From gun ports to birthday parties: An activist group’s strange evolution

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PHILADELPHIA – One day last spring, after Tony Allen decided he had wasted enough years in MOVE, he received the phone call he had been dreading.

It was Sue Africa, MOVE’s longtime “minister of confrontation.”

She was bitter, and she was brief.

“You’re a traitor,” Allen said Sue Africa told him. “You’re worse than John Gilbride.”

He gulped, then called his wife, Lori. The mention of Gilbride was chilling.

Like the Allens, Gilbride spent years in MOVE before splitting from the group. Gilbride was shot dead two years ago this month, in a killing that remains unsolved. MOVE insists it had nothing to do with his slaying.


Tony and Lori Allen, too, once thought of MOVE as their family.

But after eight years of devotion and isolation, the couple broke from the group this year.

Now, their detailed account of life within MOVE provides an unparalleled look inside the secretive group, whose violent clashes with police stain Philadelphia’s modern history.

MOVE’s fiery 1985 confrontations with the city left 11 people dead inside the group’s fortified row house, and two surrounding blocks in ashes. Nine MOVE members were convicted of murder for killing a police officer in 1978 during a shoot-out in a previous compound.

The Allens say they look back with shame at some of the things they did for MOVE. They wince at the campaign the group waged against Gilbride, killed after his divorce from MOVE leader Alberta Africa, whom he was fighting for custody of their son.

In one ugly tactic, they say, they plastered the neighborhood of Gilbride’s parents with 1,200 flyers that falsely labeled them child molesters.

But in some respects, the Allens bring unexpected news. Once MOVE stockpiled bombs and guns and barricaded its houses with tree trunks. Today, the group lives a domesticated life behind a well-kept garden in Philadelphia, at peace with neighbors.

The Allens say they never saw a weapon in the hands of a MOVE member. They say the group’s twin homes appear unfortified. The headquarters is filled with plants, and the sound of opera often fills the air.

Once, MOVE’s believers ate only natural foods, and rejected anything off the grill or out of the oven. Their lifestyle was famously austere.

Today, they eat junk food and go to the movies – and throw birthday parties for their children, complete with Harry Potter and Dora the Explorer themes.

Alberta Africa, at her wedding shortly after Gilbride’s death, even wore a classic gown and white gloves. Her son with Gilbride wore a white tuxedo.

The Allens joined happily in that 2002 celebration at the group’s headquarters. But now MOVE views them with deep suspicion.

“We personally feel they have always been cops or infiltrators, or that they were put up to this and paid to do it,” Sue Africa said.

Ramona Africa, the group’s most prominent spokeswoman, refused to answer all questions.

“We are not discussing Tony or Lori,” she said last week. “MOVE people have work to do. We have our direction. We have been coordinated by John Africa. We are not going to be diverted by it.”

The Allens say they faithfully followed the creed of MOVE’s founder, John Africa, who died in the 1985 clash. For nearly a decade, they say, they did what MOVE demanded, whether it was spreading lies about Gilbride, cutting ties with family and friends or giving their modest income-tax refunds to the group.

Finally, as full-time radical idealists who joined MOVE because of its anti-establishment message, the Allens grew disillusioned by how mainstream the group had become.

“It went from a religious cult to a cult of personality. It’s all about self-absorbed narcissism now,” Tony Allen said. “It’s not just that MOVE lies. It’s that MOVE itself is a lie.”

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A typical day in the life of the modern MOVE is not as revolutionary as some might suspect.

Tony, who is now 28, would go to work managing a CVS drugstore, driving Lori, now 27, and their baby from the couple’s home in Salem County, N.J., to the two Victorian twins on Kingsessing Avenue in Philadelphia that make up MOVE headquarters.

The homes are MOVE’s third base of operations in west Philadelphia since it was founded in the early 1970s by a dropout who took the name John Africa. He preached an aggressive back-to-nature philosophy and lifestyle that put the group at odds with neighbors, city health inspectors and police.

MOVE paid cash for the Kingsessing Avenue homes, using money from the $2.5 million in lawsuit settlements that members received from the city after the deaths at MOVE’s second compound, on Osage Avenue. The money went to the parents of the five MOVE children killed when the city bombed the building in a bungled attempt to blow a gun port off the roof.

According to the Allens, MOVE members live off the settlements, held in a trust. Some of the MOVE men, and Sue Africa, hold jobs in landscaping and newspaper delivery. Two key leaders, Pam and Ramona Africa, make money from speaking engagements to left-wing audiences around the world.

When not at their jobs, MOVE men work on cars or on the lawn. Tony Allen says his MOVE work included posting MOVE credos on the Internet, answering e-mail and walking MOVE’s dogs.

Supporters are told that John Africa decreed that animals are the equals of humans, the Allens say. MOVE stipulates that if a dog or cat is sitting on a chair, people cannot roust the animal.

MOVE is a heavily female group now, with key male members in prison. The women spend much of their time with the children, playing in the yard at their headquarters or watching them frolic in the above-ground pool. MOVE is nothing if not family-oriented.

At the headquarters, each day can bring a series of “meetings”: interrogation and therapy sessions that can last a half-hour or all night, depending on the issue or offense.

“When you first come around, they’re very light. They say, `It’s a messed-up world, we want to show you how fortunate you are to have come to MOVE,”’ Lori Allen said.

“But the longer you’re around, the harder and heavier and more intense they get – if you have a certain look in your eyes, they will have a meeting on you,” she added.

“You’re constantly being told you’re racist, you’re bigoted, you’re not good enough, strong enough or loyal enough. You could never measure up, because you’ve never met John Africa.”

