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The Black Commentator - After 30 Years, the MOVE 9 Must be Paroled - Color of Law

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 created.

To 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 an online petition, and contacting the Pennsylvania 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 Philadelphia 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 UK spokesperson, 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 Click here to contact Mr. Love.


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April 10, 2008
Issue 272

is published every Thursday

Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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