[Ppnews] MOVE: An Oral History

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Apr 7 10:25:37 EDT 2010


MOVE: An Oral History

For years, the hostility between the city and the 
radical West Philly group MOVE had escalated. But 
nobody was prepared for the horrific way the 
fight would end one May afternoon in 1985. Now, 
25 years later, the people who were there that 
day tell the still-unbelievable story

By Victor Fiorillo

IT WAS A standoff years in the making at 6221 
Osage Avenue ­ the headquarters of a group called 
MOVE. The neighbors were fed up. The cops had 
warrants. And the members of the extremist 
back-to-nature organization had barricaded 
themselves inside. Their demand? Justice for nine 
MOVE members incarcerated ­ wrongly, some say ­ 
for the 1978 murder of Officer James Ramp. On May 
13, 1985, shots rang out. Bystanders ­ including 
a young Michael Nutter ­ took cover. And then, as 
the sun began to set, a police helicopter flew in 
and released a bag filled with explosives onto 
the headquarters, making ours the only American 
city ever to drop a bomb on its own citizens. At 
the end of the day, 61 houses blazed, and 11 
people ­ five of them children ­ died, the 
nightmarish images forever burned into 
Philadelphia’s consciousness. Next month marks 
the 25th anniversary of that day. Here, the 
people who lived through it tell the extraordinary story of the MOVE bombing.

Ramona Africa, MOVE spokesperson and the sole 
adult survivor of the 1985 fire: MOVE was formed 
in 1972 by John Africa. He gave us one common 
belief, in the all-importance of life. We had 
peaceful demonstrations: the Zoo, the circus, 
furriers, Dow, du Pont, and unsafe boarding homes for the elderly.

Andino R. Ward, father of Birdie Africa (now 
Michael Moses Ward), the sole child survivor of 
the 1985 fire: One day in the early ’70s, my wife 
Rhonda had a friend who was telling her about 
this group, MOVE. At this point, Rhonda and I 
were separated. Not long thereafter, I went to 
her mom’s house to pick up Mike. Her mom said 
they no longer lived there, she’s with MOVE. I 
went to the Powelton MOVE house, almost went to 
blows with John Africa. Then a guy came with a 
hatchet, so I got out of there. Later, Rhonda 
told me that her new family was MOVE, that John 
Africa was Mike’s father, that I could forget any involvement.

Michael Nutter, current mayor: In the late ’70s, 
there were various public activities involving 
MOVE. I was studying at Penn, and really only generally aware of them.

James Berghaier, retired Philly police officer: 
I’d see them acting up in the courtroom, but I 
didn’t give them any credibility.

Ramona Africa: The cops would come out and tell 
us we had to break down and go away. MOVE would not accept that.

Tigre Hill, director of The Barrel of a Gun, a 
forthcoming film about Mumia Abu-Jamal: John 
Africa came to be at a time of all the cults. Tim 
Leary. Jim Jones. John Africa wanted to blow up 
capitals. They were anti-cop, anti-government, anti-technology.

Sam Katz, three-time mayoral candidate: These 
folks made life in the neighborhood intolerable ­ 
they were disruptive of civil life to the extreme.

Angel Ortiz, former City Councilman: This was an 
intolerant time. If you were different, you were 
pursued. The MOVE members fit into that pattern. 
They were loud. But I don’t believe they were 
plotting subversive action against the state.

Ramona Africa: The government couldn’t explain 
their position, didn’t want to hear us. That’s 
when the beatings and unjust jailings started. 
MOVE men and women ­ pregnant women ­ were beat.

James Berghaier: And then there was the guns-on-the-porch incident.

Ramona Africa: We are not a violent people. We 
are uncompromisingly opposed to violence. But we 
do believe in self-defense. You’re violent if you 
don’t defend, because then you’re endorsing violence.

Andino Ward: In the mid-’70s, I went to the 
Powelton house. I tried to initiate conversation, 
and somebody shot at me. I took off running. I 
wouldn’t see my son for another 10 years.

Tigre Hill: Today you have this revisionist 
history of this peaceful group in West Philly. They were not peaceful.

