Following a 15-month-long siege on a MOVE compound in Philadelphia’s Powelton Village neighborhood, police launched a major assault on the collective’s home on Aug. 8, 1978. Nine MOVE members were arrested and convicted of third-degree murder and conspiracy in connection with the death of a Philadelphia police officer during the raid. Despite the lack of any evidence linking any of them to the shooting, they were given 30- to 100-year sentences. All nine became eligible for parole in 2008, but have been repeatedly denied.
On June 16, Debbie Sims Africa, minister of education for the MOVE organization at the time of her incarceration, became the first of the MOVE 9 to be paroled after nearly four decades in prison. She was reunited with her daughter Whit and son Mike Jr. for the first time in nearly 40 years.
Mike Africa Sr., Debbie’s spouse and one of the remaining six MOVE members still incarcerated, becomes eligible for parole again in September. Two members, Merle Africa and Phil Africa, died in prison.
On July 6, this writer met with Debbie and her son, Michael Africa Jr., on the porch of their home in Delaware County, Pa., surrounded by a wonderful garden on the first cool day after a weeklong heat wave.
We started out by talking about how Debbie came to be involved with MOVE. I wanted to know who Debbie Sims Africa was before she became one of the MOVE 9. Debbie responded by describing her experience, and that of her brothers and sisters, as young teenagers growing up in Philadelphia’s Black Bottom neighborhood, where there was always something going on: fights, police violence, etc.
Debbie made her long story short: “My brother got into a fight with one of his friends –– ended up with my sister on probation. My boyfriend, Mike Africa Sr., got my mother, who, realizing summer was coming and didn’t want us in the streets, reached out to some MOVE people she knew. They came to the house and talked with us for hours, giving us sound advice, talking about how violence wasn’t the solution to problems. That we should try to avoid it at all costs.
“It wasn’t called MOVE at the time, but one of their members invited my two brothers to come to their place in Powelton Village to work at a car wash they ran. This was around 1972 or ‘73. My brothers loved it. They didn’t want to come home and they didn’t. They got involved in MOVE activities, in speaking engagements — at the time they were in full throttle speaking out against injustice. They loved it, taking care of the dogs and going to study sessions that MOVE founder John Africa held, educating people how to avoid violence in their communities and on police brutality — the things that made people’s lives miserable.
“My older sister took dictation for John Africa. My mother, aunt and cousin were all involved at that point, but I didn’t want to go there. I was in high school and aspiring to be a graduate.
“Then something happened. My mother kept talking about guidelines she called ‘the book,’ written by John Africa. She kept talking about it, and the logic of it, and finally she let me read a part about education.”
Debbie described being so moved and inspired by what she read that she wanted to read it to the world. “I took it to school and let my history teacher read it. It was so strong and powerful that people might just look at it as too technical — but the truth is technical. He took it and read it, but he didn’t want to give it back. I was worried I’d get into trouble because I had to return it. He finally brought it back, and I asked what he thought. He said, ‘It’s a lot. It is the truth.’”
When Debbie Sims graduated a few months later, she started coming to the MOVE compound regularly, getting involved with activities — whether it was anti-zoo actions because of the abuse of animals, or at the police districts where someone had been brutalized. She noted, “John Africa’s teachings really lock you into the reality of what’s really going on. The rest is history.”
When asked if she ever thought about what life would have been like if she had not met MOVE, Debbie responded: “Being young at that time, I can only imagine that it would have not have been good. My mom was married, but separated, with five children. It would have not been good for her. Growing up in a neighborhood like that, I can only see a lot of tragedy happening.
“My mom was struggling for my brothers. When I look back on their friends, and my friends, I see a lot of them were already in prison, some of them for life. Although we did come to jail, it was at least for a purpose. It wasn’t gang-related. It was political.”
Today, like too many of Philadelphia’s predominantly Black and poor communities, the Black Bottom area has been decimated by gentrification, with a majority of its original residents pushed out to make way for the expansions of the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Presbyterian Hospital. It has been renamed “University City.”
Powelton Village under police siege
In May 1977, police obtained a court order requiring MOVE to vacate their Powelton Village home. What followed was a tense siege of the surrounding neighborhood for more than a year, including shutting off water to the house and preventing food or aid to be sent to the family.
What was Debbie’s experience during the siege, while she was in the house with a very young child? “We were pretty much confined in our house. It was restrictive. We couldn’t come down off a platform outside the house, or we would have been arrested. We had to make do with what we had.
“The city had shut off water and electricity. When the city was about to put up the blockade, lots of supporters came and brought us food and supplies. We also had a lot of support from neighbors, who gave us food, water and canned goods.
“At every point we were about to run out of water, I kid you not, it rained. We used the rainwater to bathe the kids and for drinking water. I lived in an upstairs room where I could sit and collect rainwater from outside.”
Due to litigation restrictions on what she could say about the actual police raid on Aug. 8, 1978, we did not discuss the event that led to the arrests and imprisonment of the MOVE 9. However, while incarcerated, Debbie wrote on her experience for onamove.org.
Then 22, Debbie was in the house during the 1978 attack with her 23-month-old daughter. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child.
Debbie described the terror of the police attack. When family members woke up to find police surrounding their home, they quickly gathered up children and dogs and went to the basement, where they thought they would be safe.
“We huddled together, scared because we knew cops had lots of guns and other weapons. We didn’t know how they were gonna do it, but we knew their plan was to kill us. Cops were yelling over a loudspeaker for us to come out the house … but we didn’t trust them, so nobody went out there.”
