What can apologies do for the kids who died, or for their parents, who were unjustly imprisoned while they burned?
By Mike Africa, Jr.,
Reprinted from Salon (original).
On May 10, 2020, former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode made a formal apology, in the form of an op-ed in The Guardian, for an atrocity that happened on his watch. It had been almost 35 years to the day since Philadelphia police flew a helicopter over the headquarters of MOVE, a revolutionary civil liberties organization, and dropped a bomb on the roof of the building. The bomb sparked a fire that would kill 11 people inside, including five children who were under the age of 15. These people were my family.
I was six years old when the bomb was dropped. From more than four miles away at my Grandmother’s house, I could see the thick black cloud in the air. I remember playing outside when a neighborhood kid told me, “They dropped a bomb on MOVE.” When I said, “No they didn’t,” he pointed to the sky to show me billowing smoke. I ran back in the house to find my grandmother, my aunt and other adults watching a raging fire on the television, with a woman screaming uncontrollably. When I said that looked like our home and our family, my aunt said, “It is.”
Fear and wonder bounced around my mind like ping pong balls. Who was in the house? Was it the children I knew? Would they survive the blaze? The trauma left me numb and, for decades, fearful of the sound or sight of helicopters.
The MOVE Organization surfaced in the early 1970s, lead by an uneducated, poor, yet wise and strategic-minded Black man named John Africa. John Africa created the organization to fight against the systemic oppression of people. The group was much like many other radical Black groups opposed to societal ills, but unlike those other groups, MOVE believed that people will never achieve true freedom for oppressed people if the slave mentality was allowed to exist. The same system that enslaved African people is the very same system that enslaves animals in zoos and circuses. The same is true for the environment. Bartering the water for money, sacrificing the health of people for environmentally pollutant industries. For our stance against the entire re-formed world system we became targets of the establishment’s most notorious gang, the police department — much like the Black Panthers, Earth First, and The Animal Liberation Front.
To this day, no city official—not the mayor, not the police commissioner, not any one of the officers involved—has been charged or punished for dropping a bomb on their own citizens. Not even the fire commissioner or the police commissioner who, together, deliberately let the fire burn. Instead, the lone adult survivor of the bombing, Ramona Africa, was the only person to be punished for the incident. She served seven years in prison for “riot.”
But Goode, the mayor who let this happen in his city, apologized in his Guardian op-ed. That’s supposed to be a good thing, right? He apologized and urged other officials and even the city itself to apologize as well, saying, “it would be helpful for the healing of all involved.” But I know for a fact that these apologies are not for my healing, or for my family’s healing.
Apologies are not for the victims. They are to ease the minds of the offenders. Goode has apologized for the bombing of MOVE no less than four times, but even his most recent apology served mostly to deflect the very blame he was claiming to accept. He wrote: “I am ultimately responsible for those I appointed…I apologize for their reckless actions that brought about this horrific outcome, even though I knew nothing about their specific plan of action.”
This is why apologies without action are meaningless—they are not catalysts of change, but rather a means of placating the public so that those in power can continue carrying on as they always have. Far from ever facing punishment for the bombing of my family, Goode actually had a Philadelphia street named after him in 2018. Public apologies allow officials like Goode to give the appearance of taking responsibility without facing any real punishment or repercussions. It is all part of a carefully constructed machine, the same machine that allows a police chief to apologize away the shooting of a young unarmed Black man without making any changes to his department, or for the officer who shot that young man to go on “administrative leave” rather than being fired or arrested.
I know how this machine works from first-hand experience. I was born in a prison cell after my mother and father were wrongfully convicted as a result of an earlier attack on MOVE, committed by Goode’s predecessor, Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo.
Rizzo is most known for his brutal treatment of blacks in the city. As police commissioner, Rizzo was accused of ordering motorcycle cops to intentionally run over Black protestors and telling his officers to “get their black asses.” It was Rizzo’s cops who mercilessly beat MOVE member Rhonda Africa, who at the time was 8 months pregnant and days later bore her stillborn baby, only to discover his tiny body covered in black and blue bruises. As mayor, Rizzo faced multiple lawsuits for discriminatory practices in hiring for the police and fire departments. He openly employed and supported anyone that had the same type of hate for Black people as he did, and infamously told supporters to “vote white.” From cops to firemen, judges to politicians, district attorneys to public defenders, Rizzo had an assembly line of injustice in place to send as many Black people to prison as he could. The brutality of Rizzo and his police are best documented in a Pulitzer-Prize award-winning Philadelphia Inquirer series by William K. Marimow and Jon Neuman if you want to read that full story.
