‘I’m ecstatic’: black liberation prisoner Mike Africa Sr released after 40 years

Reprinted from The Guardian
October 23, 2018
By Ed Pilkington

Member of the radical Philadelphia-based group Move 9, sentenced after violent confrontation with police in 1978, reunited with wife Debbie Africa and son Mike Jr

Move 9 prisoner Mike Africa Sr and his wife Debbie Africa reunited in Philadelphia after 40 years in prison. Photo: Tommy Oliver

 

Mike Africa Sr has become the second member of the Philadelphia-based group of black radicals known as the Move 9 to be released from prison, more than 40 years after they were arrested for the death of a police officer in one of the most dramatic shootouts of the black liberation era.

He was paroled from SCI Phoenix prison in Pennsylvania on Tuesday morning [October 23, 2018] to be reunited with his wife Debbie Africa, who was also let out on parole in June having been arrested alongside him at the climax of a police siege in 1978. They were joined by their son, Mike Africa Jr, who until Tuesday had never spent time with both parents in the same room.

“I’m ecstatic coming from where I was just a couple of hours ago,” Mike Sr told the Guardian, speaking from his son’s house outside Philadelphia. “I wasn’t convinced in my mind that this would happen until I walked out the prison gates.”

He said it was amazing to be reunited with his wife, who was held in separate women’s prisons for 40 years. “I missed her and I loved her. She’s been my girl since we were kids. That’s never wavered at all.”

Debbie Africa said she was overwhelmed to have her family back.

Mike Africa Sr’s release marks a big step in the struggle of black militants who are still behind bars decades after they were arrested for police killings and other violent acts in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Guardian highlighted their plight in July.

Eighteen individuals, including two Move women, Janine Phillips Africa, and Janet Hollaway Africa, remain in prison. Many of them insist they are innocent of the charges brought against them.

In the case of the Move 9, they were convicted collectively of the death of a police officer, James Ramp, in the 1978 siege of their group home in Philadelphia even though only one shot killed him. Debbie Africa was eight months pregnant at the time.

Mike Africa Sr’s parole is of even greater consequence for his family, and especially for his son Mike Africa Jr, who for 40 years has never seen both of his parents together or out of prison. He was born in a cell where his mother Debbie gave birth to him a month after she and her husband were arrested during the siege.

For three days Debbie kept her baby son concealed in the cell, hiding him under the covers, until she was forced to hand him over to prison guards. With both parents imprisoned until the eve of his 40th birthday, Mike Jr effectively became an orphan of the black liberation struggle.

He was raised by relatives and other members of Move and now lives with a family of his own outside Philadelphia.

“I’m having an out-of-body experience right now,” Mike Jr told the Guardian as he drove his father back to his home to be reunited with Debbie. “I’m floating over the top of the car.”

He said that this was what he had waiting for more than four decades – to be together for the first time with both his parents. “I’ve always hoped for this, but I never knew that it would happen,” he said.

Mike Africa Sr with Debbie Africa

Mike Africa Sr with Debbie Africa: ‘I missed her and I loved her – she’s been my girl since we were kids – that’s never wavered at all.’ Photo: Tommy Oliver

 

The 1978 siege of the Move 9 house in the Powelton Village neighborhood of Philadelphia was one of the most violent and visceral incidents of the years of black liberation struggle. At the time, 12 adults and 11 children were living in a communal house, along with 48 dogs.

Move was a unique organization that mixed revolutionary ideology better associated with the Black Panther party with care for nature and the environment better associated with flower power and the hippy movement. The group still exists today, largely in the Philadelphia area, and continues to campaign for the release of its remaining members behind bars.

Mike Sr’s release reduces the number of still-incarcerated Move 9 members to five. In addition to his parole and that of his wife, two others have died behind bars from health complications related to their imprisonment – Merle Austin Africa, in March 1998, and Phil Africa in January 2015.

Brad Thomson, of the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, who was part of the legal team presenting the released prisoner, said that Mike Sr’s record in prison was exceptional, making him a prime candidate for parole. “With this decision, the parole board recognizes that Mike, like Debbie, and the rest of the Move 9, poses absolutely no threat to the community.”

The siege that led to the incarceration of five Move men and four women occurred on 8 August 1978. Tension had mounted for months between the commune and Philadelphia police following complaints from neighbors and fears that the group was stockpiling weapons.

The order was given for hundreds of police officers to go in and evict the residents by the notoriously hardline then mayor of Philadelphia, the city’s former police commissioner Frank Rizzo. In the melee, Ramp was killed.

Mike Africa Jr

Mike Africa Jr: ‘I’m having an out-of-body experience right now.’ Photo: Mark Makela

All nine adult members of Move living in the house were held responsible for the shooting and sentenced to 30 to 100 years. At trial they told the jury that they had no working firearms in the house, though that was disputed by prosecutors.

With Mike and Debbie Africa now released, thoughts are turning to the remaining five Move members still in prison. Petitions for habeas corpus have been filed in federal court on behalf of the two women, Janine Phillips Africa and Janet Hollaway Africa, challenging recent parole denials.

Bret Grote, of the Abolitionist Law Center, another lawyer for the Move 9, said: “This historic release of Mike Africa renders the parole board’s decision to deny the rest of the Move 9 all the more incomprehensible. For example, Janet and Janine have both maintained prison records that are as exemplary as Mike’s and essentially identical to that of Debbie, yet they were inexplicably denied parole in May.”

Seven years after the siege of the Move house, a second trauma was dealt to the black radical group. The then mayor of Philadelphia, Wilson Goode, gave the go-ahead for an incendiary bomb to be dropped on top of another Move house.

It caused an inferno that killed 11 people, including five children. More than 60 houses in the predominantly African American neighborhood were razed to the ground.


Read more by Ed Pilkington for The Guardian
“A siege. A bomb. 48 dogs. And the black commune that would not surrender”
Forty years ago, Philadelphia erupted in one of the most dramatic shoot-outs of the black liberation struggle. Ed Pilkington tells the surreal story of the Move 9 – and what happened to them next. Read more.