Ramona Africa still carrying the MOVE message

Posted: May 12, 2010

In the spring of 1979, when she first attended a MOVE rally, Ramona Johnson was a student at Temple University, about to graduate with a bachelor's degree in political science and plans to enter law school. Through that summer, she got a fast-track course in court proceedings by sitting in on the criminal cases brought against MOVE members stemming from the 1978 confrontation that left Police Officer James Ramp dead, and four police officers and four firefighters wounded.

Johnson aligned herself with MOVE and became Ramona Africa. She met John Africa in May 1981, she says. He made her MOVE's minister of communications.

On May 13, 1985, then 30, she was the only adult survivor of the Osage Avenue inferno, walking out of the flames and into the custody of Police Officer Charles "Tommy" Mellor.

Mellor was in the alley dividing Osage Avenue and Pine Street, spotting his partner, James Berghaier, who had made a dash to rescue 13-year-old Birdie Africa. "I said, 'Ramona, you're under arrest.' She said, 'Don't shoot. I give up, I give up.' "

But Ramona Africa has never given up. She is the most visible, and forceful, of MOVE defenders.

Prior to the confrontation, she remembers MOVE members' publicizing the plight of the MOVE Nine, the five men and four women convicted in Ramp's murder.

Police monitored MOVE activities on Osage Avenue, she said, knew children lived there, knew gasoline cans were in the roof bunker, and had opportunities to avoid confrontation.

"If . . . they wanted to arrest us, they could have done that at any time, when we were at the park, when we went food shopping, when we were walking on the streets," she said.

On May 11, she said, adults in the house sent "a couple" of children grocery shopping with a MOVE supporter. Meanwhile, she said, police set up a barricade across Osage Avenue at 62d Street.

MOVE people were aware of the police activity, she said, but also knew past drills had ended uneventfully.

Early the next morning, "the first thing that we experienced was the Fire Department deluge hoses."

Police had warrants, signed by then-Judge Lynne M. Abraham, to arrest four adults in the house in connection with an incident there April 29.

"Government officials told people their reason for being out there was complaints from neighbors. Now I'm not saying no neighbors ever complained; I'm sure some of them did. But . . . there is not a neighborhood in this city, in this country, where some neighbors don't complain about their neighbors."

On May 13, Ramona Africa was in the basement when the state police helicopter flew over and dropped the incendiary device - the bomb - on the roof of the rowhouse.

"We felt the house shake, but I can speak for myself here, it never, ever occurred to me they dropped a bomb. It started getting hot, more and more smoke, crackling of the fire. We realized then the house was on fire. We immediately tried to get our children, our animals, ourselves out of that burning building.

"The adults were hollering, 'We're coming out, we're coming out.' The children were hollering. And the instant we could be seen trying to come out, the cops immediately started shooting at us. You could hear the bullets all around us, forcing us back into the burning building.

"This happened at least twice. It started getting so bad in there with the fire spreading so quickly and the smoke. You're faced with the situation, you're either going to be burned alive or possibly shot to death. So we tried to get out again. I got out, I got Birdie out, and everyone was right behind me trying to come out. I don't even remember being burned, but I was burned all up my arm, my wrist, my leg, my back. I know I was in shock."

Mellor handed off Africa to other officers, and she was transported to Misericordia Hospital, as was Birdie.

What happened in that alleyway was a matter of intense dispute as investigations got under way. In its 1986 report, the MOVE Commission concluded that police gunfire stopped adults and children from escaping. The commission cited testimony by Ramona and Birdie Africa and by police and firefighters who said they heard automatic or semiautomatic gunfire that evening. But two months later, a state grand jury came to the opposite conclusion, noting that officers testifying with immunity from prosecution denied there was firing. The grand jury also noted that Birdie and others might have misinterpreted the noise of the fire, breaking glass, and crackling electrical wires for gunfire.

In the aftermath, Africa was charged with conspiracy, riot, and multiple counts of simple and aggravated assault. She was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 16 months to seven years in jail. She served the full sentence rather than renounce MOVE.

"This was deliberate murder and yet to this day not one single official has ever been held accountable for the murder of my family," she said.

"What happened May 13 hurt us. We can be hurt but we won't be stopped. We turn that hurt, that anger and bitterness into energy to keep fighting. Any system that can do what it did May 13 is a system that is showing you how vicious it is and [that] must be stopped. If they can drop a bomb and burn babies alive and never be charged with anything, why wouldn't they feel they can shoot people down and get away with it?"

Since her release in 1992, Africa has advocated for the MOVE Nine and for Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.

In 1996, she won a federal lawsuit against the city. With interest, she collected $564,378 and paid no lawyers' fees. She lives with other MOVE members at 45th and Kingsessing Streets and earns speaker's fees lecturing on MOVE and Abu-Jamal. In February, for instance, she spoke at the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene.

Over the years, Africa, who will be 55 in June, has honed her recollections and her point of view:

"The media would come around and John Africa would send me out. After May 13, when I was the only adult survivor, it started clicking. Oh, that's why I'm minister of communications. We can't see, but John Africa could see. He knew what he was doing."

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