Reclaim Osage: Mike Africa Jr. on Push to Buy Back MOVE House 38 Years After Philly Police Bombed It
Written by GRB on 17/05/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to an update on a story Democracy Now! has followed for years.
This past Saturday, May 13th, marked the 38th anniversary of the day the city of Philadelphia bombed its own citizens. On that day in 1985, police surrounded the home of MOVE, a Black radical liberation organization that was defying orders to vacate. Police flooded the home with water, filled the house with tear gas, and blasted the house with automatic weapons — all failing to dislodge the residents. Finally, police dropped a bomb on the house from a helicopter. Eleven people were killed — six adults and five children. The fire burned an entire city block to the ground, destroying over 60 homes. This is how the bombing was initially reported in Philadelphia on WCAU-TV.
WCAU ANCHOR: I’ve just been advised that we have new videotape of the episode that apparently ended — we think ended — the MOVE situation tonight, the dropping of an incendiary device. And let’s take a careful look at this. 5:27 p.m., state police helicopter drops it. There is the explosion. As you can see, a very dramatic explosion that occurs 30 seconds and really rips into the MOVE compound. There you see the bunker, which soon will go up in flames. And that was the explosion close up. Now, if there’s anybody there standing there, it’s obvious they couldn’t survive that explosion.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2021, we reported that Philadelphia activist and writer Abdul-Aliy Muhammad learned that the bones from one or two of the children killed in that 1985 MOVE bombing, Tree and Delisha Africa, were being used by Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology in an online video course without the family’s knowledge or consent.
The police bombing, May 13th, 1985, came after an earlier standoff with MOVE in 1978 ended in a hail of police gunfire, leaving one police officer dead. MOVE members say they didn’t fire a shot and that the officer was a victim of friendly fire. Nevertheless, nine of them were convicted of his murder and given life sentences. One of them, Debbie Africa, secretly gave birth in her jail cell just five weeks into her sentence. She managed to keep her son, Mike Africa Jr., with her for three days before alerting the guards. Seven of the nine, of the MOVE 9, are now free, after serving 40 years. Two died in prison.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Mike Africa Jr., who’s launched a Reclaim Osage campaign and announced he’s put a down payment on the house Philadelphia bombed in 1985, in order to reclaim it, after the city used eminent domain to seize it and turn it into a police substation. He’s the co-author of the book Fifty Years Ona Move.
Mike, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you lay out what happened to the house at 6221 Osage Avenue in the bombing and afterwards?
MIKE AFRICA JR.: First of all, let me just say thank you for having me, Amy. It’s a real pleasure to be here today.
Yeah, I can lay out. So, you know, you laid it out really well, what happened in the police — you know, the bombing of MOVE happened because members of the MOVE Organization that lived at 6221 Osage Avenue were fighting to get my parents and the other members of the MOVE 9 released from prison, and the city’s response to that was to drop a bomb. And in that, they didn’t just drop a bomb to dislodge a bunker, as Ramona Africa, the lone adult survivor, talks about. As she says, they came out there to kill. And if you look at the evidence, it’s clear. MOVE members, MOVE children were shot as they were trying to leave the burning building. They were shot by police. And after they were shot, their bodies were picked up and thrown back into the fire. So, it was just — it was the most horrific and darkest day in my life and probably Philadelphia history.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike, talk about how old you were. And you played with these other kids — right? — in the house.
MIKE AFRICA JR.: Yeah, so, in the ’70s, the adults took us to a secret location to get the children away from the confrontational atmosphere in Philadelphia. So, all of the children that were in the house, I remember, we were all in that secret MOVE second chapter. And we were also all together in an abusive orphanage after we were taken from that other location by police, as well. So, I knew every single one of them. We all played together. We laughed together. We ate together. We slept together. We cried together. We were a family.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I’m not going to ask you to remember prison, when your mom gave birth to you, because you are just there for what? Three days? But it is astounding that she kept her pregnancy and your birth secret from the guards, with the help of other prison mates, for a few days so she could bond with you before you were taken away. Is that right?
MIKE AFRICA JR.: It’s quite a miracle. When I think about it, it’s hard to believe it’s true. It’s hard to believe it’s me. And when Janet Africa announced to the judge that, you know, Debbie gave birth to a baby, the judge didn’t believe it. The guards that were actually on duty, that were supposed to be watching the cell to make sure that they knew when she gave birth, they didn’t know it, either. So, you know, I think that’s a testament to the strength and exercise activities and the strength of my mother. You know, she’s just an incredible person. And that didn’t start —
AMY GOODMAN: So, Mike, when —
MIKE AFRICA JR.: — when I was born.
