A Look Back In Anguish At 23, Birdie Africa Is 10 Years Removed From The Tragedy That Was Move. He Can't Escape His Memories.

Posted: May 02, 1995

It is hard to imagine the poised, meticulously groomed young man wearing a cotton pullover shirt, gold necklace and low-slung oversize jeans as the scrawny, naked boy whose matted dreadlocks bounced as two SWAT cops carried him suspended between them as they ran from the MOVE fire.

This is Michael Moses Ward. This is Birdie Africa.

The scars on his arms, torso and face remind him of the day 10 years ago when the shooting started, the day the city dropped a satchel bomb on the roof

from a helicopter and let MOVE's whole Osage Avenue neighborhood burn. Six adults and five children perished.

Birdie got away.

He says now he escaped more than flames that day.

"In a way, I'm glad it happened."

There is defiant certainty on his face as he says this. It is the face of a proud young man, now 23, a man with a daughter named after his mother, who perished in the fire.

He is old enough to speak for himself for the first time since his timid testimony as a child before the MOVE Commission.

He speaks of a childhood of deprivation, of being forced to live on a diet of raw vegetables and fruit while the adults ate hearty cooked meals, of being denied schooling and neighborhood playmates, of stealing toys and burying them in the MOVE compound.

He speaks of his mother Rhonda's frustrated desire to break away from MOVE and of threats to harm him if she dared leave. He says he and the other children lived trapped inside concentric circles of fear - fear of the cops, fear of the neighborhood, and mostly fear of "The Big People," especially of founder and leader John Africa, whom the children called "Ball," and of Frank Africa, who once, in a rage, punched 8-year-old Birdie in the face and knocked him unconscious.

When Michael speaks the words "I'm glad," the firm set of his jaw says he knows better than anyone how terrible that sounds.

But he means it.

"The only regret I have is about me being hurt and my mom dying and the other kids," he says. "I feel bad for the people who died, but I don't have any anger toward anybody. See, I got out."

Michael lives with his girlfriend and baby in a modern apartment in the Philadelphia area. He has an engaging smile and a reticence that is more natural reserve than shyness. He still has the muscular build of the athlete who played both fullback and cornerback for the North Penn High School football team. He also ran track.

He has had no contact with MOVE since that day 10 years ago and says he doesn't plan to initiate any. He talks of the fire and his injuries without evident anger. But there are scars that go deeper than those you can see.

"Tell him, Michael," urges his girlfriend, Stefanie Severini.

"I have a hard time getting close to anybody, feeling anything about anybody," he says.

"He gets in these moods where he is just cold, even cruel," Stephanie says. "Michael, as a person, would just prefer to be by himself."

Michael nods.

"It has to do with the way I was brought up," he says. "I learned not to get close to anybody. Those things are still in my mind. It's not even so much the fire. I had some bad dreams about the fire when I was little but not anymore. The things that bother me most are the things I remember about MOVE before the fire. There are some things that happened that I can't talk about."

Asked why, he falls silent. He runs both hands over his head. His hair is clipped right down to the skull, styled in a neat line across his forehead and in back, long sideburns tapering down to dagger points at his jaw.

"I'm still afraid of them, of MOVE," he finally says. "Some of the things that went on there I can't get out of my head, bad things, things I haven't told anybody except my father.

"But I'll tell you this: I didn't like being there. They said it was a family, but a family isn't something where you are forced to stay when you don't want to. And none of us wanted to stay, none of the kids. We were always planning ways to run away, but we were too little. We didn't know how to get away. And we were scared."

The fire left scars on his left cheek and jaw and terrible ones on his torso and arms that doctors are still working to repair.

A legal settlement with the city gave him and his father, Andino Ward, lifetime monthly annuities and $840,000. Michael gets a monthly payment that helps with the rent, he says, but that is not enough to live on.

As for the $840,000 - which represent less than 10 percent of the estimated value of the settlement - his father says it all went to pay legal fees up front.

"We don't get along about everything, but my father has been good to me," he says, speaking of the man who took him in and nursed him back to what he

considers normalcy. "He has been a good father to me."

Michael is actually his third name. At birth, Andino and Rhonda named him Olewolffe, Arabic for prince. He became Birdie after his parents split and his mother drifted into MOVE. After his rescue, he chose the name Michael from a list of names his father read him from the Bible. His middle name, Moses, was given to him by his father, who said his son, like the biblical patriarch, had been saved from certain death.

Michael's earliest memories are of growing up at a MOVE commune in Virginia. His mother was imprisoned briefly for her role in the 1978 MOVE showdown, during which Police Officer James Ramp was shot and killed. Birdie and the other children would sneak looks at the scrapbooks MOVE kept, news clippings from that incident, pictures showing the brutal beating police had given Delbert Africa.

