A radical African American activist organization, MOVE was influenced by many of the Left’s turn to paranoia and conspiratorial thinking in the counter-cultural years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Like those that made up the Weathermen and the Black Panther Party, MOVE members saw mainstream U.S. culture as beyond repair, and sought to form a counterconspiracy to create an alternative society in which its members could live.
MOVE—it is unclear if the name of the organization has ever acted as a specific acronym—was founded in 1972 in the Powelton Village neighborhood of Philadelphia by African American handyman Vincent Leaphart. With the assistance of white graduate-student activist Donald Glassey, Leaphart (now calling himself John Africa; all MOVE members took the last name of Africa) wrote the Guidelines, a manifesto detailing the beliefs of MOVE.
This document, clearly influenced by the counter-cultural New Left, Black Power, and environmental movements of the late 1960s/early 1970s, attempted to establish MOVE as a viable political organization, touching upon such themes as racism, police brutality, vegetarianism, technology, and political representation. In fact, much of MOVE’s early writings and rhetoric attempted to revive and build upon these earlier movements and, in the process, cure them of their excesses.
Africa stressed the importance of cleansing one’s body, insisting that his followers abstain from all drugs and medicines, alcohol, meat, and ostentatious clothing. Science was “a trick” that only served to inculcate people into the “addictions” of the “System lifestyle” (Anderson and Hevenor, 9). What was needed, Africa stressed, was a back-to-nature manner of living.
There would therefore be no birth control practiced within the MOVE organization, and members’ diets would consist almost exclusively of raw fruits and vegetables. Trash, human waste, and even dead animals were left to “cycle” back to the earth on MOVE property, leading to run-ins with both neighbors and the Philadelphia police.
At the same time, MOVE children were to be naked in the summer and only lightly clothed in the winter, while adult males and females were commanded to grow their hair into unwashed dreadlocks and dress alike in blue jeans, blue denim jackets, and heavy-soled men’s boots.
MOVE saw schools, political parties and leaders, and all branches of the law as corrupt and enslaving. Moreover, the forces that controlled such institutions were viewed as actively conspiring against MOVE members and their allies.
For example, as MOVE member Jeanne Africa explained, “drugs were in the black community for a long time, but they didn’t have [drug rehabilitation] programs until it got into the white community .... The hierarchy would give you drugs to control you”.
To MOVE, the most concrete representatives of this hierarchy were the police, and MOVE held many demonstrations aimed at focusing attention on issues of police abuse and brutality (Philadelphia, under law-and-order Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, had a national reputation for police misconduct during much of the 1970s).
In a seven-month period in 1975, MOVE members were arrested on misdemeanor charges more than 150 times, fined $15,000, and sentenced to several lengthy prison sentences. Seeing the court system as perhaps the most oppressive tool of the “System” conspiracy, MOVE members made it a point to interrupt these sentencing hearings, often turning MOVE trials into veritable sideshows.
As the 1970s drew to a close, MOVE’s rhetoric became more fiery and condemnatory, while their political activities became more confrontational— with members often seen brandishing firearms. Such trends were intensified after an 8 August 1978 confrontation with the police, which resulted in one officer dead and nine MOVE members sentenced to 30–100 years for their roles in the melee.
Seeing themselves once again as victims of unwarranted oppression, MOVE made it their mission—from their new headquarters on Osage Avenue in west Philadelphia—to continuously call for the release of the “MOVE 9,” whom they saw as political prisoners in their struggle against the tyrannical Philadelphia government.
This campaign, often carried out through megaphones and speakers from inside the increasingly fortified MOVE compound, reached its violent conclusion on 13 May 1985, when a showdown between the organization and the Philadelphia city government left eleven members dead (six adults and five children) and sixty-one homes destroyed. MOVE member Ramona Africa was convicted on riot and conspiracy charges in connection with the conflict, and served seven years in prison.
MOVE continued to stay in the news throughout the remaining years of the 1980s, and even into the twenty-first century. In the aftermath of the tremendous destruction on Osage Avenue, then-Mayor Wilson W. Goode appointed the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission to examine the events leading up to, and including, the attack on MOVE.
In March 1986, the commission issued a report condemning the actions of the city government, concluding that “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable”. In June 1996, a jury ordered the city of Philadelphia and two former city officials—then-Police Commissioner Gregor Sambor and then-Fire Commissioner William Richard—to pay $1.5 million to a survivor and relatives of two members who died in the May 1985 confrontation.
To many MOVE members and supporters, such findings vindicated their belief that the city had actively conspired against them throughout the previous two decades, and was now being made to pay for such actions.
During the 1990s, many supporters of convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal—who had written extensively on the 1978 MOVE confrontation and resulting trials—argued that Abu-Jamal had received an unjust sentence based in part on his association with MOVE.
Finally, in September 2002 a man involved in a bitter custody dispute with a member of MOVE was found shot to death in a car in New Jersey, the same day he was to pick up the boy for an unsupervised visit.
While there was no evidence tying the organization to the murder, MOVE representatives quickly denied any involvement in the crime, and in fact argued that the government was setting up MOVE for the killing. A steadfast belief in a vast conspiracy against them has clearly followed MOVE into the new millennium.