AMY GOODMAN: Your mom was released from prison in 2018. It’s now 2023. Can you talk about the provenance of this house? So, it’s bombed, but what’s left becomes a police substation? And then the police sold it to — the city sold it to a developer? Explain. And then talk about when you came into this picture, and what it was like for you to return to this house of such carnage, where six MOVE adults and five children had been killed.
MIKE AFRICA JR.: Yeah. So, after the bombing, the city turned the property — well, first they took the home from my great-aunt, Louise James, who was the owner of the house. And her son, Frank Africa, he died in the house. Louise was the sister of John Africa, my great-uncle. And, you know, MOVE was in the house. And just as much as the neighbors wanted MOVE out of that house, my great-aunt Louise began to want them out, too, because of the conflict and whatnot within, you know, just internally, infighting.
But the city, after they dropped the bomb, they took the house through eminent domain, and then they turned it into a police substation. Wilson Goode sent “welcome back to the community” letters to the residents after their homes were rebuilt, and my great-aunt never received one of those letters. Once they had the house, once the city had the house, they turned it into a police substation. It remained that way. A developer came in through this gentrification sweep in Philadelphia and sold it. The city sold it to him for a dollar. I called the city and said that I’d like to buy the house. It’s our house. And the solicitor said, “We’re not selling the house to you for any money. You’re not supposed to have this house.” So —
AMY GOODMAN: Not even $1.50.
MIKE AFRICA JR.: Not even $1.50 or $300,000.
But what happened, how I got the house was, the person that lived in the house, that bought it from that developer, he told me that — I saw him on May 13, 2022. He saw me on the street. We were doing our annual commemoration for the lives that were stolen. And he reached out to me and said that he couldn’t get any peace living in that house. He said, every time he turned around, every time he opened — he said, “Me and my wife don’t even use the front door, because every time we do open the door, a camera is in our face, you know, so we don’t have any privacy. We want out. Do you want to buy the house?”
And I’ll tell you, it was like — how they say, like birthing a baby. I’ve never birthed a baby before, but I’ve heard about it. I’ve seen it a couple of times. It took nine months. Typically, it takes 45 to 60 days, but it took us nine months to actually close on the property just for a down payment. But the seller is not a developer. He’s not a city person. He’s just a regular, average citizen. And he sold the house for market value, which turned out to be $400,000.
So I was able to put a down payment down, but I was not able to come up with $400,000. So, now I’m hoping that the city and what I’m calling the Reclaim Osage campaign — I’m hoping that they will support the efforts to pay the house off. It will be great if they would take some of that excess money that they use for nonhealing projects and help heal in this situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you thinking of making this a memorial, a museum?
MIKE AFRICA JR.: You know, that’s a really good question. A lot of people have been asking me that. I think, you know, the house is zoned as a residential house, and I certainly don’t want to cause any more harm to the community, the neighbors. I mean, there are people that are original Osage neighbors that still live there today, and I don’t want to do anything that would create another disruption in their lives. They’ve been through so much. I think a lot of what they’ve been through get overshadowed because 11 people died, and five of them were children. But the neighbors deserve respect. So, I think we have to really, really figure out how to move with peace and freedom and — but also like respect. So, we’ll have to see about that.
AMY GOODMAN: For our radio listeners, Mike is wearing a hat that says “#ReclaimOsage.” Mike Africa Jr., I want to thank you so much for being with us, second-generation MOVE member, co-author of the book 50 Years Ona Move, just put a down payment on the MOVE house that was bombed by the city of Philadelphia.
That does it for our show. Oh, an update on one of our headlines at the beginning of the show: Ecuador’s conservative President Guillermo Lasso has dissolved the opposition-led National Assembly, blocking efforts by lawmakers to impeach him amidst accusations of corruption and embezzlement. The constitutional power, which had never been used in Ecuador before, allows Lasso to rule by decree until new elections can be held. We’ll have more on this story tomorrow on Democracy Now!
That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. Oh, and congratulations to Juan, to Juan González, on the graduation of his daughter Gabriela. Congratulations, Gabriela! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.