'40 Years a Prisoner': What is MOVE? Here's why 9 members may have been wrongfully convicted of killing a cop
MOVE was particularly known for speaking out against police brutality rampant in Philadelphia and their unorthodox lifestyle
HBO's latest documentary, '40 Years a Prisoner', chronicles the controversial 1978 Philadelphia police raid on the radical back-to-nature group MOVE and the aftermath that led to a son’s decades-long fight to free his parents.
Through eyewitness accounts and archival footage of the escalating tension that resulted in the controversial confrontation between police and MOVE members, the film illuminates the story of a city grappling with racial tension and police brutality with alarming topicality and modern-day relevance.
But what is MOVE? And why were nine of its members arrested by the Philadelphia police in the first place when there was no clear evidence to suggest that they were responsible for a police officer's death during the shootout between the police and MOVE?
MOVE is not an acronym like you might expect. The militant anarcho-primitivist group was founded by John Africa (who was born Vincent Leaphart). The group was inspired by the Black Panthers and lived in a communal setting in West Philadelphia where they combined their revolutionary ideology with animal rights activism. In their compound, MOVE members lived together and brought in the animals they rescued off the streets.
MOVE was particularly known for speaking out against police brutality rampant in Philadelphia. When neighbors of MOVE members at Powelton Village filed complaints, the police under Mayor Frank Rizzo obtained a court order demanding the members to vacate. MOVE members agreed to vacate and surrender their weapons if the police released their members who were held in city jails.
Nearly a year later, police came to a standoff with members of the community who had not left. When the police attempted to enter the house, a shootout ensued. This resulted in the death of one police officer named James J Ramp, and injuries to 16 officers and firefighters. Nine members of MOVE were charged with third-degree murder for Ramp's death and became known as the MOVE 9.
Each was sentenced to a maximum of 100 years in prison. They were Chuck, Delbert, Eddie, Janet, Janine, Merle, Michael, Phil and Debbie Africa. A report from The Guardian, however, noted that eyewitness accounts suggested that the officer could have been accidentally killed by another officer.
'40 Years a Prisoner' follows Mike Africa Jr's fight to release his parents from prison. Debbie Sims Africa was just 22 when she was imprisoned. She was also pregnant. One month into her prison sentence, she gave birth to her son in secret within prison so she could spend some time with her baby before he could be taken away — jail rules prohibited mothers from being with their children.
Three days after her baby was born, she informed the jailers of the baby's existence, after which the mother and baby were separated as the baby was sent to the outside world.
Debbie Sims was the first MOVE member to be released on parole in June 2018. Mike Africa Sr's release followed in October 2018. In May 2019, Janine and Janet Africa were released on parole after 41 years of imprisonment. On June 21, 2019, Eddie Goodman Africa was released on parole. Delbert Orr Africa was granted parole on December 20, 2019, and released on January 18, 2020. He died of cancer in June 2020.
The last of the MOVE 9 either to be paroled or to die behind bars was Chuck Sims Africa who was released on parole on February 7, 2020, after 41 years of imprisonment. '40 Years a Prisoner' premieres on HBO on Tuesday, December 8, at 9/8c.