“Revolution Is Not a Thing of the Past”: An Account of the MOVE 40 Year Commemoration

Image description: MOVE members and children stand on stage, holding pictures of MOVE 9 members

Article and photos by Nick Millman

On Sunday, August 5, 2018, MOVE, a revolutionary Black organization founded in the 1970s, held a day-long commemoration of the 40-year anniversary of a police assault against MOVE in their Powelton Village community home. The assault resulted in the wrongful incarceration of nine of its members, called the MOVE 9, whom the state unjustly condemned to 30-100 years. The June release of Debbie Africa on parole, one of the incarcerated MOVE 9, has prompted recent local, national, and international media coverage. The Guardian, Democracy Now!, and the Workers World Party, through interviews with MOVE members, revisit the history of the organization – especially the 1978 assault, the 1985 police bombing of MOVE’s headquarters in West Philadelphia, and the deferred paroles for the MOVE 9 – and are intensifying calls for the release of the remaining political prisoners. The August 5 commemoration sought not only to remember histories of state violence specific to MOVE, but also aimed to cultivate political fellowship among allied organizations and to invigorate Philadelphia-based movements against racial and capitalist structures of oppression.

The three-part commemoration began at 10am with a 5K run through Fairmount Park. Then at 3pm, MOVE convened a panel discussion at Mastery Shoemaker High School to discuss what movements today can gain from reflecting on the history of MOVE. The commemoration concluded with a concert called “Framed in America,” a play on the name of the Jay-Z-sponsored annual Philadelphia concert “Made in America,” featuring artists such as Seraiah Nicole, Mike Africa, Raw Life Crew, and others.

The Philadelphia chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross Federation, a national organization that advocates for political prisoners, co-sponsored the 5K as a part of their annual “Running Down the Walls” event. It began at 9:30am with an outdoor community yoga session, and then transitioned into the run. Following the race, the Solidarity Food Not Bombs organization provided fresh fruit and refreshments. The event also raised $2,000 for the legal defense fund for the MOVE9 and for the Anarchist Black Cross Federation.   

Amber Rose Johnson, a current PhD student of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, participated in the yoga session and the 5K. In an interview with The Partisan, Johnson described how her brother’s ongoing twelve-year incarceration and the unfair denial of his parole motivated her to join the event. Running the 5K with MOVE represents “being a part of collective action and a political community committed to challenging unjust parole processes” Johnson said.   

The run itself did not focus solely on celebrating individual achievement but on building a political community. “We want to see and encourage each other,” continued Johnson, “the run was also about positive interactions on the route, passing off water bottles and giving each other high fives…this was more about making a collective moment than an individual run.” For Johnson, incorporating the yoga session and 5K event reinforced that “physical well-being is a part of a collective well-being” necessary for radical social change.

The route for the 5K run included important sites in MOVE’s history. An Anarchist Black Cross report on the 5K states that “The route chosen for the event started in Fairmount Park and went past the zoo that members of the Move organization protested in 1973 and 1974 in support of animal rights. The route continued down 33rd street to the intersection of 33rd and Pearl, where the former MOVE headquarters was before it was bulldozed by the city within 24 hours of the arrest of the MOVE 9.” Predatory urban development also threatens these sites, and Drexel University now owns student housing where the original MOVE headquarters once stood.

“Revolution is not a thing of the past,” Johnson went on to say. “This commemoration represents how revolutionary organizing is still happening. It is so important to stay involved and show up to challenge injustice and wrongful incarceration.”

Johnson learned about the 5K from a fellow English PhD student at Penn, Tajah Ebram, whose doctoral research focuses on a cultural history of MOVE, focusing on anti-Black state violence, political incarceration, and Black womanhood. In Spring 2018, Ebram convened a seminar on Radical Black Feminism and Black women’s prison writing at Penn. As part of the course, Ebram assigned a documentary on and writings by the MOVE 9 and invited Ramona Africa, the Minister of Communication for the MOVE organization and survivor of the 1985 bombing, to converse with students: “We discussed Philadelphia’s carceral expansion and the conditions of policing and surveillance as they did and continue to affect black Philadelphians.” Students in Ebram’s course collectively produced an anthology for their final project for the seminar. One student’s final paper critiques the public response to the state violence against MOVE through an analysis of photojournalism depicting the 1978 shootout.

