Saturday, June 26, 2010

The MOVE 9 Parole Hearings --An interview with Ramona Africa

(Our interview with Ramona Africa is available in a high quality, high definition format here.)

The MOVE 9 Parole Hearings
--An interview with Ramona Africa

By Angola 3 News

Video-interviewed by Angola 3 News in May, 2010, Ramona Africa is the sole adult survivor of the May 13, 1985 massacre of 11 members of the MOVE organization. Founded in the early 1970s by John Africa, MOVE is a mostly black religious and family-based political organization that, in their words, works "to stop industry from poisoning the air, the water, the soil, and to put an end to the enslavement of life - people, animals, any form of life.”

In the early morning of May 13, 1985, police had already surrounded MOVE’s rowhouse at 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia when Philadelphia Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor declared on the bullhorn, “Attention MOVE, This is America! You have to abide by the laws of the United States!” Minutes later, the military-style assault on MOVE began. Police shot tear gas and detonated explosives on the front and both sides of MOVE’s house. The gunfire from police reached at least 10,000 rounds of ammunition in the first ninety minutes, including 4,500 rounds from M-16s; 1,500 from Uzis; and 2,240 from M-60 machine guns.

Following an afternoon standstill, Mayor Wilson declared to the media that he would now “seize control of the house…by any means necessary.” At 5:27 PM, Philadelphia police used a State Police helicopter to drop a C-4 bomb that had been illegally supplied by the FBI. When the bomb exploded on MOVE’s roof, it started a small fire that the police and fire department allowed to burn, and eventually destroyed 61 homes, leaving 250 people homeless: the entire block of a middle-class black community.

Ramona and 13 year-old Birdie Africa would both recount that police had shot at the occupants of the house when they attempted to escape the fire. Giving her personal account of the massacre, Ramona says today that immediately after the bomb was dropped “those of us in the basement didn’t realize that the house was on fire because there was so much tear gas that it was hard to recognize smoke. We opened the door and started to yell that we were coming out with the kids. The kids were hollering too. We know they heard us but the instant we were visible in the doorway, they opened fire. You could hear the bullets hitting all around the garage area. They deliberately took aim and shot at us. Anybody can see that their aim, very simply, was to kill MOVE people—not to arrest anybody.”

Despite official police denials of shooting at MOVE when they were trying to escape the fire, The Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (The MOVE Commission) appointed by Mayor Wilson Goode confirmed Ramona and Birdie’s accounts, concluding that “police gunfire prevented some occupants of 6221 Osage Ave. from escaping from the burning house to the rear alley.” The deaths of the five MOVE children “appeared to be unjustified homicides which should be investigated by a grand jury,” concluded the MOVE Commission.

However, no one from the city, police, or fire department ever faced criminal charges. In sharp contrast, after Ramona survived the bombing, she was charged with conspiracy, riot, and multiple counts of simple and aggravated assault. At her trial, all charges listed on the May 11 arrest warrant were dismissed by the judge. “This means that they had no valid reason to even be out there, but they did not dismiss the charges placed on me as a result of what happened after they came out,” says Ramona today.

At trial, Ramona successfully defended herself against the most serious charges, but after being convicted of the lesser charges, Ramona would serve 7 years in prison. If she had chosen to sever her ties with MOVE, she could have been released on parole after 16 months. Since her release from prison, Ramona has tirelessly worked as MOVE’s Minister of Communication, speaking around the world in defense of the MOVE 9, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and all political prisoners.

In 1996, Ramona successfully sued the City of Philadelphia for the 1985 police assault, she was awarded $500,000 for pain, suffering, and injuries. Relatives of John Africa and his nephew Frank James Africa, who died in the incident, were awarded a total of $1 million. Another $1.7 million was paid to Birdie Africa, now Michael Moses Ward.

Essentially a symbolic gesture, the jury ordered that Ramona also receive $1 per week for 11 years directly from Police Commissioner Sambor and Fire Commissioner William C. Richmond, but this was overruled by Judge Louis Pollack on grounds that the two had not shown “willful misconduct,” and were therefore immune from financial liability.
The MOVE 9

On August 8, 1978, Philadelphia Police launched an earlier military-style assault on MOVE’s home in Powelton Village. During this assault, Officer James Ramp was shot and killed by what many believe was friendly fire. For example, veteran Philadelphia journalist Linn Washington Jr. stated in the 2004 documentary film MOVE, narrated by Howard Zinn, that “the police department knows who killed Officer Ramp. It was another police officer, who inadvertently shot the guy. They have fairly substantial evidence that it was a mistake, but again they’ll never admit it. I got this from a number of different sources in the police department, including sources on the SWAT team and sources in ballistics.” Washington has elaborated on this further in a 2008 interview.