Ramona Africa: In May of ’77, we took a stand 
after MOVE people were beat bloody. You come at 
us? We’re coming back at you. We took to a 
platform built in front of our house, and we displayed weapons.

James Berghaier: We got called in. The 
commissioner said, “I don’t want any crazy 
shootings. Find good positions. If shooting 
starts, do you have a problem taking them out?” I said no.

Charles “Tommy” Mellor, retired Philly police 
officer: I never heard of MOVE until ’77. When I 
saw them brandishing their weapons, I was taken 
aback. Them standing out there with automatic 
weapons, and no one was doing anything about it.

James Berghaier: From 1977 to 1978, 24 hours a 
day, we sat outside and listened to the rhetoric. 
If they came out, we were to apprehend.

Ramona Africa: Our main demand was that the 
members in jail for riot and weapons be released. 
Mayor Rizzo said he didn’t negotiate with terrorists, so we stood our ground.

Frank Rizzo Jr., son of then-mayor Frank Rizzo: 
My father made the decision to evict them with a court order.

Ramona Africa: They turned off our water, didn’t 
pick up our trash. Then on August 1st, the city 
said they wanted every MOVE person out, we had to 
give up our home, and we said no. It wasn’t about 
the house. They wanted to get rid of ­ to murder ­ MOVE.

William Richmond, former Philadelphia fire 
commissioner: In ’78, I was deputy chief in 
charge of research and planning, and we were 
involved in the planning process for that 
episode. I went on-site and looked at the 
geography, saw what problems we might encounter.

Tigre Hill: In 1978, I was 10. My mom and I drove 
to the compound to stop and look. There were TV 
trucks. Police barricades. The next day was the shoot-out.

Ramona Africa: In the middle of the night, 
hundreds of cops marched out with the fire 
department. Not to arrest, but to kill.

James Berghaier: Bullshit. I didn’t go out there 
to kill. I went in to put in my eight hours. I was there to call their bluff.

William Richmond: We set up deluge guns to knock 
down the wooden slats they had over the windows.

Ramona Africa: They pumped almost six feet of 
water into that basement, knowing there were men 
and women and babies and dogs in there.

James Berghaier: After Monsignor Devlin wasn’t 
able to talk them into coming out, the fire 
department started the deluge gun. I thought they 
were going to come out, I really did. I didn’t 
think they were that devoted. The worst thing you 
can do is underestimate your adversary.

Tommy Mellor: We broke down the fence surrounding 
the house. I was the third person through the 
front door. We eventually got to the basement with the tear gas.

James Berghaier: Pretty soon, gunfire erupts. I fired two or three rounds.

Tommy Mellor: Bullets were flying, hitting pipes. 
We were in water up to our waist, and there were 
rats and feces. It was a bad place to be.

William Richmond: When the shooting started, our 
firefighters were in the wrong place. We had a 
number hit. Whatever plan was in place didn’t flow.

Tommy Mellor: I couldn’t tell what was going on.

James Berghaier: I can’t say I saw a MOVE member 
shoot, and I can’t tell you I saw a cop shoot. 
But I did see the result of it. Officer Ramp was 
dead. After the shooting, the women came out with 
the kids. That was the end of it. They knocked the house down.

Ramona Africa: The cops emptied their guns and 
then emptied them again. James Ramp was on street 
level facing MOVE, and he was shot by a bullet 
traveling downward. Obviously, somebody above him killed him.

Tigre Hill: From all of the documentation I’ve 
seen, it’s clear that Ramp was killed by MOVE.

Angel Ortiz: Did the MOVE members shoot Ramp? 
This has never been fully answered. The MOVE 
compound was razed without proper forensic analysis.

Ramona Africa: A team came to demolish MOVE 
headquarters. They were accusing my family of 
killing a cop. That makes it the scene of a crime. Why destroy the evidence?

Frank Rizzo Jr.: A lot of people feel there was a 
police cover-up. Friendly fire. The person who 
killed Ramp was in the basement of that house. 
And the person who killed him, those people are in jail.

