by Sabina Clarke
The Chestnut Hill Library introduced its documentary film series on Wednesday, Sept. 17, with filmmaker Jason Osder’s “Let the Fire Burn,” chronicling the 1985 bombing of John Africa’s MOVE family. Following the screening, Ramona Africa, the only adult survivor of the bombing, took questions from the audience.
MOVE was a primarily African-American group of freedom and nature-loving activists living in Philadelphia from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s whose unconventional lifestyle prompted complaints from neighbors about sanitation, harassment and child neglect and culminated in a terrifying stand-off between the Philadelphia police and MOVE on May 13, 1985. The lethal confrontation, which reverberated around the world, left 11 adults and four children dead and a West Philadelphia neighborhood in ruins.
Voted best documentary of 2013 by the Sundance Film Festival, the film is now showing nationally. It is comprised of television news footage, internal police surveillance video, MOVE Commission Hearings and intense on-the-scene reporting which lend a stark immediacy as if the events are unfolding right before your eyes.
There is startling video footage of naked MOVE children with distended bellies that might prompt one to speculate that these children may have been malnourished, uncared for and unsupervised — despite the strong denial of abuse by adult MOVE members.
There are film clips from the first MOVE confrontation in 1978 and then-Mayor Frank Rizzo vowing to “wage war” on MOVE after the shooting death of police officer James Ramp and live footage of the brutal police beating of MOVE member Delbert Africa.
It opens with the deposition of Michael Ward, then known as Birdie Africa, the only surviving child of the bombing. Although just 13 at the time he testified before the MOVE Commission, Ward appears much younger both physically and emotionally —speaking in a sweet. shy, halting and seemingly shell-shocked manner. His testimony is sincere and in sharp contrast to the combative and confrontational testimony of Louise James and LaVerne Sims, both sisters of MOVE founder, John Africa, who was killed in the Osage Avenue bombing.
Although it may be somewhat difficult to comprehend the unconventional lifestyle or philosophy of MOVE or perceive its members in a sympathetic light, the case against the state is both damning and overwhelming. And despite two grand jury investigations and the MOVE Commission’s conclusion that top city officials were “grossly negligent,” no criminal charges were ever filed.
The film’s storytelling does not proselytize or take sides; nor does it idealize MOVE or make villains of the police. Rather, it raises burning questions about race relations in America and the legitimate use of excessive force.
I spoke with Ramona Africa, now 59, who is the only adult surviving member of the firebombing. She says she still bears the scars both “physical and emotional” from that day 30 years ago when “the government tried to kill me and burn me to death.” She and 13 year-old Birdie Africa escaped the inferno by crawling through a basement window; she was then taken into custody and hospitalized for a month for treatment of severe burns, one still glaringly visible on her left arm.
Ramona Africa, born Ramona Johnson, attended Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic parochial school, West Catholic High School for Girls and Temple University, graduating with a B.A. in political science and an associate’s degree in criminal justice. Given her conventional background, signing on to an organization like MOVE would seem unlikely, as she laughingly admits (“not exactly what my mother had envisioned for me”). How did her mother react when she joined MOVE? “She thought I had lost my mind, but she is OK with it now.”
In Ramona‘s last semester at Temple University, she was in a work-study program at Community Legal Services, assigned to work with a tenant action group on housing issues. “As an advocate for tenants, you become an activist. There is no choice in the matter.”
Her first arrest was for being disruptive by protesting on housing issues at City Council hearings, where she met a young man who was also arrested and who invited her to a MOVE planning meeting. That was her first introduction to MOVE. “Until that time, I was headed to law school. I was going to become a lawyer and possibly a judge. But after attending the first federal trial of MOVE in 1981, I became disillusioned with the system. I didn’t want to be like these officials. I wanted to be like MOVE.”
Despite a laundry list of charges against her in the warrant served regarding activities on May 12 and 13, 1985, all were dismissed except the charge of “rioting,” for which she was sentenced from 16 months to seven years in a state prison in Muncie, PA. She was offered parole if she agreed to sever all ties with MOVE members in the future, but she refused and served the entire seven-year sentence.
If Ramona were to blame one person for the bombing, who would it be? “The bombing never had to happen. Lynne Abraham, who signed the emergency warrants, is at the top of the list. Also Ed Rendell, who was District Attorney at the time, the Police Department and Mayor Wilson Goode, who finally gave the order. Wilson Goode’s cops came out there with a bomb determined to do what Rizzo failed to do. If you want to know who is taking a righteous Godly position, you look at Wilson Goode! Look at his face; then look at me.”
Ed. Note: The next film in the series at the Chestnut Hill Library is “Beyond Our Differences,” which will be screened on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.