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Life and Death - An Interview with MOVE Member Ramona Africa

Life and Death
An Interview with MOVE Member Ramona Africa
by scott winn
On May 13, 1985, the city of Philadelphia, with federal support, dropped a bomb on a house in a Black, middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood. The bomb and the fire that engulfed the house burned alive five children and six adults. As potential survivors ran from the home, they met with police gunfire and were forced to run back inside to their death. There were only two survivors: an eleven year-old child named Birdie Africa, and Ramona Africa who, with her body covered in burns, was taken into police custody. Even though hundreds of police and fire officials were already on hand, the fire from the bomb was allowed to spread through the evacuated neighborhood. Sixty homes over a two-block area were destroyed, leaving over 250 people homeless.

The city of Philadelphia claimed it had a "bad day" in order to distance itself from the fact that it had spent months planning the attack. Ramona Africa was tried and found guilty of riot and conspiracy to riot. Her sentence was 16 months to seven years in prison. After serving 16 months, she refused the authorities demand that she end all ties with the MOVE organization. As a result she was forced to serve the full seven years.

The house was the home of the MOVE family, a group of mostly Black radicals who took the surname Africa. They wore their hair in dreadlocks. The people of the MOVE organization, which was founded by John Africa in the early 1970s, lived a natural lifestyle, which was condemned by their neighbors and the media. In his most recent book, Death Blossoms, political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal (see related article) wrote of MOVE's political stance. He called them "bold beyond belief, so fearless they seemed reckless."

Because of their revolutionary beliefs and complaints from neighbors, MOVE had long been a target of Philadelphia police. On August 8, 1978, the police violently ended a 90-day stand off at MOVE headquarters. At the end of the day one police officer was dead. Though no evidence was presented to find one member guilty, all nine were held accountable for the death. The MOVE 9, as they have become known, were sentenced to 30 to 90 years in prison.

Ramona Africa has emerged as an outspoken leader against the prison system and a champion of human rights. In December 1998, along with former political prisoner Angela Davis and others, she testified in front of the European Union. The testimonies led to a resolution by the EU condemning the racist death penalty in the U.S., and calling for a new and fair trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Writer scott winn met with Ramona Africa and fellow MOVE member Blizzard Africa last month at the offices of The International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal in West Philadelphia, to talk about her experiences and thoughts on the criminal justice system, Mumia Abu-Jamal, MOVE, and the prospects for real justice.

Real Change: In your own words, who is Ramona Africa? What made you decide you wanted to join the MOVE organization?

Ramona Africa: Ramona Africa is a revolutionary. A person that came from a middle-class, Black family and went to Catholic school. I went to Temple University and graduated with two degrees. I didn't really have any understanding about police brutality, injustice, any of that. I thought the system worked for me. I was someone who intended to become a lawyer.

It was 1979 when I met the MOVE organization during the trial of the MOVE 9. Being a Black woman, when I went to that courtroom what I saw was a group of young Black women and men who were not intimidated by the system at all. They spoke out forcefully and seriously in defense of themselves. What was going on in that courtroom was nothing like my professors said it was supposed to be like. I was shocked. I decided that I did not want to be like the judge, the prosecuting attorney, or even the so-called defense attorney. I made the decision that I did not want to go to law school. I do not regret it because with the teachings of John Africa, I am equipped, as are all MOVE people, to represent myself in court or any other situation.

RC: Can you summarize the teachings of John Africa?

Africa: Very simply: Life. To be respectful, revere and be protective of all that is life. John Africa teaches us that there are just two things: life system and this man-made system. Everything that comes from life is necessary and natural. It will not hurt you. But everything coming from man's system does hurt you. This system is invented by man, who is not perfect, so cannot create anything that is perfect. That is why we do not believe in this system. We believe in Life.

John Africa teaches that people worldwide must understand the need for revolution, and what true revolution is. People talk about freedom. Freedom is not going from a cell block to a street block. John Africa teaches that this system is the root of all of our problems. So the only way to truly be free is to free yourself from the system.

RC: There are almost two million people in prison in the United States today. What kind of strategies can we use to stop the expanding prison population?