On August 4, 1981, nine MOVE members were sent to 
prison for the murder of Officer Ramp. In the 
years that followed, during which time MOVE 
supporter Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death 
for the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner, MOVE 
relocated its headquarters to 6221 Osage Avenue, 
and continued to fight for the MOVE 9, becoming 
even more of a thorn in the side of the 
neighbors, the city, and the new mayor, Wilson Goode.

Seth Williams, current district attorney: In the 
early ’80s, I was in high school at Central. MOVE 
bought a home on Osage. My house was just around 
the corner. I played basketball with the MOVE 
guys. There was no political talk. Just the 
trash-talking that goes on at pickup games in West Philly.

Angel Ortiz: When I joined Council in 1984, MOVE 
was still having problems. Neighbors complained about hygiene and loud music.

Charles Diamond, former priest at St. Carthage: 
The church was a half-block from Osage. They were 
constantly blaring messages. My congregants were 
hearing people running over their roofs at night.

Ramona Africa: We had met with Wilson Goode when 
he was managing director. But when Wilson became 
mayor, we couldn’t get near him. He wasn’t going 
to do anything for us. So we set up our 
microphone and started boarding up our home.

Theodore Price, former resident of neighboring 
6250 Pine Street: I didn’t have too much 
confrontation with them. I worked nights. But I 
knew people who had lots of problems with them.

Ed Rendell, current governor and then--district 
attorney of Philadelphia: The neighbors were 
complaining about everything from loud noise to a 
horrible smell. All sorts of nuisance complaints.

Seth Williams: By the spring of ’85, they’re on 
bullhorns shouting obscenities all the time. 
People were fed up. The public forced the hand of 
the managing director [Leo Brooks] and police to do something.

Ramona Africa: The cops claimed we were bad 
neighbors. Since when has this government shown 
any interest in black people complaining about black people?

Ed Rendell: The police came to me and said, “What 
do we got here?” And I said, “You might advise 
the neighbors to come file a private criminal 
complaint.” But there were no felonies, probably 
nothing to get an arrest warrant on.

Angel Ortiz: You could see it developing if you 
had any sense. It was a police state. But I thought it could be handled.

James Berghaier: With Goode being the mayor, I 
thought the chances of negotiations would be 
greater. I thought it would get resolved.

Ed Rendell: Then weapons were brandished, I 
believe. And tied with the threats ­ it became 
actionable. Not major, but actionable.

Frank Powell, retired police lieutenant: Late 
April of ’85, we got word that the city wanted 
them out, to come up with a plan. I was the head 
of the bomb squad back then. So we got together ­ 
the bomb squad, the firearms training unit and 
the tactical -division. The plan was to go to the 
homes adjacent to the house ­ remember, this was 
a rowhouse ­ and blow small holes in the wall 
using a charge and inject tear gas.

Ed Rendell: I guess maybe 10 days before the 
fire, I went out there and talked to one or two 
members over the fence. I said, “Look, guys, you 
can’t go on like this. No good can come of this. 
Why don’t you just surrender?” They were very 
respectful, but they basically said no. And I didn’t have any further contact.

Frank Powell: MOVE had built a bunker on the roof 
of the house, and it was clearly a problem. It 
covered any operations on Osage. Police 
Commissioner Sambor asked me if I could get up on 
the roof and put a charge on the bunker. But I 
couldn’t. I’d be exposed to shooters in the bunker.

Bob Brady, current Congressman and then-deputy 
mayor for labor: I was in Goode’s office. There 
were a lot of people there. Richmond. Sambor. All 
these military men giving advice. I thought it 
would be a good idea if we got a boom crane to 
knock that bunker off. But somebody above my pay scale decided against it.

Ed Rendell: The police came to me in Goode’s 
office and showed me aerial photographs. There 
were weapons and big cans of oil on the roof. I 
authorized arrest and search warrants.

