URBAN ANARCHISTS AND LITTLE RED WAGONS

In the summer of 1978, my wife Linda and I had fun towing her little red wagon full of rocks through the police line during the first confrontation between the city of Philadelphia and MOVE.

Never heard of MOVE? I’m not surprised. Only in Philadelphia could the record of summer-long martial law effectively… vanish.

MOVE was often called a “back to nature” and/or “anti-technology” outfit: A back-to-nature-anti-technology outfit that used bullhorns, lived in the middle of a city of 1.5 million inhabitants and organized protests of Jane Fonda and Buckminster Fuller. Demonstrating against the then-82-year-old champion of the geodesic dome—who would do such a thing, why?

Only MOVE, only in our itty-bitty liberal enclave of Powelton Village, and no one will ever know exactly why. They followed the teachings of Vincent Leaphart, whose rambling treatise made little sense to anyone beyond his small band of raucous believers. “MOVE” wasn’t an acronym, just a word, but always capitalized. Leaphart changed his name to John Africa and insisted his followers all take the last name of Africa.

Powelton, a ten-square-block Victorian enclave of West Philadelphia north of Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, began as the city nabobs’ summer-retreat in the late 19th century, just across the Schuylkill River from Center City. By the late 1960s it had attracted a loose rattle of quiet leftists and inoffensive layabouts who were tolerant of most anybody but Drexel, which was determined to devour as much of the community as it could ladle down.

During the late ’70s, Powelton’s squishy acceptance allowed MOVE to occupy a pair of brick twins at 33rd and Pearl Sts., no more than a block from our commune, where they nailed together huge, ramshackle ramparts, kept a pack of half-feral dogs, ate raw meat and tossed their garbage in the yard. An all-black group (except for one scrawny white woman), they were dreadlocked and more physically fit than any health poster.

For income, they washed cars on 33rd St. (and did a damned fine job of it). On no particular provocation, they would mount the ramparts, pick up a bullhorn and harangue the world. It made a hell of a racket. They could also explode into sudden violence, especially against the police, though I regularly walked past their house and was never harassed.

The city, citing housing and sanitation regulations, declared them pests and obtained a court order telling them they had to go. The order set off one of the strangest confrontations in modern American history—and one that’s been lost to the American consciousness.

On a quiet summer evening, the MOVErs mounted the ramparts carrying rifles and dressed in camo fatigues. You’d think the police would act. Well, they did: They blocked traffic on 33rd St. That was it. They never approached the MOVE house. During the protest, Delbert Africa, their chief spokesman (one of the most beautiful human beings who ever existed) issued this statement, part haiku, part tautology, that has always defined MOVE for me:

"Any motherfucker

tries to take away my motherfuckin’ rights,

that man is a motherfucker.”

I doubt their guns were loaded. For one thing, they were pointed straight up, for show. For another, the fatigues still had folds in them—the protestors had bought them that afternoon, probably at I. Goldberg’s, a decades-old military-surplus store.

The city’s mayor was Frank Rizzo, former police commissioner from South Philly idolized by the Italian community, hated by the gays and blacks he had hounded throughout a career of sneering, swaggering machismo (my favorite quote: “I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a faggot”).

Rizzo’s response to MOVE was incomprehensible and ultimately ruinous for the city.  Rather than clear the house of this rabble on outstanding charges of health and safety violations, he directed the police department to place a cordon around our neighborhood and wait for MOVE to capitulate. (If China had suggested starving out a bunch of dissidents, the U.S. would have been mighty upset.) Worse, he announced his plans a couple weeks in advance, giving MOVE’s supporters ample time to haul in truckloads of supplies, including a skid’s worth of dog food.

For the next roughly six weeks, Powelton was occupied by up to 2,000 police and support personnel. I still find it hard to grasp that a judge blithely approved a state of martial law to enforce health regulations. And that his ruling was never seriously challenged or overturned.

