On Friday, Feb. 7, a 59-year-old man walked out of the Fayette state correctional institution in La Belle, Pennsylvania, leaving behind some 42 years of his life stolen by one of the most shameful, racist episodes of criminal injustice ever.
Chuck Sims Africa was 18 when he and eight other African American men and women were sentenced to 30 years to 100 years in prison. They belonged to the non-conformist MOVE organization which was attacked at least three times by Philadelphia police.
In one clash, in August 1978, police ofﬁcer James Ramp was killed by a single bullet. There was no evidence of who ﬁred the shot and prosecutors accused nine MOVE members of collective responsibility and charged them with third-degree murder. They were all convicted and sentenced to up to 100 years in prison.
Merle Africa died behind bars in 1998 at age 47 and Phil Africa in 2015 at age 59. The survivors were paroled over the past two years after each had served about 40 years: Michael Africa Sr., freed on October 2018; Phillips Africa and Janey Holloway Africa, May 2019; Eddie Goodman Africa, June 2019; and Delbert Orr Africa, January 2020.
Some MOVE members suffered further personal tragedies. In 1976, police ofﬁcers showed up at the MOVE home following a complaint of a disturbance. A scuffle followed, Janine Africa was shoved and her three-week-old baby, named Life, was knocked out of her arms and fell to the ground, apparently hitting his skull. He died later that day in her arms.
Debbie Sims Africa was eight months pregnant when she was imprisoned. The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington, who has been doing remarkable reporting on MOVE, wrote about the horror as she tried to give birth without the authorities knowing it:
“The placenta was the trickiest part. How to dispose of it without it making a mess that would alert the guards that a child had just been born in a prison cell?
“There was no medical equipment, no painkillers, no sterilized wipes or hygienic materials of any sort. When it came to cutting the umbilical cord in the absence of scissors, well, that was the easy part: just use your teeth.
“But Debbie Sims Africa was more stressed about the placenta… She was determined to give birth on her own without any involvement of the jail ofﬁcers so she could spend some precious time with the baby. In the end, a co-defendant helped her out, scooping up the placenta in her hands and secreting it to the shower room where she flushed it down the prison toilet.
“The plan worked. Debbie Africa got to spend three wonderful days with her baby son. She hid him under a sheet and when he cried, other jailed women would stand outside the cell and sing or cough to obscure the noise. “She knew it couldn’t last, as jail rules prohibited mothers being with their children. At the end of the three days she informed the jailers of the baby’s existence and, once they had got over their astonishment, they arranged for the mother and son to be separated and for the child to be taken to the outside world.”
It would not be until 40 years later, on June 16, 2018, after Sims Africa was paroled and walked out of the Cambridge Springs prison in Pennsylvania, that she would be able to hold her son again.
Another confrontation came in 1985, when police obtained a warrant charging four MOVE members with, among other things, making terrorist threats. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s ﬁrst African American mayor, and Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor, designated MOVE a terrorist organization and evacuated residents for a fullscale assault on MOVE’s Osage Avenue home.
On May 13, some 500 police ofﬁcers were dispatched to evacuate the property and execute the arrest warrants. Shooting erupted, with police ﬁring 10,000 rounds of ammunition. When that failed, a state police helicopter dropped two one-pound bombs made with FBI-supplied materiel. A ﬁre broke out and the blaze destroyed 65 row houses. It also killed ﬁve children aged 7 to 13, including Janine Africa’s 12-year-old son, MOVE founder John Africa and ﬁve other adults.
Goode testiﬁed later that he gave the order to drop the bomb – the only instance of police aerial bombing of a residential area on U.S. soil. A Goodeappointed commission said in its March 6, 1986, report: “Dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.” Goode apologized and Sambor resigned but no one was criminally charged. However, Ramona Africa, one of two survivors of the bombing, was charged with riot and conspiracy and made to serve seven years in jail.
A federal jury in 1996 ordered the city to pay $1.5 million in a civil suit judgment to Ramona Africa and relatives of two people killed in the bombing. The jury concluded that the city used excessive force and violated the MOVE members’ constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Philadelphia became known in 1985 as “The City that Bombed itself.”
The City of Brotherly Love also deprived nine African men and women of more than 350 years of their lives, collectively.