Wilson Goode, in testimony before the MOVE 
Commission, October 15, 1985: I directed [police 
commissioner Gregore Sambor] to be in charge of 
 plan that would enable us to make arrests 
of such MOVE members as the D.A. was able to 
provide warrants for 
 the protection of police 
officers and firefighters and occupants of the 
house was paramount. 
 We did not want persons 
involved who may have a hot temper, who may 
emotionally have been attached to 1978. 
 What I 
said to him was 
 “I’m the mayor, and I must rely 
upon you to go and do a proper kind of plan.”

Gregore Sambor, former police commissioner, in 
testimony to the MOVE Commission, October 17, 
1985: We had lessons from sad experience. In the 
spring of 1977, we had hoped that armed threats 
would disappear if pacified. By the fall of that 
year, we had thought that an indefinite state of 
siege would starve MOVE into submission. By 
August of 1978, we hoped that an overpowering 
police presence 
 would intimidate MOVE to 
peaceful surrender. The plan for May 13th was the 
most conservative, controlled, disciplined and 
safe operation that we could devise based upon these lessons.

William Richmond: Late Friday, I get a call that 
there was a meeting at the police administration 
building on Saturday morning. At the meeting, we 
were told that Sambor would make a pronouncement 
by bullhorn for MOVE to exit the house. If they 
didn’t exit, we’d start the squirts and throw 
water at quite a volume to neutralize the 
bunkers. Then the police would get the tear gas 
in. But we hadn’t been out there. The planning was terrible.

James Berghaier: We were going to breach walls in 
the basement and second floors and use tear gas, 
leaving the first floor as an escape for MOVE 
people. And I think, I’m okay with this.

Theodore Price: On Sunday, May 12th, 1985, the 
police told us that we had to go somewhere and 
stay. I went to a hotel on Baltimore Avenue.

Ramona Africa: We knew something big was about to 
happen. Police told people to go out and visit 
family, that they could come back the next night. Boy, were they wrong.

Michael Nutter: In 1985, I was Councilman Ortiz’s 
chief of staff. He asked me to look into the 
situation that Sunday. There were police 
barricades, news vans, and a general sense of 
tension in the air. I talked through a screen 
door with Ramona Africa. She expressed that the 
family was upset about the members locked up, and 
they were prepared to take whatever actions 
necessary to try to make their release happen. 
Soon, there was increasing presence by the 
police, specialized officers, SWAT teams. I was out there most of the night.

Tommy Mellor: We get out to the house at 4 or 5 
a.m on Monday. It was very quiet. Dark. Eerie. I 
was carrying a tear gas machine.

William Richmond: I rode out on the squirt truck. 
This was the first time I had seen the bunker or 
Osage. We positioned on 62nd Street. That’s when 
we saw the trees in our way, and I thought, The squirts aren’t going to reach.

Michael Nutter: Police presence significantly 
increased again. The power had been turned off. 
And then the commissioner made an announcement 
that the folks should come out of the house.

William Richmond: I’ll never forget it. “This is America 
” he started.

Ramona Africa: He said, “Attention, MOVE. This is 
America. You have to abide by the laws and rules of America.”

Frank Powell: Then one of them gets on the 
loudspeaker and calls the commissioner a motherfucker.

Michael Nutter: At some point, what sounded like 
gunfire broke out. People were running for cover.

William Richmond: Once the shooting started, we 
turned on the squirts, but they were too far. We 
couldn’t neutralize those bunkers.

Tommy Mellor: What major city lets people build a 
bunker on their roof? You try to build a fence and L&I will shut you down.

William Richmond: The bunkers were critical. They 
overlooked everything. High ground, in military parlance.

Ramona Africa: Firefighters are sworn to protect 
life, but they were the first phase of the 
attack. The water was pouring into the house, and 
then we heard that the police were going to try to use tear gas.

James Berghaier: We used the charge in the wall 
next door, and Tommy Mellor started to put the pipe through but hit something.

Tommy Mellor: We didn’t realize how 
well-fortified the house was. I could barely make 
a dent in it to get the tear gas in.

James Berghaier: They had walls inside of walls. 
But we did get through and get gas on for a bit.

Marc Lamont Hill, Columbia University professor 
and former Fox News correspondent: I was only 
seven, living in Germantown. During the day, as 
things developed, the teachers were talking about 
it. I remember one was crying. They were upset.

