Why Isn’t MOVE Part of Occupy Philly?

Ramona Africa and friends have been strangely M.I.A.

Ever since Occupy Philly began causing a stink in Philadelphia, I’ve been waiting for MOVE to make an appearance. After all, historically speaking, no other group in Philadelphia can rouse the rabble quite like Ramona Africa and her band of dreadlocked revolutionaries. Plus, with social injustices and police brutality high on the complaint lists of all of the Occupy groups, their mission, as vague as that may be at times, is hardly dissimilar from that of MOVE. But with Occupy Philly’s presence for the last nine months and with Occupy’s National Gathering officially happening here on the 4th of July (some people got started early), there’s been nary a peep out of the MOVE organization.

Now, if the name MOVE doesn’t conjure up nightmarish images for you, then you’re either not from Philadelphia or are too young to remember. A brief recap: In 1985, the City of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on a fortified house in West Philadelphia containing men, women and children who were part of a group called MOVE, which fell somewhere between a back-to-nature group and an armed cult-like militia, depending on who’s describing it. (For more on MOVE and their confrontations with police, read my article, MOVE: An Oral History.)

Five children and six adults died in the resultant blaze, and survivor Ramona Africa went on to further the MOVE manifesto and do her best to be a thorn in the side of Philadelphia’s government and institutions. And yet, while Occupy Philly has tried to do just that over the last year, making plenty of headlines along the way, MOVE has stayed out of it.

“We don’t need to be part of their headlines,” Ramona Africa told me last night. “Our intent is not to generate news. We have almost 40 years now of activity and involvement. We don’t have to insert ourselves with just any new group that comes along to validate our existence.”

Africa says that while MOVE has not directly associated itself with Occupy Philly and doesn’t necessarily support all of Occupy’s messages and tactics, there is certainly common ground. “Listen, just like with any group, everybody is not going to agree on every single activity, but we understand where they’re coming from. We’re not in the business of dictating how people vent their dissatisfaction.” She adds that when former Black Panther leader and Community Party candidate Angela Davis came to speak at the University of Pennsylvania last October, it was Ramona’s “sister,” Pam Africa, who brought her to City Hall to meet with the Occupiers.

But when the Occupy National Gathering gets underway tomorrow, Africa isn’t sure where she’ll be or if she’ll stop by to observe. “I don’t have their schedule,” she says. “I heard something about a weeklong gathering.”

It will have already been a busy week at MOVE headquarters. Just yesterday, she dropped a letter in the mail to Mayor Michael Nutter, in an attempt to set up a meeting with him and District Attorney Seth Williams about MOVE members who have been incarcerated for decades and are eligible for parole. This being 2012, she says she tried emailing Nutter but that her message kept bouncing. “I verified the address repeatedly with the City Hall operator!” she insists.

And today, she’s organizing what she calls a “big action” at 5th and Market streets to demand the release of her comrade Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death 30 years ago today. He was taken off of death row in December, but MOVE won’t be satisfied until he’s back on the streets. “This is not the time to settle back or be comfortable in any way,” says Africa.

One thing’s for sure. While the rest of non-Shorebound Philadelphia heads out to the Ben Franklin Parkway tomorrow for Wawa’s Welcome America Celebration with Questlove, Daryl Hall, and Queen Latifah, Africa will be nowhere to be found. “Fireworks is not something that is exactly appealing to me,” she explains.