The 1978 MOVE Raid: A Standoff That Ended in Violence and Death
Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images
Published August 8, 2018
Published 6 days ago
On the morning of August 8, 1978, hundreds of police officers and firefighters surrounded a dilapidated mansion in West Philadelphia’s Powelton neighborhood. Inside were members of MOVE, a predominantly black radical group that had been locked in a standoff with local authorities for over a year. The authorities ordered MOVE to vacate the premises. MOVE didn’t. Water cannons were turned on the house. Shots were fired, and a police officer, James Ramp, was fatally struck. Tear gas filled the air. Within an hour, 12 adults and 11 children were removed from the house. The adults were arrested; at least one, Delbert Africa, was severely beaten. The children were taken into custody. The home was destroyed.
After a long trial, which produced conflicting evidence and testimony, nine members of MOVE, five men and four women, were convicted of the murder of Officer Ramp. Today, forty years after the events of 1978, six are still incarcerated. (Two died in prison, and one was paroled earlier this year.) Below, pictures of the escalating standoff and its awful conclusion.
Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty ImagesMOVE was founded in the early 1970s by a man who called himself John Africa. “The MOVE organization is a powerful family of revolutionaries, fixed in principle, strong in cohesion, steady as the foundation of a massive tree,” Africa wrote in the first of a series of columns that ran in the Philadelphia Tribune in 1975. “While the so-called educators talk of love, mouth the necessity for peace, we live peace, assert the power of love, comprehend the urgency of freedom.” (Pictured: members of MOVE in front of their house in Powelton, circa 1978.)
Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty ImagesThe organization was mostly black, but there were a number of white and Puerto Rican members. All took the surname “Africa.” Some lived communally at the Powelton mansion, where they ate a diet of raw food, disposed of their garbage in the backyard, and kept as many as 60 dogs at a time, according to press reports. (Pictured: members of MOVE, circa 1978.)
Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty ImagesJournalists sometimes struggled to pin down MOVE’s ethos. (A 1978 Washington Post report noted that the group “objects to being described as anarchist.”) In a recent retrospective, Guardian US chief reporter Ed Pilkington glossed MOVE’s politics as “a strange fusion of black power and flower power,” combining “the revolutionary ideology of the Black Panthers with the nature- and animal-loving communalism of 1960s hippies.” (Pictured: MOVE member, circa 1978.)Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty ImagesAccording to a Washington Post report from March 1978, Powelton had been “a center of antiwar activity during the Vietnam war,” and many residents retained “the political principles of [that] time.” Even so, MOVE ran afoul of its neighbors, who complained about the garbage and the animals and accused MOVE members of harassment and threats. (Pictured: MOVE members, circa 1978.)
Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty ImagesIn May 1977, the city issued an eviction notice to MOVE, who responded by donning fatigues and standing with rifles on a platform they’d built on their property. One member said it was a message to Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo: “we ain’t playing no games; if they come in here shooting, we’ll return the fire.” (Pictured: MOVE members outside their house, circa 1978.)Santi Visalli/Getty ImagesMayor Rizzo was a former police commissioner who was “widely known,” the Washington Post reported, “for his tough-cop image.” He was also known, Pilkington observes, for “dog-whistle politics.” Rizzo denounced MOVE as “absolute imbeciles” and “psychotics,” “not even human beings.” “I get a stomach ache when I see them jumping around and acting up,” he said. (Pictured: Mayor Rizzo in his office, January 3, 1977.)Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty ImagesRizzo responded to the May 1977 display by bringing weapons charges against some of the members of MOVE and ordering 24-hour police surveillance of their Powelton mansion, to facilitate arrests. (Pictured: MOVE member, circa 1978.)
Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty ImagesThe standoff escalated through 1977 and into 1978, as the city cut MOVE’s gas and electricity. In March 1978, it shut off the water, set up a blockade around the home, and positioned sharpshooters on nearby roofs. There were several protests, like the one pictured here, against the blockade.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveIn May 1978, it briefly seemed that a truce had been reached: one by one, MOVE members would leave the house for arraignment and then be permitted to return; after the arraignments, members would surrender all the weapons in the home, and the city would turn the water back on and remove its blockade; finally, MOVE would start to bring the property up to code and, by a set date, vacate it. On May 4, Merle Africa (pictured), the first member of MOVE to be arraigned, left the house for the police station.Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty ImagesThe truce didn’t last. August 1, the date by which MOVE was supposed to have abandoned the mansion, came and went. On August 8, the raid commenced, and Officer Ramp was killed — by whom, no one knows. A ballistics expert testified that Ramp had been shot with a rifle that police said they recovered from the MOVE house, but Pilkington notes that “no forensic evidence was presented that connected the Move 9 to the weapon that caused the fatality. For the women in particular the prosecution did not even argue that the four had handled firearms or had been involved in the actual shooting of Ramp.” (Pictured: police raid the MOVE house, August 8, 1978.)
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveNeither the tensions nor the violence ceased with the sentencing of the MOVE 9. In May 1985, there was a second standoff between Philadelphia police and MOVE — this time at a row house in Cobbs Creek. It ended when the police bombed MOVE’s row house, igniting a fire that killed 11 MOVE members, five of them children, and consumed more than 60 homes. (Pictured: homes destroyed during the May 1985 raid.)