Michael Moses Ward, formerly Birdie Africa, in 
1985 testimony before the MOVE Commission: We was 
in the cellar for a while 
  and tear gas started 
coming in and we got the blankets. And they was 
wet. And then we put them over our heads and started laying down.

Ramona Africa: They were shooting. They knew 
there was children. They had arrest warrants, 
yes, but we hadn’t been convicted of anything. 
And what they claimed to be arresting us for was 
not capital offenses. They had artillery of war. 
M16s. Sidearms. Sniper rifles with silencers ­ the weapon of an assassin.

James Berghaier: The bomb guys were using some 
sort of charge to try to breach the wall. We 
attempted to get back into the [neighboring] 
house, but the way it was explained to me, MOVE 
violated the integrity of the house by knocking 
down joists. The first floor of the house we had been in collapsed.

Frank Rizzo Jr.: My father never had much respect 
for Sambor. People thought my dad was excessive. 
But Sambor ran around in fatigues. Dad heard that 
they were planning to drop an explosive.

Frank Powell: Around 4 or 5 p.m., they call me 
into a meeting. Sambor asks if we could use a 
helicopter to blow the bunker off. I don’t know, 
I say. I never dropped a bomb out of a 
helicopter. What happens if they shoot the 
helicopter down and it lands on a house? What happens if I miss?

James Berghaier: We hear that a helicopter is 
going to drop a bomb. We’re supposed to take a 
defensive position. I blew it off: You’re not going to drop a bomb.

Tommy Mellor: They had pulled us out of the 
house, so I went to Cobbs Creek Parkway. Ducking 
bullets all day tires you out. I went to sleep in 
the dirt. Somebody woke me up, and I heard they 
were going to throw a device to knock the bunker 
off. Of all the strange things going on then, it didn’t seem strange.

Gregore Sambor, in testimony: The use of the 
device itself gives me the least pause. It was 
selected as a conservative and safe approach to 
what I perceived as a tactical necessity. I was 
assured that the device would not harm the 
occupants. What has imprinted that device on the 
mind of the city is, in fact, the method of 
delivery. If it had been carried or thrown into 
position or if it had been dropped from a crane, 
the perception of that action would be quite different.

William Richmond: So the decision was made to 
take a helicopter, and use a satchel charge ­ 
that’s the term for explosives in a gym bag. The 
helicopter made two or three passes with Frank Powell strapped in.

Frank Rizzo Jr.: I’ll never forget it. My father 
was in the family room, watching it all on TV. 
When he saw the state police helicopter, all the 
intelligence he had started coming together, and 
he said, “Son, they’re going to drop a bomb on this headquarters.”

Frank Powell: As soon as I dropped the satchel, 
the pilot got the hell out. The rotor wash blew 
it across the roof. I said, “Oh shit!” And then 
it went off. There was a football-shaped hole. It missed the bunker.

Michael Ward, in testimony: That is when the big 
bomb went off. It shook the whole house up.

William Richmond: Frank dropped it, which took a 
lot of moxie. The concussion knocked out windows 
of nearby homes. Debris went everywhere. Minutes 
later, someone said to me there was a fire on the 
roof. These things start small and build up over time.

Ed Rendell: When I heard that they used an 
incendiary device on the roof, I was amazed, 
because you could clearly see drums of oil up 
there. And it would seem to me to have been 
lunacy under those circumstances to drop an 
incendiary device. But they did. And as the 
afternoon rolled on and the fire started, it became almost a holocaust.

Frank Rizzo Jr.: When my father saw the fire 
department shut the water off, he couldn’t 
believe that anyone in the U.S. would use fire to 
force people from a building.

William Richmond: Originally, the police wanted 
to access the property via the hole in the roof. 
We couldn’t leave the squirts on, because we’d 
wash off police attempting to breach. And the 
squirts caused a tremendous amount of smoke ­ the 
fear was that MOVE members would exit shooting 
from different locations. There was a managing 
director’s directive in place. One commander in 
place: the police commissioner. We were under authority of police.

