sense of that?

DEBBIE AFRICA: Well, yeah, I was up—I have been up for parole, as with the rest of my MOVE 9 family, since 2008. We were all eligible in 2008. And we were denied repeatedly, year after year, or some were given two years at a time. But I personally was given a year, and then another year hit, and then another year and then another two years. But they were saying the same thing. They were putting on our reports that it was different issues, of a lack of remorse, a lack of motivation for success.

And then, this time, which would have been my eighth time going up for parole, this May, in 2018, we finally—you know, we finally just had to get somebody else involved, somebody who could actually have the legs and have the means to be able to take all that we have done, all that we have done while in the prisons, to put it right in front of the parole board, to put it right in front of the DA, to put it right in front of Philadelphia, to see that MOVE people, we are still—we are still good people. And they had to see that, so that we had to actually get an attorney to actually make that point. And because of all the support that MOVE has, that MOVE has had over the years, you know, it just helped bring that point home. It helped bring it to the forefront, you know? So, the support that John Africa generated through some terrible examples that happened, you know, through the city, and with MOVE, it was just the support of the people that pushed the issue. And with the attorney being the one that had the legs and that had the means to be able to present a packet to the parole board, to make them just really pay attention, is what I feel made the difference.

AMY GOODMAN: Debbie Africa, you were all charged and convicted of third-degree murder. They said that you were involved with the killing of this police officer from your home. Now, the MOVE 9 have always claimed innocence, denying they shot anybody, blamed the officer’s death on accidental friendly fire of other officers. They never accused you directly of killing Officer Ramp. Would you like to comment on this, 40 years later, as others remain in jail waiting to be freed, including your husband, Mike Africa?

DEBBIE AFRICA: Well, no, I was never directly said to have had a weapon or to have killed the officer. But at this point, 40 years later, it has been 40 years, and it’s 40 years later. What I want to say about that is that it was—it was a tragic day. It was not a good day. You know, I don’t want to glorify it. I don’t have any—you know, I don’t have any glorification feelings in me to even really relive it, because it was a tragic day. I really don’t like even bringing it up, because, you know, people have suffered and still are suffering behind it. And the main thing I would like to focus on is not only getting—not only helping pull people together and unifying people to push forward for a better day, for not only MOVE, but for a lot of people who are suffering out here, but also to bring about the example about the MOVE 9 being innocent.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask—

DEBBIE AFRICA: My husband—

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask your son, Mike, who’s sitting next you, Mike Jr. The Guardian newspaper described you as a “penal orphan of the black power movement.” For almost 40 years, you’re visiting your mother or your father in two different penitentiaries. The first time you’re together with your mom, in this month, not involving bars, how does it feel? And what are your comments on reuniting after 40 years? You were born in prison.

MIKE AFRICA JR.: Yeah, I was born in prison. First of all, I’d like to say thanks for having us on the show. I appreciate the exposure to get this information out.

But yeah, so, how does it feel? It feels—it feels like my mom said: It feels bittersweet. It does feel really good. I mean, the feeling of bringing her out of that prison and like knowing that I’m visiting this prison that she’s in for the last time, like, that felt euphoric. It was like, this is amazing. This is something that I’ve been waiting for all my life, something I’ve been working so hard for with the rest of the people, my family, the MOVE organization. It’s just been so good. It felt so good to be able to take her home, put her in my car and just never have to go back there for her. But it did feel bittersweet. I mean, every visit that I’ve ever been on with her since I’ve been in the organization, I’ve seen Janet and Janine, too. And so, to leave the prison with her and take her home, knowing that they are still back there, that was heartbreaking. It’s still, just thinking about it now. And like, I almost felt like I was turning my back on them, you know, just walking away. I mean, I had to do it to take mom home, but leaving Janet and Janine in that prison was—it was devastating. And it’s also devastating, too, that although mom is home, my dad is still in prison, and Eddie is still in prison, and Delbert.

And, you know, when you think about—when I think about the other people, I think about the fact that Janet and Janine, specifically, two of their children were in the earlier-described May 13th bombing, where the city of Philadelphia, the police, dropped the bomb on our house, and Janet and Janine’s kids were in that house. They were murdered. They were shot to death and burned alive. And Janet and Janine remain in prison. And that, to me, is a total injustice.

