(VIDEO: Part two of our May, 2010 interview with Ramona Africa. In this segment, Ramona gives her personal account of May 13, 1985. Watch part one here.)
May 13, 1985 and the Legalization of Murder
On May 13, 1985, a State Police helicopter dropped a C-4 bomb, illegally supplied by the FBI, on the roof of the MOVE Organization’s house at
The Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (The MOVE Commission), appointed by Mayor Wilson Goode, documented that when the occupants of the house tried to escape the fire, police shot at them, blocking their escape. In the end, six MOVE adults and five children died. Ramona Africa and 13 year-old Birdie
The MOVE Commission concluded that the deaths of the five MOVE children “appeared to be unjustified homicides which should be investigated by a grand jury” (curiously the Commission did not similarly criticize the murder of the MOVE adults). However, two subsequent grand juries refused to press charges against any city or police official for murder or any other wrongdoing. In contrast, Ramona Africa spent seven years in prison.
Recognizing the racial implications of the massacre, The MOVE Commission wrote that the day’s many horrifying decisions, including “the use of high explosives, and in a 90 minute period, the firing of at least 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the house; to sanction the dropping of a bomb on an occupied row house; and to let a fire burn in a row house occupied by children, would not likely have been made had the MOVE house and its occupants been situated in a comparable white neighborhood.”
As death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal writes in his essay "When Massacre Is No Crime" MOVE is currently seeking murder charges against police and city officials for the deaths of eleven of their family members on May 13, 1985. The remainder of this article, organized into six sections, is a compilation of testimony and evidence that makes a compelling case for why murder charges are needed: The Legalization of Murder; The Morning Assault; Mayor Goode Refuses to Negotiate; Dropping the C-4 Bomb; “Fire As a Tactical Weapon”; Police Shoot at Fleeing Occupants.
The Legalization of Murder
As detailed in the article that accompanied the first part of our video-interview with Ramona Africa, the
However, nine MOVE members (known today as the “MOVE 9”) arrested in the house that day were jointly convicted of third-degree murder and conspiracy for the shooting death of Officer Ramp and sentenced to 30-100 years. In the years following the imprisonment of the MOVE 9, the headquarters for MOVE shifted to
Many of MOVE’s neighbors complained to the city government about MOVE’s use of a loudspeaker to air their own grievances with the city, which mostly centered around the MOVE 9 convictions. Along with sanitation complaints, the neighbors also expressed concern about a bunker built above the house, which MOVE said they had built to defend themselves from another military-style police assault on their home similar to Aug. 8, 1978.
Officially in response to these sanitation and noise complaints from neighbors, Philadelphia mayor, Wilson Goode, held a meeting with Managing Director Leo A. Brooks and Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor, District Attorney Ed Rendell (now the Governor of Pennsylvania), and others, where he first authorized Sambor to prepare and execute a tactical plan under the supervision of Brooks, allegedly to solve the neighborhood dispute.
On May 11, Judge Lynn Abraham approved DA Rendell’s requested emergency arrest and search warrants for four MOVE members on charges of disorderly conduct and terroristic threats, based upon statements MOVE made on their loudspeaker two weeks earlier, where, among other things, they stated that they’d defend themselves from a police attack.
Today, Ramona Africa challenges the legitimacy of these May 11 emergency warrants by citing the fact that during Ramona’s later trial, all charges listed on her arrest warrant were dismissed by the judge. Ramona says that “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.”
Charged with conspiracy, riot, and multiple counts of simple and aggravated assault, Ramona Africa served the entirety of her 16-month to 7-year sentence after she was repeatedly denied parole for not renouncing MOVE.
Concluding Ramona’s 1986 trial, presiding judge Michael R. Stiles told the jurors not to consider any wrongdoing by police and city officials, because they would be held accountable in “other” proceedings. However, no official has ever faced criminal charges.
In 1996, Ramona successfully sued the City of
The jury also ordered that Ramona receive $1 per week for 11 years directly from Sambor and
The Morning Assault
At 5:35 AM, on May 13, after evacuating the neighbors, Police Commissioner Sambor declared on the bullhorn: “Attention, MOVE! This is
After the fifteen-minute deadline passed, several “squirt gun” fire-hoses were directed at the bunker on MOVE’s roof, in an attempt to dislodge it. At 5:53, police tear-gassed the front and rear of the house, creating a smokescreen. Police then sent bomb squads to enter the row houses on either side of the building.
While the bomb squads entered, gunfire erupted, and in the next 90 minutes, police used over 10,000 rounds of ammunition, including 4,500 rounds from M-16s; 1,500 from Uzis; and 2,240 from M-60 machine guns. Simultaneously, the two bomb squads repeatedly detonated explosives in the side walls, and then blew off the front of the house.