To those familiar with MOVE, the result was foreordained—they simply hunkered down and refused to… move. Us Poweltonians, meanwhile, had to show identification to enter our own streets. The local activists, in their vocal but placid way, formed so many committees to discuss the situation—roughly equal pro- and anti-MOVE—that a higher committee formed to coordinate them all.

About then, Linda was moving back to the commune where I’d met her and where I still lived. We had no “transportation” beyond a battered wire shopping cart and her little red wagon. Back and forth we clumped from her apartment, the wagon loaded with books, kitchen equipment and the big garden rocks she’d brought from her home in Kansas. After awhile, even the cops found it ridiculous to keep asking for our IDs. They’d grin lightly, look bemused, then stand aside.

The immense police presence was absurdly ineffective. They exempted the street behind us from the cordon, and since our block had no internal fences, I would walk Pearl, our exuberant St. Bernard, down our front steps and half way around the block, then in the back way, without a single police challenge. The neighborhood also experienced a marked increase in breaking and entering—I guess it heightened the crooks’ street cred to thumb their noses at the Man.

Across the city, the police force was in a shambles from diverting 20% of its resources to a pointless, static operation. (Once the blockade was lifted, they found that MOVE had moled a tunnel through to Powelton Ave., sneaking in supplies during the entire occupation.)

As I hazily recall it, the city and MOVE reached an agreement that if the police lifted their blockade, MOVE would hand over their guns. The police lifted the blockade, and—surprise!—MOVE handed them a bellylaugh.

Then one morning Linda and I were awakened by a short, intense rattle of gunfire. It hit like a mallet: “My god, they’re killing them all.” As it turned out, one police officer, James Ramp, was killed but no MOVE members. (Despite conflicting forensic evidence on where the shot had come from, nine MOVErs were convicted of third-degree murder and are still in prison, regularly denied parole.)

When I returned from work that afternoon, the street in front of our house was scored with caterpillar treads. I followed them around the corner to 33rd St. The MOVE houses were gone—three-story brick Victorian twins evaporated, the ground a smooth expanse of Philadelphia’s yellow-brown clay. As Linda’s young son Ben said, “At least they didn’t salt the earth.”

The occupation and confrontation were big news in city media, but they never caught national attention. Why? Can you name another example of weeks-long, uncontested martial law in a major American city?

That wrapped up MOVE for Powelton, but not for the city. Seven years later, on May 12-13, 1985, under Mayor W. Wilson Goode, the local government again lost its ability to think like adults in response to MOVE. The remaining group had moved to Osage Ave. on the city’s western edge and again erected ramparts, but the local population was less willing than the loosey-goosey Poweltonians to accept such disruption.

This time, the city cut corners and turned to direct confrontation. The result was an armed standoff that ended when a collective of official imbeciles OKd dropping a parcel of C4 explosive onto MOVE’s roof bunker. As the resulting fire spread, rather than endanger the firemen standing ready (or so read the official rationale), it was left to go its merry way.

The entire square block of over 60 rowhouses burned flat. When the smoke had cleared and the flames died out, 11 members of MOVE were found incinerated, including John Africa and five children. There were only two known survivors, Ramona Africa and nine-year-old Birdie Africa, who was permanently disfigured.

Yet even this catastrophe, after two or three days of national puzzlement, largely vaporized once it crossed the city borders. Look up “MOVE” on Wikipedia to see how little of the story remains.

A footnote: Ramona, along with Birdie’s relatives, were paid millions in damages. Ramona bought a house in the city’s Kingsessing neighborhood, where she and MOVE remnants live a relatively quiet life. After hemming and hawing, the city agreed to rebuild the houses destroyed through its asinine incompetence. As a monument to shoddy, graft-infested contracting, the replacement homes proved uninhabitable, the contractors faced criminal charges, and the bedraggled homeowners were once again evicted while their “new” homes were razed and replaced.

by Derek Davis

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