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February 28, 1978
Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

February 28, 1978

On February 28, 1978, the Philadelphia Tribune reported on escalating tensions between city authorities and MOVE. Founded in the early 1970s by John Africa, MOVE was a black liberation group that combined aspects Rastafarianism with strong pro-animal rights views. By 1978, MOVE members lived in a commune house in the Powelton Village section of a West Philadelphia. “It was an area whose residents were known for being amenable to countercultural, nontraditional family arrangements,” NPR reporter Gene Denby wrote in 2015. “But even there, it didn't take long for MOVE to exhaust the patience of its neighbors. MOVE members would pace the roof of the house they occupied, dressed in fatigues and brandishing weapons. n megaphoned harangues, often issued by a member named Delbert Africa, they would call for the release of imprisoned MOVE members and threaten city officials.Federal agents seized a cache of weapons from MOVE that included dozens of pipe bombs.At one point, the city barricaded several blocks surrounding the MOVE compound for 56 straight days.”

This February 1978 Tribune article described how MOVE rejected the city’s offer to surrender their firearms and leave the Powelton Village house. “No way in the world are we going to give up our guns to people who have historically shot people in the back,” Delbert Africa shouted over a loudspeaker system (all of the group members took the surname “Africa”). The Tribune reported that “District Attorney Edward Rendell is considering several responses to MOVE’s rejection of a city offer to surrender [including] negotiations, an embargo or a police storm of the Powelton Village headquarters” (click to view PDF). The two sides reached a deal several months later where MOVE agreed to leave the house and turn over their guns in exchange for the city releasing MOVE members from city jails.  

By August 8, 1978, MOVE had not left the house. As Gene Denby describes,

Police tried to remove MOVE from the building with water cannons and battering rams and were met with gunfire from the building’s basement. An officer named James Ramp fell to the ground and died. Sixteen other police officers and firefighters were injured. After several hours of holding out, the MOVE folks finally surrendered and began trickling out of the basement one at a time. But the cops were livid over Ramp’s killing. They went after Delbert Africa — the MOVE member who had been taunting them from the building — grabbed him by his dreadlocks and threw him to the ground. Several officers joined in, kicking and stomping him. That moment was captured on film by a Philadelphia Daily News photographer, and for many people, the police beating an unarmed, half-naked man was the showdown’s lasting image.

Two years later, nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder in Ramp’s death and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison — the MOVE 9, they were called.

The Philadelphia Tribune addressed the conflict days later with an editorial titled, “MOVE: Price Was Too High”: “MOVE headquarters has been wrecked. Not a single plank of lumber remains intact. However, the bloody mess, resulting in the senseless killing of one, the wounding of others and the brutal attack of a MOVE member who had surrendered by members of the police force, was far too costly” (click to view PDF).

MOVE relocated to 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia, but relations with neighbors and police continued to be tense. On May 13, 1985, nearly 500 heavily armed city and state police gathered outside the MOVE row house and exchange fire with MOVE members who had built a rooftop bunker. After an all-day shootout, Mayor Wilson Goode authorized police to drop a make-shift bomb on the MOVE compound. The bomb was intended to destroy the bunker, but ended up destroying 61 houses, leaving 250 people without homes, and killing eleven people, including five children.  

The Philadelphia Tribune noted in October 1985 that the “seeds of the MOVE tragedy [were] sown eight years ago” in the 1978 confrontations at Powelton Village (click to view PDF).