Sambor later attempted to justify police gunfire by saying that police had first responded to automatic gunfire from MOVE. However, the only weapons found in MOVE’s house were two pistols, a shotgun, and a .22 caliber rifle: no automatic weapons. Sambor was unable to explain this contradiction when challenged by the MOVE Commission.
The MOVE Commission wrote that “the firing of over 10,000 rounds of ammunition in under 90 minutes at a row house containing children was clearly excessive and unreasonable. The failure of those responsible for the firing to control or stop such an excessive amount of force was unconscionable.”
Mayor Goode Refuses to Negotiate
As police ran out of ammunition and went to the armory for more, a quiet afternoon standstill began.
According to Philadelphia Tribune columnist and Temple University Professor Linn Washington, Jr., MOVE member Jerry Africa, who wasn’t in the house, attempted to negotiate with Mayor Goode during the afternoon standstill. He wanted to tell Goode that MOVE would disengage from the confrontation if Goode would agree to an investigation of the Aug. 8, 1978-related MOVE convictions.
Jerry Africa was supported and accompanied by civil rights activist Randolph Means and former Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Williams, who at the time was the Democratic Party’s nominee for Philadelphia District Attorney. According to
Dropping the C-4 Bomb
At 5:00 pm, Managing Director Brooks telephoned Mayor Goode and said that Sambor, in Goode’s words, wanted to “blow the bunker off and to blow a hole in the roof and to put tear-gas and water in through that process.” Goode’s response: “Okay. Keep me posted.”
At 5:27 pm, a State Police helicopter dropped a C-4 bomb on MOVE’s roof, which exploded and started a fire on the roof.
Challenged at a press conference later that week, Goode was unable to offer a straight answer: “If…someone called on the telephone and said to me ‘We’re going to drop a bomb on a house;’ would I approve that? The answer is no. What was said to me was that they were going to use an explosive device to blow the bunker off the top of the house.”
Afterwards, Sambor continued to defend the decision to drop the bomb by arguing that the bombing was “a conservative and safe approach to what I perceived as a tactical necessity.”
The MOVE Commission concluded that “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable and should have been rejected out of hand by the mayor, the managing director, the police commissioner and the fire commissioner.”
The Commission also reported that “in January, 1985, an agent of the FBI delivered nearly 38 pounds of C-4, a powerful military plastic explosive, to the Phila. Police bomb squad. Delivery of this amount of C-4 to any police force without restrictions as to its use is inappropriate. Neither agency kept any records of the transaction. The FBI agent told the Commission that he ‘never had to keep any kind of records or anything’ regarding C-4. Nor did the bomb squad keep any delivery, inventory or use of the C-4, or any other explosives under their control…Because of the absence of record keeping by the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department, all the facts of the use of C-4 on May 13 may never be known.”
“Fire As A Tactical Weapon”
Initially, the fire was relatively small, but it was allowed to grow until it was eventually so large and powerful that it burned down the entire city block.
According to Mayor Goode, he first learned of the fire “at about ten minutes of six,” at which point he contacted Managing Director Brooks, and ordered that the fire be stopped. On behalf of Goode, Brooks told Police Commissioner Sambor over the phone to extinguish the fire, but upon discussing it, Sambor and Fire Commissioner William Richmond decided to continue to let it burn.
In defense of his decision, Richmond said that he let the fire burn because of danger from alleged MOVE gunfire, stating: “we regret what happened, but we are not going home with any firefighters with bullet wounds tonight, and I thank God for that.”
Explicitly challenging this argument made by
The Commission concluded that the decision “to let the fire burn constituted the use of fire as a tactical weapon” that “should have been rejected out-of-hand. That it was not rejected cannot be justified under any circumstances.”
Police Shoot at Fleeing Occupants
Today, Ramona Africa recalls escaping from the fire on May 13: “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.”
Birdie later supported Ramona’s account of police gunfire when he testified that the children and remaining adults tried several times to escape the burning house, but were driven back by police gunfire, before he and Ramona successfully dodged gunfire and escaped.
Despite official police statements denying the shooting, The MOVE Commission confirmed Ramona and Birdie’s accounts, concluding that “police gunfire prevented some occupants of
For our investigation of May 13, 1985 and the validity of the murder charges being sought by MOVE today, we have cited evidence and testimony from a variety of published sources:
--“Attention, MOVE! This Is
--Let The Bunker Burn: The Final
--“Let It Burn!” The
--Final Report of the