Debbie described how police used fire hoses to forcefully spray water through a broken window in the basement. The impact was enough to throw two-by-four oak beams across the room, literally tearing the house apart and killing dogs in the process. Then, a second wave of water came through another window, catching them in a crossfire of water. The cops started throwing smoke bombs and tear gas into the basement and shooting directly at the people inside. The smoke was so dense Debbie could not see her child’s face.
Having had her almost 2-year-old daughter snatched from her arms when she was taken into custody, and giving birth to her son a month later in prison, only to have him taken from her as well, Debbie could relate to the anguish of immigrant parents being forcibly separated from their children today.
“While my daughter and son were eventually given back to MOVE people, they went through a lot. These kinds of separations have been going on for a long time. I’m happy to see that this situation is getting so much coverage and that it is being challenged. It’s hard when your baby is being taken away and you don’t know where they are. It was hard for me, and I knew where they were. I’m glad they are starting to reunite the families that are seeking asylum.”
Life in prison prior to parole
We spent some time talking about Debbie’s experience in prison and what’s next for the campaign to win release for the remaining MOVE 9 members. Before Debbie was sentenced, she and the other MOVE 9 members were in a county house of corrections for three years. After sentencing, the women were all taken to State Correctional Institution Muncy.
“When we got there, they just put us in the hole, no ifs, ands or buts,” she recalled. “When Merle asked when we could come out, a security lieutenant said, ‘Your minimum sentence is 30 years. You can come out in 30 years.’ The county prison had advised Muncy to ‘give them hard work and they would be okay.’ The state didn’t listen.
“We hadn’t done anything wrong, so we went on a hunger strike for 45 to 50 days to draw attention to what was going on and to get justice. They would bring us food, and we would refuse to eat it. We lost so much weight they could see it and it scared them. That forced them to let us out of the hole.
“They actually took us to court and sued us just to take our blood samples. When we were finally released into general population, they jumped us and took our blood, and made the excuse that ‘now you can be in population.’ It was their intention for us to be there all the time.”
Later the women were moved to SCI Cambridge Springs which, like Muncy, was a former college campus. “They turn a lot of old college campuses into prisons. The cells may look like dorm rooms, but we were not living in college conditions,” Debbie explained. “There were locks on our doors and other jail restrictions. We were not able to move around, not able to make phone calls that much and had limited contact with our families. Eventually, phone calls and visits were made available.
“Up until my release, I was in a room with other MOVE sisters. We didn’t generally socialize with everybody because we have very specific beliefs and consistent principles we follow. Because of that, we carry ourselves a certain way, and people are drawn to us.
“The other prisoners saw our mental toughness and physical strength, that we were running and exercising and that we care for people and respect them. We always had a strong impact on what happened in the prison, and there was support for us. During the end of my incarceration, I even had officers wish me good luck and say it was time for all of us to go. We did our time and should be released.”
Free the MOVE 9
The conversation turned to the work to win parole for the MOVE 9 members who remain imprisoned, more than nine years after they became eligible for parole. “We are asking for MOVE people to be released. We were given 30 to 100 years, and we’ve done over our minimum — nearly 40 years at this point — and we’ve earned the right to be paroled,” Debbie explained.
“People can send letters to the MOVE organization in Philadelphia, since letters need to be written in a certain way, and we can make sure they get to the proper place. On Aug. 5, there will be a program to commemorate 40 years of MOVE people being in prison. It includes a short run/walk, a panel discussion and entertainers. People are welcome to join and give donations if they can. More information can be found on onamove.org.
“People have already done so much in support year after year, decade after decade. We’ve had so much good support, often from a small, consistent group of strong supporters who have never let us down. It’s just been awesome for me coming home, but it’s still surreal.”
Much has changed since Debbie Sims Africa was imprisoned in 1978, including the political movement. We talked about the recent developments of the Black Lives Matter movement, new groups opposing police brutality and the most recent movement to abolish ICE. I asked Debbie if she had any advice for the young activists of today.
She responded: “To the people who really want to work for peace and justice, it does take a lot of hard work and commitment. But in the end, it is worth it. We’re not talking about violence. We’re talking about revolution. We have to understand what we want and what we are fighting for.
“Be consistent and do what it takes, whether it’s demonstrations or just standing in silence. If people can find a peaceful solution to their problems then they should do it, but we have to be unified. It makes it harder that everyone has different ways of doing things, but we need to be moving in the same direction.
“My message would be to stay focused on what your purpose is. Don’t get diverted by anybody. Don’t let people or other things pull you away from what you want to do. Stay focused.”
As our time wound down, I turned to Debbie’s son, Mike, to ask about how his three weeks reunited with his mother have gone. Mike responded: “It has been all that I hoped it would be. There’s been the back and forth, with my mom, my sister and my wife teaming up on me, but it has been beautiful.”
Debbie interjected by noting that one principal of MOVE is the recognition of equality between women and men.
Mike continued: “I told her it feels like you’ve been gone for a short vacation. The whole transition has been so smooth, things fell into place. I really didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t plan — it’s been one foot in front of the other.
“We are still learning each other, but the fact that we are both MOVE members and have the same beliefs helps. MOVE does not believe in killing life unnecessarily. There were fruit flies in our house, and there was one right in front of her, and she saw it. There was a part of me that forgot she is a MOVE member too, so I expected her to swat it, her being a new person in the house. I was wondering how was she going to react. When she just ignored the fly, I remember feeling happy about it. I don’t have to teach her our beliefs. This is a person who has known them longer than I do.
“It’s all love! It’s all great!”