Seven years before the 1985 bombing
of the radical Black collective MOVE - in which the Philadelphia police firebombed a block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, killing five children and six adults, and destroying
61 homes - there was the first MOVE siege.
On August 8, 1978, officers
of the Philadelphia Police Department were involved in a confrontation
with MOVE members at their Powelton
Village headquarters in West Philadelphia. Officer
James Ramp was shot and killed. Nine MOVE members were convicted
of third degree murder, conspiracy and other lesser offenses,
and sentenced to 30-100 years.
Now the eight remaining
members are up for parole. They have been exemplary prisoners,
and should be released. But many would argue that they should
not have been imprisoned in the first place.
The judge said that
he had “absolutely no idea” who killed Officer Ramp. Moreover,
he reasoned that since the MOVE defendants called themselves
a family, he decided to sentence them as a family.
Some observers have
concluded that the officer was a victim of police gunfire.
While the ballistic report claims that the officer was shot
from a downward trajectory, the MOVE members were in their
basement at the time of the incident. “But let’s think about
this for a minute. You don’t have to be a ballistician to
figure this one out. It’s just common sense,” said Linn Washington,
Jr., veteran journalist with the Philadelphia Tribune and
professor at Temple University.
In an interview
with journalist Hans
Bennett, Washington - who was on the ground reporting
on the 1978 siege - noted that according to police sources,
Ramp was killed by police. “You’ve got four male MOVE members
in the basement allegedly armed, according to police testimony.
A basement by its very nature means it’s below ground level.…
So, anything they’re shooting out of the windows has to be
at an upward trajectory. They would have to shoot up to get
out the window. Ramp was directly across the street at ground
level. So how could something hit him, in what was said to
be a downward type angle, when MOVE members were firing upward
from that basement?”
There were other problems
with the case, including the destruction of evidence by police.
The police destroyed the MOVE house after the siege, despite
a court order barring them from doing just that. Unfortunately,
although this act of official misconduct is reprehensible,
it is not surprising. After all, this was the Philadelphia of the 1960s and 1970s, under the racist regime of police
chief-turned mayor Frank Rizzo. And Philly’s Finest were the
perfect picture of corruption, brutality, obstruction and
frame-ups, particularly regarding their treatment of the city’s
residents of color, and political activist organizations such
as the Black Panthers.
Throughout the nation
during this period, in Philadelphia
and elsewhere, political prisoners such as the MOVE 9 were
the untutored, the term political prisoner conjures up images
of the old Soviet Union, of Communist
China or some far-flung dictatorial regime. But the concept
of the American political prisoner is very real, one which
makes a mockery of the spoon-fed narrative of a fair, blind
and equitable justice system. Under that narrative, those
who swear to uphold the law always do so with vigor, while
all of those who are behind bars are dangerous individuals
who certainly did something wrong to get there, but nevertheless
received due process.
In reality, prisons
are America’s foremost
method of social control, providing cover to a regime of failing
schools, systemic economic inequality and joblessness among
poor communities and communities of color. Secret offshore
prisons provide the backdrop for the bogus U.S.
war on terror. And on the domestic front, imprisonment serves
as a potent tool to quell political dissent and neutralize
burgeoning social movements. Moreover, prison stocks are traded
on Wall Street.
Meanwhile, no efforts
imaginable would allow the MOVE 9 to regain the 30 years they
have lost languishing behind bars. However, parole would be
a step in the right direction. Their supporters are signing
petition, and contacting
Board of Probation and Parole to make their voices heard.
Editorial Board member David A. Love, JD is a lawyer and journalist
based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive
Media Project, McClatchy-Tribune
News Service, In These Times and
Independent Media Center. He contributed to the book,
States of Confinement: Policing, Detention, and Prisons (St.
Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International
organized the first national police brutality conference as
a staff member with the Center for Constitutional Rights,
and served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. His
blog is davidalove.com.
here to contact Mr. Love.