Rizzo’s most famous attack, the event that would unjustly put my parents behind bars for more than 40 years, came against The MOVE Organization in 1978. In the wee hours of the morning on August 8, 1978, hundreds of heavily armed Philadelphia police and firemen came out to MOVE’s home and headquarters. Police cleared the streets of cars and residents in order to assume a combat formation in the residential neighborhood of Powelton Village. Then Police commissioner Joseph O’Neill ordered MOVE members to surrender over a loudspeaker: “Attention MOVE, this is America.”
When MOVE refused to come out of the house, or “barricaded themselves inside” according to some reports, a violent siege began. A bulldozer was used to knock down MOVE’s fence, a hydraulic cherry picker knocked out the home’s windows. Firefighters and police entered the residence and found all MOVE members in the basement. Firefighters cut a hole in the floor to gain optimal positioning for their water cannons that were used to blast MOVE members who were trapped in the cellar. Tear gas, smoke bombs and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from police rained down on MOVE members as they shielded their babies and each other. My parents were in that basement—my mom was eight months pregnant with me and holding my 2-year-old sister.
The suffocating effects of the tear gas and smoke forced MOVE to flee the home. Police awaiting their exit violently snatched babies from the women’s arms and dangled them above the ground like rag dolls. With an already battered body and multiple bullet wounds, my uncle Chuck Africa got out of the building, only to be beaten to the ground by waiting police officers. On the other side of the house, separated from the other MOVE members, Delbert Africa was ordered at gunpoint by police to exit the building from a secluded side window. Although he had already been shot and was exiting the basement bare-chested with his hands up, officers still smashed Delbert over the head with a steel helmet and broke his jaw with a rifle butt before arresting him.
Rizzo’s justification for attacking our home? Serving an eviction notice for the property having “housing code violations.” Since when has it been okay to answer a housing code violation with a military siege?
During the gunfire and confusion of the siege, a police officer was shot (by a single, fatal bullet) and nine members of MOVE, including my parents, my uncle Chuck, and Delbert, were charged with the murder. How nine people can shoot one officer with one bullet, I cannot tell you. The trial judge even admitted during the trial that he didn’t know who actually killed the officer, but that did not keep then District Attorney Ed Rendell from pushing for the maximum sentence. My parents and the rest of the MOVE 9 were sentenced to 100 years each in prison.
Despite all the subsequent public apologies for the obvious mishandling of this case, including apologies from Ed Rendell himself, it would still take 40 years before I was able to get my parents released from prison. It was not until February of this year that my uncle Chuck, the last of the MOVE 9 to still be incarcerated, was finally released. By that time, two of the MOVE 9 had already died in prison.
Back in the 1980s, by the time election season rolled around, the Black community was desperate for a change. So when there was a chance to finally vote out Rizzo, and a Black candidate by the name of Wilson Goode was running, Black voters flocked to give Goode their support. Goode promised that, if elected, he would look into the case of the imprisoned MOVE members and even went so far as to say that he believed they were innocent. This was almost 40 years ago.
Between the MOVE 9, Mumia Abu-Jamal (a young journalist who was also arrested on blatantly false charges) and a number of other high-profile injustices at the time, protests and demands for justice were reaching a fever pitch. The pressure from MOVE and the community was so intense that city officials dubbed it “rioting,” an arrestable offense, in order to put an end to it. This was the decision that would lead to the 1985 bombing.
When heavily militarized police came to the row house on Osage Avenue on May 13, 1985, under the guise of serving arrest warrants on charges of “terroristic threats,” “riot,” and “disorderly conduct,” a series of fatal decisions would show, with terrifying clarity, just how deeply embedded racism and hate were in the Philadelphia fire department, police department, and the court system.
When MOVE members found themselves once again confronted with fabricated charges and a militarized police siege at their door, they refused to leave the house, and police, seeing “no other way” to get in or force them out, then flew a helicopter over the house and dropped a bundle of C4 on the roof of the building. When the bomb sparked a roaring inferno, police commissioner Gregore Sambor told the firemen on the scene to stand down, reportedly telling them to “let the fire burn.” When the 13 people in the house tried to escape the inferno, they were met with police gunfire, forcing them back into the blaze. When the fire consumed 61 homes in the largely Black neighborhood before it was finally extinguished, it would take years for the city to make what were ultimately pretty shoddy repairs. The District Attorney who ensured that the bombing’s lone adult survivor, Ramona Africa, was sentenced to 7 years for “riot,” was, again, none other than Ed Rendell.
