‘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.

‘This is huge’: black liberationist speaks out after her 40 years in prison

Reprint from original
By Ed Pilkington in New York
The Guardian
June 18, 2018

Exclusive: Debbie Sims Africa, the first freed member of a radical Philadelphia group many say were unjustly imprisoned, talks about reuniting with her son and defends the Move members still locked up: ‘We are peaceful people’

Debbie Sims Africa, age 22

Debbie Sims Africa was 22 when she was sentenced. Her release is seen as a major breakthrough for those imprisoned during the black liberation movement. Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Davis Africa Jr

The first member of a group of black radicals known as the Move Nine who have been incarcerated, they insist unjustly, for almost 40 years for killing a Philadelphia police officer has been released from prison.

Debbie Sims Africa, 61, walked free from Cambridge Springs prison in Pennsylvania on Saturday, June 16, 2018, having been granted parole. She was 22 when with her co-defendants she was arrested and sentenced to 30 to 100 years for the shooting death of officer James Ramp during a police siege of the group’s communal home on 8 August 1978.

She emerged from the correctional institution to be reunited with her son, Michael Davis Africa Jr, to whom she gave birth in a prison cell in September 1978, a month after her arrest.

“This is huge for us personally,” Sims Africa told the Guardian, speaking from her son’s home in a small town on the outskirts of Philadelphia where she will now live.

Davis Africa, 39, who was separated from his mother at less than a week old and has never spent time with her outside prison, said they were coming to terms with being reunited after almost four decades.

“Today I had breakfast with my mother for the first time,” he said. “There’s so much we haven’t done together.”

The release of Debbie Sims Africa is a major breakthrough regarding the ongoing incarceration of large numbers of individuals involved in the black liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s who are now growing old behind bars. At least 25 men and women belonging to Move or the former Black Panther party remain locked up, in some cases almost half a century after their arrests.

Michael Davis Africa Jr

Michael Davis Africa Jr on reunited with his mother: ‘There’s so much we haven’t done together.’ Photograph: Ed Pilkington for the Guardian

Sims Africa’s release also addresses one of the most hotly contested criminal justice cases in Philadelphia history. The nine were prosecuted together following a police siege of their headquarters in Powelton Village at the orders of Philadelphia’s notoriously hardline mayor and former police commissioner, Frank Rizzo.

Move, which exists today, regarded itself as a revolutionary movement committed to a healthy life free from oppression or pollution. In the 1970s it was something of a cross between black liberationists and early environmental activists. Its members all take “Africa” as their last name, to signal that they see each other as family.

Hundreds of police officers, organized in Swat teams and armed with machine guns, water cannons, teargas and bulldozers, were involved in the siege, which came at the end of a long standoff with the group relating to complaints about conditions in its premises. Two water cannon and smoke bombs were unleashed. The Move residents took refuge in a basement.

I had to feel my way up the stairs to get out of the basement with my baby in my arms

Sims Africa was eight months pregnant and was carrying her two-year-old daughter, Michelle. “We were being battered with high-powered water and smoke was everywhere,” she said. “I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face and I was choking. I had to feel my way up the stairs to get out of the basement with my baby in my arms.”

Shooting broke out and Ramp was killed by a single bullet. Prosecutors alleged that Move members fired the fatal shot and charged Sims Africa and the other eight with collective responsibility for his death.

Eyewitnesses, however, gave accounts suggesting that the shot may have come from the opposite direction to the basement, raising the possibility that Ramp was accidentally felled, by police fire. After the raid was over, weapons were found within the property. None were in operative condition.

In 1985, Philadelphia authorities carried out an even more controversial and deadly action against the remaining members of Move. A police helicopter dropped an incendiary bomb on to the roof of its then HQ in west Philadelphia, killing six adults including the group’s leader, John Africa, and five of their children.

That incident continues to have the distinction of being the only aerial bombing by police carried out on US soil.

At Sims Africa’s trial, no evidence was presented that she or the three other women charged alongside her had brandished or handled firearms during the siege. Nor was there any attempt on the part of the prosecution to prove that they had had any role in firing the shot that killed Ramp.

Sims Africa has had an unblemished disciplinary record in prison for the past 25 years. The last claim of misconduct against her dates to 1992.

Her attorneys presented the parole board with a 13-page dossier outlining her work as a mentor to other prisoners and as a dog handler who trains puppies that assist people with physical and cognitive disabilities. The dossier includes testimony from the correctional expert Martin Horn, who reviewed her record and concluded it was “remarkable”.

1984 Philadelphia police and FBI bombing of Move members

Philadelphia burn after officials dropped a bomb on the Move house in 1985. Photograph: AP

Horn said Sims Africa had “chosen to be a rule-abiding individual with the ability to be a productive, law-abiding citizen if she is released. I see a record of growing maturity, improved judgment and the assumption of personal responsibility. I do not believe that Debbie Sims is today a threat to the community.”

Sims Africa’s lawyer, Brad Thomson, commended the parole board for “recognizing that she is of exceptional character and well-deserving of parole. This is a storied victory for Debbie and her family, and the Move organization, and we are hoping it will be the first step in getting all the Move Nine out of prison.”

The release of Sims Africa comes less than two months before the 40th anniversary of the siege. Commemorative events are being held in Philadelphia, organised by Move, on 5 and 11 August.

The release of Sims Africa is bittersweet, however. Two of the nine have died in prison – another female inmate, Merle Austin Africa, in March 1998, and Phil Africa in January 2015.

Having to leave them was hard. I was torn up inside because I want to come home but I want them to come with me

Also bittersweet is the fact that Sims Africa went up for parole at exactly the same time, and on exactly the same terms, as the other two remaining Move Nine women – Janine Phillips Africa and Janet Hollaway Africa. They were both denied parole and will have to wait until May 2019 to try again.

Thomson said the disparity in the parole board’s decision was “very surprising”, given that the Philadelphia district attorney’s office that carried out the original trial prosecution had written letters supporting parole for all three. The parole board gave what the lawyer said were “boilerplate justifications” for the denial of Phillips Africa and Hollaway Africa, saying they displayed “lack of remorse”.

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Debbie Sims Africa’s husband also remains behind bars. Mike Davis Africa Sr is next up before the parole board, in September. The other Move Nine prisoners are Chuck Sims Africa, Delbert Orr Africa and Eddie Goodman Africa.

Michael Africa Jr and mother Debbie Sims Africa

Debbie Sims Africa with her son after her release from prison. Photograph: Courtesy of Michael Davis Africa Jr

Debbie Sims Africa told the Guardian the remaining prisoners were constantly in her mind and that she planned to devote much of her time campaigning for their release.

“Having to leave them was hard,” she said. “I was torn up inside because of course I want to come home but I want them to come with me. I was in shock when it didn’t happen that way.”

Asked if the two Move women with whom she had shared a cell in Cambridge Springs would be a threat to society if released, she said: “Absolutely not. They would not be a danger as I’m not.

“Nobody from the Move movement has been released from prison and ever committed a crime, going back to 1988. We are peaceful people.”