"He was our hero," Michael says, "because he stood up to them. He was a man."

Delbert's daughter, Melissa, who died in the fire, was Birdie's best friend.

"She was, like, my girlfriend," he says. "We talked and played together all the time. We played together as a group, all of the children, but me and Melissa, we were close."

Conrad Africa, or "Rad," as the children called him, was the male adult they feared least. In a famous picture taken days before the fatal confrontation, Rad is shown on the fortified rooftop of the Osage rowhouse with a rifle in one hand and a child on his arm.

"He could get mean, like the other adults, but usually Rad was nice to us," Michael recalls. "He would take us to the park every day and play games with us. He was real friendly, almost like one of the kids. He was not like the other ones, like Ball and Ray and Frank. We kind of gravitated toward him."

In the park, they watched other children ride bikes and play with toys, things the MOVE children were not allowed to possess. Sometimes they would find toys in the park or on the street, little toy soldiers or Matchbox cars and trucks. They would smuggle them home under their clothes and find places in the house to hide them.

"We would put them up under those covers they have over the radiators or in the basement. We would poke little holes in the wall and hide toys there. I remember I had a toy soldier hidden in the wall in the basement."

On trips to a MOVE house in Chester, the children sometimes sneaked bikes

from in front of neighbors' houses and thrilled to illicit rides around the block. Then they would leave the forbidden bikes where they had found them.

One Halloween, watching from a distance as costumed neighborhood children

went door to door, the MOVE children teamed up to get candy. In the back

alley, where they were allowed to play, they took turns sneaking off two at a time while the other children played especially loudly to cover for them. They knocked on doors up and down the street - "We knew we had to say 'trick or treat,' " Michael says - and later shared the precious haul.

For years, as Michael was growing up, the only public voice of MOVE has been that of Ramona Africa, the sole adult to escape the fire. She has tirelessly spread the vision of MOVE as a gentle, familial group hounded irrationally by a racist system. The deaths, especially the children's, have added authority to her voice.

Michael does not remember much gentleness. He says he and the other children were afraid to cross the Big People - Ball, Frank, Rad, Raymond, Theresa, Ramona, and his mother, Rhonda.

The adults cooked themselves regular meals - chicken, potatoes and other fare - and hid snacks for themselves. They were particularly fond, according to a local grocer, of Dorito chips.

But they insisted that the children eat only raw, "pure" food. Sometimes the children would sneak a bite of chicken or meat, and then there would be trouble.

After the fire, the damage done by that doctrine was found to be severe. Solomon Katz, a biological anthropologist and child-growth expert at the University of Pennsylvania, found the undersize 13-year-old Birdie to be ''much closer in development to a Third World child than a normal Philadelphia child." He said the MOVE diet had been far more primitive than that of hunting and gathering tribes and had delayed Birdie's physical and intellectual development to such an extent that he might never fully recover.

While there were plenty of fruit and raw vegetables to eat, Michael says, the children were always on the lookout for forbidden foods. They once broke into a local store and discovered peanut butter and ate as much as they could before they got caught. The store owner turned them over to the Big People.

When a rule was broken, the offender would be summoned to the meeting room upstairs.

"And they'd be shouting at us and lecturing us," Michael says. "The idea was they were raising us to be wild. They talked about taking us back to Africa, and they wanted us to be pure and wild and not polluted by things like cooked food and candy and treats. They said they were used to eating those things, so it was hard for them to break old habits, but that we were only to eat the right things."

Michael told the MOVE Commission in 1985 that he and the other children were never spanked. He now says that wasn't the truth.

"We were spanked. We weren't beaten or anything like that, but they

spanked us with their bare hands. There would be, like, two or three swats."

On at least one occasion, it was worse. The children were always plotting to escape, Michael says. Their dream was to run away and live a normal life, go to school, play with toys, eat normal foods, watch TV. Tree, the oldest child and the most defiant, hatched a plot with the older children to escape together.

But they thought their big, matted dreadlocks would give them away as MOVE children.

"So Tree cut our hair," Michael remembers. "She must have been about 10 or 11 then. We were serious. We were really going to do it. But when we got our hair cut, we didn't know where to go. We chickened out or something

because we didn't try to run away.

"When the adults came for us and saw we had cut our hair (which was expressly forbidden by John Africa), they didn't say anything to us for a couple of days. Then they had one of their meetings upstairs, and they called us up. They told us to sit down. We sat down, and everyone was talking, shouting at us, yelling. They told us if we ran away, they would track us down and 'cycle' us. That was their word for killing people.

"Then we went back downstairs. I was sitting up on this bed, and Frank came downstairs and started yelling at us again. Mostly, he was yelling at me. I was always keeping to myself. I didn't like them. I guess they thought I was the strongest one or something. Anyway, Frank was yelling, and he came over and punched me in the face. I fell off the bed, and I was, like, knocked out."