Africa: MOVE's position is we go to the heart of the system because we are talking about eliminating it completely. Eliminating the mentality that causes prisons. At this point what people really need to understand is that people are not sent to prison because of crime. The criminals are the ones that build prisons and keep them going. The real criminals are those who would put innocent people in prison.

A very crystallized example of this is I've got nine sisters and brothers in prison serving a total of 900 years for a murder that they did not commit. We have our brother Mumia Abu-Jamal sitting on death row for the accusation of a murder he did not commit. But these same officials sent hundreds of cops out to my house, to MOVE's home, and dropped a bomb on us. How is it that not one single official is sitting on death row next to Mumia for the murder of our family?

So what the people have to start doing is learning how to think correctly and not be relegated to zombies and robots of this system and just swallow everything this system feeds you. We know that prisons are not the solution to the problem of people. People will look at somebody that robs a bank and say that person is a criminal. But they are blind to the conditions that made that person desperate enough to rob a bank. You're going to have a problem as long as you have people who have a hundred times more than they need, while having other people who don't have one iota of what they need. You're going to have a problem because of that imbalance.

MOVE looks at resisters, at revolutionaries and the actions that people who resist and revolt against the system take. The system will label such people as criminals, but we know better. Resisting oppression is not a crime. It is an obligation. Not simply because I say so but that is what the Declaration of Independence tells people.

In the Declaration of Independence, it says that when the government proves to be a despot government operating against the interest of the people that it is not only your right but your duty to confront and, if necessary, abolish that government.

Obviously the prisons and justice systems have nothing to do with justice and righteousness and correction. Correction does not happen in prison. At this point officials come right out and tell people, "Look, we are not interested in correcting people, we're just trying to get them off the street." For what? John Africa teaches that if you don't have a solution to people's problems then leave them alone. Leave `em alone cause you can only make the problem worse.

RC: MOVE is obviously committed to stopping the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Who is Mumia and why does MOVE support his freedom?

Africa: Mumia is an innocent man, first and foremost. Secondly, we support Mumia the way we do because he was loyal to MOVE. Mumia was the only journalist who consistently and accurately reported on what was happening to MOVE. Mumia did something that other journalists did not do and that very simply is Mumia would come and interview MOVE. He would quote MOVE.

And that is why Mumia is such a threat to this system. That is why former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, at a press conference in 1978, after the first confrontation between MOVE and this system, pointed right at Mumia and told him he was going to be held accountable for his reporting against the police and all that. So Mumia put his future, his life on the line. Mumia gave his loyalty to MOVE and we can only be loyal to him.

RC: So where in the courts is his case right now?

Africa: Well, MOVE doesn't share the same faith in the courts that lawyers do. I especially don't share that because it was the federal district courts that told me during my federal suit about the bombing that no excessive force was used (laughs). It was the United States Supreme Court who ruled a few years ago in a case in Texas called the Herrera case that it is not illegal or unconstitutional to execute an innocent person. The Court ruled that as long as the person had a "fair trial," has exhausted their appeals, that at the point that person is about to be executed that innocence is not the issue. The Court said innocence is irrelevant and proceeded to execute this person. So this is the federal courts that we are supposed to look to do right by Mumia?

It has always been the position of MOVE that Mumia's life is not in the court's hands, in the District Attorney's hand, in Governor Ridge's hand. Mumia's life is in our hands, in the hands of the people. It is up to us to decide what happens to Mumia.

We have the power to command and demand Mumia's release and the power to force these officials to do it. We just have to use that power we have-to flex the muscle that we have. But you know people have been so apathetic for so long that that muscle is weak and we have to build it up quick. If you do not use your arm, if you let it hang loose, what is going to happen to that muscle? Pretty soon you ain't even going to be able to raise your arm. Well, that is what is happening with the power of the people. If we don't use it then we lose it, you know. And we cannot afford to allow apathy to cost us the life of another freedom fighter.

If we sit back and allow Ridge to sign a death warrant for Mumia, we have signed our own death warrant. And MOVE understands that and we are trying to make other people understand that.