James Berghaier: There’s so much fire and smoke. 
We can’t tell what’s gunshots and what’s windows 
popping. And we hear over the radio that someone is coming out.

Tommy Mellor: And then Ramona comes out, 
surrounded by smoke. And Birdie comes out next.

James Berghaier: It was like fantasy. Like he 
came out of fire. He was barefoot. Ramona tried 
to pick him up but lost her grip. He landed on 
his head 
 I scooped him up. And Tommy took Ramona into custody.

Tommy Mellor: By this time, the fire had already spread to other houses.

Angel Ortiz: I was coming out the back of the Art 
Museum with Ed Rendell and my wife. We saw the 
plume of smoke, and Ed and I looked at each other. It was one hell of a fire.

Ed Rendell: Later that night was the spring 
Democratic dinner over at the Franklin Plaza, and 
we watched the houses in flames on one of the little TVs in the bar.

Seth Williams: My friends and I watched the fire 
in disbelief. It went from a minor tragedy to a 
catastrophic event. Eleven of my classmates lost their homes.

Tigre Hill: I came home from Archbishop Carroll. 
I lived ­ and still live ­ in Wynnefield. It was 
on TV, and from my house, which is a distance 
away, I could see the smoke. My mother and I, we were just so stunned.

Theodore Price: We had no idea what was going on, 
so we checked out of our hotel on Monday. When we 
got to the street, there was a whole lot of 
action. And after they dropped it, the fire 
starts trickling to each house. Boom! Boom! Boom!

Sam Katz: I was landing in an airplane in South 
Philly, and the sky was bright orange. I had no 
idea what it was. But it was a remarkable scene 
from up there. Then I was on the ground in my 
car, with KYW on. The whole thing just careened completely out of control.

Theodore Price: It burnt 61 houses. It looked 
like a war zone. My house was completely 
destroyed. I had just put in new siding and 
picture windows. I lived in that house since 1957. It was bought and paid for.

Wilson Goode, in a press conference that night: I 
stand fully accountable for the action that took 
place tonight. I will not try to place any blame 
on any one of my subordinates. I was aware of 
what was going on, and therefore, I support them 
in terms of their decisions. And therefore, the 
people of the city will have to judge the mayor, in fact, of what happened.

Gregore Sambor, in testimony: I remain convinced 
that any approach on May 13th would have 
presented an immediate and deadly danger. 
remains a fact that if MOVE members had simply 
come out of the building, they would be alive 
today. But they announced that morning that they 
would never surrender and that they would kill as many of us as they could.

Marc Lamont Hill: I’ve talked to Goode. He 
regrets his actions. I would argue that it’s the 
biggest regret he has in his life. It haunts him. 
I wouldn’t be surprised if his move to the clergy 
was prompted by his deep sense of regret and guilt.

Sam Katz: I don’t want to point the finger at who 
should be punished, but there was a moral 
breakdown here, both in the act and the 
aftermath. I think it affected Goode profoundly.

Wilson Goode, in a 2004 interview with 
Philadelphia magazine: In the whole scheme of 
things, MOVE was a bad day. It was a really bad day.

On March 6, 1986, the 11-member Philadelphia 
Special Investigation Commission ­ or MOVE 
Commission ­ issued a report condemning city 
officials, stating: “Dropping a bomb on an 
occupied rowhouse was unconscionable.” No 
criminal charges were filed against anyone in 
city government. Wilson Goode was reelected to a second term.

A burned Ramona Africa served seven years in 
prison for charges relating to the May 13th 
confrontation. Following her 1992 release, she 
won a civil case against the city for $500,000. 
Michael Ward was reunited with his father, Andino 
Ward, and later won a $1.5 million judgment against the city.

The 250 residents who lost their homes had yet 
another saga to endure: rebuilding, a process 
plagued by patronage, politics and incompetence. 
It continues, to some extent, to this day.

Many of the police officers involved were 
profoundly affected by their experience. James 
Berghaier quickly left the force due to 
post-traumatic stress disorder. Another officer committed suicide.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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