But now, 35 years after the bombing of an American residential home and 42 years after the wrongful conviction of nine innocent people resulting in 100-year prison sentences each, Goode and Rendell are making apologies. Their apologies have been published in local Philadelphia newspapers and in The Guardian. Goode apologized for his role in the bombing, saying that he would now support MOVE in their mission for the rest of his life, just like he said during his election campaign, years before the bombing. Yes, Goode eventually wrote letters of support for releasing the MOVE 9, but that was not until 2018, after my mother had already been released and we were receiving media attention. Rendell was quoted recently saying he regretted pushing for so much time to be served in prison for the MOVE 9, but he still has not pushed for commuting my parents’ parole, which they are still serving.
What can apologies do for the two members of MOVE who died in prison after serving 20 years and 37 years each? What can apologies do for the children who died in the bombing, or for their parents who were in prison on false charges while their children burned? While an apology may seem noble to some, it’s hard to accept an apology when you’re watching your parents grow old in prison. When my parents went to prison, my oldest sister was five years old. By the time my parents came home, my sister was a grandparent. All of these apologies make it sound like this was some kind of mistake, but it was deliberate. Every step of the way, actions were taken to shore up a system designed not just to oppress Black people, but to kill us. How can I accept an apology from the people who deliberately killed my family? How can an apology, empty words, be all there is?
With the recent uprisings around the world calling for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and too many others to name on one page, we have seen some cops joining the protesters, kneeling in solidarity, making statements against police brutality. And this is a positive step, but we have to move past this symbolism and into action, reform. What will this symbolism do to stop the brutality if the system itself has been built, in too many layers to count, to subjugate the people and protect the enforcers?
In Buffalo, NY, for example, the world saw 75-year-old white protester Martin Gugino shoved to the ground by police. Those same police, just 24 hours earlier, had been kneeling with protesters. The shove knocked Gugino to the ground causing him to hit his head and crack his skull. The impact of the fall was so severe that the hit caused blood to leak from his ears. Witnessing the fall, other cops tried to aid Gugino and they too were shoved away from providing aid by their fellow officers. The Buffalo Police Department later issued an apology for the offense, which no one complained about, but when the two officers involved in the shove were actually arrested for the assault, 57 other police officers resigned from the unit “in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders.”
This system, a system in which officers feel more empowered to take action for the violent offenders within their ranks than they do for an elderly man who is bleeding out in front of them on the concrete, this is the system we must fight to change. Apologies and shows of symbolic solidarity are not enough to fix this system on their own. They are only the pleasantries at the beginning of what needs to be a very tough and action-oriented national conversation.
On June 3, 2020, the city of Philadelphia finally removed Frank Rizzo’s statue from where it stood across from City Hall, but the echoes of his brutal policy decisions are still shaping our police force and our government. There is still a street named after Wilson Goode.
Is it possible for people to actually feel sorry for their roles in an atrocity, and at the same time do nothing for the people who are affected by it? Can you feel sorry about a heinous crime while also defending the people who committed it? If Philadelphia officials can recognize that Rizzo was a racist and remove his statue, why force the victims of his racism to stay in prison? If Ed Rendell is so sorry for my parents spending so many years in prison, why is he not pushing to commute their 60 years of parole? To visit a dying brother one town over, they need approval by a parole officer, to visit a daughter who just came out of surgery is denied due to area restrictions.
Apologies, statue removals, repainting the streets … these are forced responses due to pressure from the public, for fear of the people’s uprising. But removing a statue of one brutal, white fascist does not change the racist treatment of Black people in America. Renaming a street to Black Lives Matter will not stop police from kneeling on our necks in other streets. A few police officers symbolically kneeling with protesters will not fix a nation-wide system that allows for the brutal attacking of Black people without fear of repercussions. It is a system that must be dismantled with as much intention and effort as it took to build it. It is a system built around decades of racism and hatred, with a determination to institutionalize that hatred, and if you are not willing to do the hard work of actual reform, you will not be able to fix that with any number of apologies.
Written with Salon’s Editor at Large D. Watkins, New York Times bestselling author of “The Cook Up,” “The Beast Side” and “We Speak for Ourselves.”
Mike Africa, Jr. is a public speaker, writer, hip hop artist, and member of MOVE. Born in prison after the wrongful conviction of his parents, Mike worked from age 14 until he was in his 40s to free them and the other members of the MOVE 9. He succeeded in freeing his parents in 2018, after they each served 40 years in prison. The rest of the MOVE 9 soon followed. Mike be found @MikeafricaJr on Instagram, and more information is available at www.MikeAfricaJr.com.