So, it’s bittersweet. I mean, it’s nice to have her home. You know, I’ll be telling the story about how the first night she came home, I went to her bedroom, and I knocked on her door, and she told me to come in, and I went in. And as she was standing there, we were talking, and I looked down at her feet, and I noticed that she was barefoot. And when I looked down and I saw her feet, I realized that that was the first time that I’d ever seen her feet before. And I was talking to my friend Bobby, and I was explaining to him what happened. And Bobby said something that was so profound to me. He said, “You’re learning, for the first time, at almost 40 years old, what babies learn about their mothers.” You know, and it was just like—it’s really true.

Mom has been—she was in a time capsule. There are so many things that’s happened in the 40 years that she’s been locked away. And so, you know, trying to get her adjusted to life out here on the streets, learning the technology, learning the way the cars are on the streets, learning the way the people think, different things that didn’t exist 40 years ago, like Home Depot or Lowe’s or cellphones or CDs, whatever, you know. So, that process is really interesting, and it’s really fascinating, and it’s also very enjoyable, you know, going through this. It’s almost like a role reversal, like a father—she described it as kind of like a fatherly-type relationship currently. But, you know, it’s really good. But we really need to focus on the other people that are still in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike and Debbie, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to this conversation. Mike Africa and his mother Debbie Africa, one of the MOVE 9. On June 16th, after nearly four decades behind bars, she became the first of the MOVE 9 members to be released from prison. We’re back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Proper Propaganda” by Dilated Peoples, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests are Mike Africa and his mother Debbie Africa, one of the MOVE 9. On June 16th, after nearly 40 years behind bars, she became the first of the MOVE 9 members to be released from prison. And they’re joining us from Mike’s home, outside of Philadelphia, because she can’t travel to a studio inside Philadelphia or to New York. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Debbie, I’d like to—as your son said, 40 years is a long time. Many of the people who are watching or listening to this broadcast weren’t born 40 years ago, have never maybe have heard—have never heard of MOVE. And he also mentioned Delbert Africa. I was a resident in Philadelphia in 1978. I was just about to begin my journalism career at the Philadelphia Daily News, but I wasn’t yet a reporter in August of 1978. But I clearly remember the television footage of that MOVE standoff with the police and of the beating of Delbert Africa, long before the Rodney King video, the videotaped terrible beating of Delbert Africa by police as he was dragged out of the house and beaten in plain view. And I remember also Alphonso Deal, who was then the head of the Guardians, the black police officers, publicly condemning the police abuse, and the mayor at the time, Frank Rizzo, going on television and saying, “As for Al Deal, I want a piece of him myself.” Could you talk about what the climate was like in Philadelphia at that time, the racial climate under Mayor Rizzo? And also, what did MOVE stand for? Why did—why were the police and the establishment so determined to stamp out MOVE?

DEBBIE AFRICA: Well, just because MOVE was an organization that represented life. And just generally, basically, the whole significance of the city of Philadelphia wanting to stamp MOVE out is because MOVE represented the fact that we would not stand for injustice, and our belief is about stopping the suffering of life. And because life is what people use to make money on, they exploit life in order to make money, it’s big business. Enslaving life like zoos, enslaving life like circuses, enslaving life like incarceration, enslaving people—all those things are moneymakers. They’re all industry. Puppy palaces, pet shows—all those things are industry. They’re making money. They’re exploiting life. But MOVE’s example in exposing that kind of—that wrong, people did not want to hear it. They didn’t want to hear it because it was a direct attack on their industry, on their money, on what they wanted to do. And, I mean, you know how it is when somebody tries to—when you want to do something, and somebody don’t want you to do it, and they’re going against it, and it’s a strong force, you get mad. You know, you get mad, and you want to hurt them people, because they are a direct threat of what you’re trying to keep going. You know, I mean, think about it. If you smoke or if you drink or if you just like to ride bikes, and your wife or your husband or your child or anybody don’t want you to do it, you know, you get mad. You get mad, and you feel like, “Don’t stop me from smoking. I want my cigarette.” You know, “Don’t stop me from—I’ve got to have my drink, every week.” You know, people get mad. “Listen, I’ve to go on this hike every week. You know, I don’t care if it’s going to disrupt your party this weekend.” But they don’t want that. And so, that was the whole issue really behind the Philadelphia administration at that point against MOVE.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Debbie, you are out free now. Two others died in jail, of MOVE 9, and the others remain in jail. You went up with the other two women, with Janine and with—for your parole hearing, as you had done many times before, with Janine and Janet, and they did not get parole, but you did. You are not, oddly enough, now able to communicate with your husband, Mike Sr. And I think we have a picture of Mike with his—a number of awards he has won while he’s been in prison. You’re not allowed to communicate with him in any way right now? When you were behind—and you haven’t seen him since 1986, for more than 30 years? When you were behind bars, you were able to write to him. But now, because you’re considered a co-defendant, you’re not allowed to communicate in any way? And, Mike, you’re the go-between to pass information, to let this couple speak to each other?