When asked what the commemoration means to her, Ebram wrote that “The MOVE commemoration tells me that our society, for all of its changes it claims to have made, continues to constitute itself through violence against black people, and especially those who dare to challenge the systems in place.” As much as the commemoration testifies to the ongoing structures of anti-Blackness, Ebram also emphasized her “deep admiration and thankfulness for the MOVE 9 because their commitment to the people and to fighting for life and freedom has stood the test of time.”       

Following the 5K, MOVE held panel discussions and put on a concert in the auditorium of the Shoemaker Campus of the Mastery Charter School at 5301 Media St. Booths selling commemorative MOVE t-shirts, artworks by local artists, and homemade food lined the hallways leading to the auditorium. Groups attending in solidarity included World Workers Party, FIRE – Fight for Im/Migrants and Refugees Everywhere, and others. Individuals from out of town, as far as Chicago and New York, also traveled to the commemoration. The event began with three generations of MOVE ascending the stage with signs displaying portraits of the incarcerated MOVE 9. For the rest of the event, these signs along with other posters were propped up against the stage.  

Lavinia Davis moderated three separate panels, which touched on themes related to the epidemic of mass incarceration, media biases against Black revolutionary organizing, and political corruption. Some panelists offered personal testimonies of their experiences with police brutality and wrongful incarceration. For example, Salim Holbrook provided an account of his own incarceration as a juvenile lifer by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and described his current work with the Human Rights Coalition that contests sentences of life without parole. He addressed how conventional media reporting, which he playfully called the “real fake news,” would misrepresent MOVE and Black liberation movements as violent or backwards. Salim warned how excessive attention to spectacular violence risks overlooking daily forms of racial terror that Black and Brown people face. In this vein, he recounted from memory the incidences of police brutality against civilian Black and Brown people that took place at 33rd and Spring Garden Street the night of the 1978 police shootout against MOVE, which the news failed to report.

Brad Thomson, the lawyer for the MOVE 9, discussed how the MOVE situation is unique because it represents a range of forms of state violence taken to the “extreme.” Panelists agreed, remarking that the attacks against MOVE indicate the lengths the state will go to squash Black revolutionary movements and to suppress radical imaginations that attempt to think otherwise. While many voiced the immediate calls to support the release of MOVE 9 and other Philadelphia-based political prisoners, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Davis also affirmed that these demands are not limited to these groups or individuals but necessitate a “dismantling of the entire system.”

The panelists also emphasized the efforts that local Black communities, movements, and organizations are taking to challenge racial inequalities in Philadelphia and beyond. Sharif El-Mekki, principal of the Shoemaker Campus, expressed that holistic political education for the youth is crucial for long-term projects of prison abolition. Angie Crawford echoed this point, calling for educational institutions to rework and expand outdated curricula, update textbooks, and “teach the students how to question everything.” She then distinguished between “schooling” and “education,” framing the role of education to “unschool” internalized racism and to integrate calls to political action into revamped public sector programs. El-Mekki seconded this, repeating the saying that “only a fool will send their children to the enemy’s school,” and that creating new educational institutions and reworking existing ones are imperative for Black and Brown liberation movements in the current era of “post-racial sentiments.”

One participant in the Q&A asked panelists their perspectives on how they understand racism to shape the ways environmental degradation disproportionately affects communities of color. She connected unequal access to clean water and food that Black communities face in Philadelphia to similar ecological challenges that Indigenous communities in North America confront, giving particular mention to Standing Rock reservation. This question sparked a conversation about how scientific advancements have been used to support projects of white supremacy and to disempower Black and Indigenous communities. They also debated how to harness the gains of such scientific practice without reproducing racialized biases historically ingrained in them. Davis reminded the audience that members of MOVE in the 1970s were addressing several of the issues raised in discussion, especially by protesting damaging environmental policies and practicing homeschooling.

Additional remarks by panelists and audience members voiced solidarity for the ongoing Occupy ICE movement and encampment at Arch and Broad St. and for the weekly Thursday protests against the Frank Rizzo monument at 15th and John F. Kennedy Blvd., run by Philly for REAL Justice.

Panelists also alerted the audience to upcoming actions and important dates: The Pack the Court Event to support political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal on August 30, and the approaching parole hearings for members of MOVE 9 including Mike Africa Senior in September 2018, Eddie Africa in November 2018, and Janine Africa in May 2019.

Ways to support the MOVE 9 and political prisoners in Philadelphia

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