His mother, Michael says, was always kind to him, but she couldn't protect him from the men. John Africa would get angry at the close relationship between Michael and his mother.

"Mom would tell me, 'Try to be nicer to him' and 'Go up to him' and all, but I was scared of him, and I wouldn't, so when they were mad at me, they would separate me from my mom. They wouldn't let her talk to me or let me talk to her. It was hard for both of us."

Michael says his mother grew disillusioned with MOVE in the year before the fire but was afraid to leave. She had wanted to escape with Gail Africa and her daughter, he says, but when the time came, Gail left without her.

"She got real depressed," he recalls. "She was real quiet. I was too small to really understand, but I don't think she wanted to be there. They threatened to kill me if she ran away."

Rhonda's mother, Ramona Shannon, confirms her grandson's memory.

"She definitely wanted out," Shannon says. "I talked to her about it several times. But she was scared. She was afraid that they would come after her. I told her I would protect her, that I would get her help, but then she said she was afraid they would do something to Michael if she left. She also felt a sense of responsibility toward the other children."

On the day of the fire, as the children huddled under wet blankets in the basement, the worst stories Birdie and the others had been told about the police came true. The house shook when the bomb went off. Water poured in from neighboring houses. Flames turned their refuge into an inferno.

Ramona Africa escaped across a back alley. Michael remembers being shoved

from the burning basement into the alley by his mother.

Stories have credited former Police Officer James F. Berghaier with scooping Birdie from the skillet of the alleyway and carrying him to safety. Michael disputes the standard version of his rescue.

"I wasn't saved by a cop," he says. "I was saved by my mother. She pushed me out. She could have saved herself but instead she got me out.

"If the cops had been interested in saving anybody, I would never have been burned. I wasn't burned when I left the house; I was burned when I fell on the hot pavement trying to climb out. I fainted.

"But no cop came and picked me up. I came to, and I had to run to them to get away from the fire. I ran under the balcony to where they were hiding. Then they grabbed me, one of them under each arm, picked me up, and ran with me to the van."

As the police carried him, Birdie pleaded: "Don't shoot me! Don't shoot me!"

It took years of rehabilitation to patch up the second- and third-degree burns that cover 20 percent of his body. It took longer to reintegrate him into normal society. He had never spent a day in school when his father registered him for special-education classes.

"I learned fast," Michael says. "I picked up things a lot faster than my classmates. I asked my dad about it, and he tried to explain that the other children had learning problems but that I had just been deprived. I resent MOVE for that, for depriving me of a normal education. I'm still way behind."

At North Penn, he was both a popular and somewhat mysterious figure.

"Everybody was curious about him," says Stefanie, who met him at school. ''They knew he was Birdie, and that he had been burned. They spread around crazy stories they had heard about MOVE. Mostly, people wondered what his body looked like."

Michael says that, for years, he simply preferred not to talk about it.

"If I was with close friends and they asked me questions, I'd say, like, yes or no, but I didn't tell anybody anything," he says. "I was afraid. I didn't even tell my dad about it much until I was older."

He was far more eager, as he had always been, to fit in, to be normal. And he feels he succeeded, perhaps too well.

"When I got to my junior year, I kind of lost interest in school," he says. "I was more into hanging out with my friends."

He did graduate and tried a semester at Montgomery County Community College but says he had trouble and decided to leave school. Now, after the birth of his daughter, he is determined "to make something of myself."

He finished a course at a beauty school and is attending barber class. He intends to reenroll at Montgomery County Community College next fall and to start working again toward his college degree. He plans to use his barbering skills to help pay his way through school.

Many people think that because of the lawsuit he settled with the city, Michael is wealthy. This brings a smile to his face.

"I know people think that," he says, "but it ain't like that."

The money is a big help but falls far short of supporting him and his family, he says. He expects to do that himself.

He adds that he still has a deep distrust of the police. Police in Lansdale harassed him as a teen, he says, not because they knew who he was but because he was a young black man.

"They would stop me and question me for no reason," he recalls. ''Sometimes they would see me in a car and follow me home."

As for MOVE, he wants nothing to do with it. He wonders sometimes about members he grew up with and knew in Virginia, Chester and other MOVE communes, those who didn't perish in the Osage Avenue disaster. But he has never tried to reach them.

He has heard Ramona Africa on radio and TV but says he has no desire to see her.

"We all thought she was kind of mean," he says, adding, "I wouldn't mind talking to Delbert sometime."

Delbert Africa is one of nine MOVE members in prison for the shooting of Officer Ramp.

"I admire him, and I cared about his daughter, Melissa," Michael says of Delbert. "But I would never join MOVE. I know some people have this idea that it was all lovey and everything, but as a kid, I didn't see it like that. Not at all."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|