MIKE AFRICA JR.: Correct. Yeah, that’s the way it’s been. I mean, when my mother or my father wanted to communicate something in a more detailed fashion, oftentimes I’ve been, for the last—I don’t know how many years—I would pass messages from one to the other. And that was like the most of a connection that we all had together as a family. So, if my dad wanted to know something, he wanted to talk about something, yeah, I would pass messages. If my mom wanted my dad to know something, same thing. And that’s the most family bond that we’ve had—you know, had.

DEBBIE AFRICA: And at this point, we’re not even allowed to—we’re not even allowed to have that, just because of the stipulation right now. I’m sure it will lift at some point, because, you know, that’s pretty much the way things go with this—

MIKE AFRICA JR.: We’ll see.

DEBBIE AFRICA: —with the whole thing, but we will see. But I’m not even really allowed to have an even indirect contact with him. And I’m living here in his house, but his dad calls him and talks to him, but I’m not allowed to talk to him or have any indirect conversation with him, either. I’m not allowed to give Mike Jr. a message or anything—and I don’t—to give him. So, you know.

MIKE AFRICA JR.: So no other contact between him and her.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Debbie, I wanted to ask you—

DEBBIE AFRICA: Yeah, so now it’s completely cut off.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After 40 years in prison, what’s been your biggest surprise, coming out, coming out into the rest of the world?

DEBBIE AFRICA: I think the biggest—I’m not going to say “surprise,” but I think the biggest—like the biggest thing that just is so kind of offensive to me is having to buy water, bottled water. I think that is the thing that annoyed me, because—and I say not surprising because John Africa warned us about this over 40 years ago and said that if the system keeps going the way it’s going, that we would be—we would actually have to buy water, drink water, you know, have to scoff for water—and air, at this point. And so, to have to buy water, when water is supposed to be running free, free of germs, free of poison—you know, to have to buy that is just a testament to what John Africa has been telling us, has told us over 40 years ago—


DEBBIE AFRICA: —and how serious things are.

AMY GOODMAN: MOVE was a back-to-nature movement. We only have a minute. But, Debbie, you gave birth behind bars, and you were determined that officers wouldn’t be involved. How did you do it?

DEBBIE AFRICA: Very quietly. Very quietly, just because, you know, I didn’t want them to know, because I didn’t know what was going to happen after that. And, you know, so, because we were locked in isolation at the time, our cells were very far back. We were the last four cells on a wing of like 84 people. And so, the officers didn’t come back there much. So, you know, because I had had a baby naturally already at home, I pretty much knew what to do, because I had already had a baby at home two years before that. And Janine was my cellmate at the time. And I just had him, thanks to the teaching of John Africa giving me the—giving me the understanding to know that I could do it.

AMY GOODMAN: And you had—you were with Mike for—

DEBBIE AFRICA: And that was—you know, that was in 1975.

AMY GOODMAN: You were with Mike for three days alone, without him being taken from you?

DEBBIE AFRICA: Yes. Yeah, it was about three days, yeah, a total of about three days. They didn’t know it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for both being with us. We’re going to do Part 2 and post it online at Debbie Africa and her son Mike Africa, together after almost 40 years.

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