Nine of the adult MOVE members inside the house that day (Janine, Debbie, Janet, Merle, Delbert, Mike, Phil, Eddie, and Chuck Africa.) were jointly convicted of third-degree murder for Ramp’s death and sentenced to 30-100 years. In 1998 Merle Africa tragically died while in prison. The remaining eight of the MOVE 9 became eligible for parole in 2008. An online petition and letter-writing campaign supporting parole cited several different arguments. The petition/letter declared that:

--The sentencing judge stated publicly that he did not have the faintest idea who shot the one bullet that killed Officer Ramp. Nine people cannot fire one bullet.

--Many supporters of parole feel that Officer Ramp was actually shot by police "friendly fire," because it would have been ballistically impossible for MOVE to have shot Ramp, who was across the street from MOVE's house. These supporters believe that because of MOVE's position in the basement, bullets coming from there would have had an upward trajectory, yet the medical examiner testified that the bullet entered Ramp's "chest from in front and coursed horizontally without deviation up or down." Even the authenticity of official ballistics are in dispute. At a pre-trial hearing, in open court, the Judge allowed the prosecutor to literally use a pencil and eraser to change the medical examiner's report to conform with the medical examiner's testimony about the bullet's trajectory.

This theory about the bullet's trajectory could have been tested, but MOVE\'s house was illegally demolished that very day, and police did nothing to preserve the crime scene, inscribe chalk marks, or measure ballistics angles. A few days before, a Philadelphia judge had signed an order barring the city from destroying the house, but this order was violated. In a preliminary hearing on a Motion to Dismiss, MOVE unsuccessfully argued that destroying their home had prevented them from proving that it was physically impossible for MOVE to have shot Ramp.

--Yet, other supporters of parole cite the average 10-15 year sentence given for third-degree murder. MOVE prisoners have now served 2-3 times this sentence. Isn't 30 years enough? Merle Africa, who has died in prison, and these surviving eight have already paid a terrible price for what happened on that day.

Despite these strong arguments for parole, the MOVE 9 were denied parole in 2008 and again in 2009. Ramona Africa has criticized two clauses that were implemented to deny parole in 2008 and 2009.

First is the “taking responsibility” clause, which basically demands a prisoner admit guilt in order to be granted parole. “That is not acceptable, because it is patently illegal. If a person was convicted in court, to then demand that they admit guilt -- even when they are maintaining their innocence, as the MOVE 9 are -- is ridiculous. The only issue for parole should be issues of misconduct in prison that could indicate one’s not ready for parole. Other than that, an inmate should be paroled,” explains Ramona.

Second is the “serious nature of offense” clause. “This is patently illegal too because the judge took this into consideration and when the sentence was issued, it meant that barring any misconduct, problems, new charges, etc. this prisoner was to be released on their minimum. To deny that is basically a re-sentence. We’re dealing with these issues because when our family is up for parole, we don’t want to hear this nonsense.”

This year, the three women have already been denied parole. Janine and Debbie will be eligible again in two years, and Janet, for no specific reason, got a three year setback. However, the parole board has yet to rule on the four men, so MOVE is still urging supporters to contact the parole board in support of them. Call (717) 787-5699 and write a letter to: PA. Board Of Probation And Parole/ Central Office; Riverfront Office Center; 1101 South Front Street; Harrisburg, PA. 17104.

Stay tuned for part two of our video interview with Ramona, where Ramona gives her own personal account from May 13, 1985 and explains about the new murder charges that MOVE is filing against the City of Philadelphia for the massacre of 6 adults and 5 children that day.

--For more information about August 8, 1978 and the MOVE 9, please read the Born Black Magazine article, Attention, MOVE: This is America!

--Watch Confrontation in Philadelphia, MOVE (narrated by Howard Zinn) and the 2008 MOVE 9 Parole Video Series.

--Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.

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