The berating would quickly be followed with ego-stroking and lessons for redemption. At one session meant to dissuade Tony Allen from leaving MOVE, Sue and Alberta Africa, Gilbride’s widow, served tea and pumpkin-walnut cake.

“In a lot of ways, you benefit from the meetings, just like you would going to a therapist,” Lori Allen said. “When they see you’ve had enough, that they’ve broken you down, they pick you back up and build you back up. Sometimes, they even throw a party for you.”

“It’s addictive,” Tony Allen said. “You come to crave the attention.”

For a religion supposedly built around strict guidelines, the modern MOVE offers plenty of contradictions.

Members use cell phones and the Internet, play video games and watch TV. Alberta Africa sometimes spends all day on the couch, watching horror films in her pajamas, the Allens say.

And though MOVE children do not typically receive a formal education, Alberta’s son took tap dancing, swimming and modeling lessons.

“Now, they say they use things in the system in order to destroy the system,” Tony Allen said.

In retrospect, he said, the rationalizations became dizzying.

“MOVE had been telling us for years that no Philadelphia sports team would win a championship as long as the MOVE Nine were in jail,” he said.

“And then, last year, when the Eagles almost went all the way, we got a call from Sue Africa who said, `Well, John Africa actually said one team might, but if they did, it’s to bring attention to the MOVE Nine and our platform.'”

Over time, Tony Allen began to wonder what, beyond survival, MOVE stood for anymore.

How, exactly, does a young, white, working-class couple from Virginia wind up turning over their lives, money and daily decision-making to a ragtag group of aging black revolutionaries in Philadelphia?

It’s pretty easy, when you’re willing.

Like her siblings before and after, Lori, who grew up all over the country, left home as a teenager.

By 1995, she was 18, living on her own in North Carolina. At a concert in Fayetteville, she met Tony, a bass player with a band called Faceless.

One year older, he came from a military family in Virginia Beach, Va.

In letters, they explored their mutual problems and passions. Both were high school dropouts who later got diplomas at night. Both overcame drug addictions. Both tilted far left, fervent about animal rights and the environment, opposing war, racism and the death penalty. Yet each harbored more conservative views on abortion, alcohol and family values.

Within a year, Lori moved to Virginia Beach. In 1997, they wed.

“We were trying to make sense of the world, to find our place in it,” Lori said.

More than anyone, Mumia Abu-Jamal would take them there.

After reading his prison manifesto, “Live From Death Row,” the couple joined the growing international movement to free the Philadelphia man convicted of killing a police officer.

In Virginia, they started their own “Free Mumia” organization, staging demonstrations and hosting benefits. They sent every cent they raised – a few thousand dollars over a couple of years – to Pam Africa, the longtime MOVE member who runs the worldwide effort.

The energetic strangers quickly caught her attention. Soon, the Allens were talking to Pam Africa regularly on the phone about Mumia, and eventually about MOVE.

“In MOVE’s eyes, the `system’ is a perverted reflection of natural order, natural law,” Tony Allen said. “Man will see the sun and create a light bulb. The light bulb is flawed. An airplane is a result of man trying to replace the perfection of a bird.”

Hungry for more knowledge, the couple sent $20 for photocopied portions of MOVE’s bible, a caustic, grammatically confused and often indecipherable set of pronouncements dictated by MOVE founder John Africa.

“They give you a tiny, tiny fraction of it over time, so little by little you invest yourself,” Tony Allen said. “If you’re reflective about it, if you have doubts, you’re encouraged to go to MOVE, and then they will dispel them.”

It wasn’t long before political discussions segued into long, personal talks. No subject was off limits. The Allens’ fragile marriage. Poverty. Trouble with their families. How, by following MOVE rules alone, Lori Allen would realize that she did not really have diabetes.

The Allens basked in the attention. They couldn’t believe that important, busy people like Pam and Ramona Africa would spend so much time listening and helping to solve their problems.

In 2000, Tony Allen moved up from Virginia to be closer to MOVE. Lori followed a year later.

“Politics is MOVE’s hook,” Lori Allen deduced, “but it’s not their line.”

Today, MOVE’s membership includes about 30 adults, including those behind bars, and about 20 children. The MOVE Nine are now down to eight – one died in prison of natural causes in 1998. The remaining five men and three women will be eligible for parole in 2008.

While MOVE is receptive to those who seek it out, it has not actively recruited members in years. Its core message, also unchanged in years, is freedom for the MOVE members in prison and for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

By the Allens’ reading, Alberta Africa is MOVE’s most revered figure, its elusive icon. Her status is rooted in being the widow of John Africa. She did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

While Alberta Africa is a key figure to the group, she lives in a beautifully landscaped $174,000 house in Cherry Hill, N.J. Day-to-day leadership falls to Sue and Ramona Africa.

Sue Africa, 54, MOVE’s only white leader, lost her 9-year-old son in the 1985 bombing. She was in prison on rioting charges at the time.

Ramona Africa, 49, the “minister of information,” who was badly burned in the blaze, provides MOVE its public face and urgent voice.

Newcomers like the Allens cannot officially join. Instead, they are considered “supporters.” Currently, there are about 10 devoted supporters in Philadelphia and south New Jersey.

To be accepted, supporters must make themselves available at all hours for many tasks.

During Gilbride and Alberta Africa’s fight for custody of their son, many took off days and days from their jobs to flank Alberta Africa at courthouses and protests.

In the weeks before Gilbride’s murder, MOVE turned a normally private custody case into a chilling public showdown.

The Allens say MOVE leaders told them Gilbride was a deadbeat and an abuser who could not be trusted with his son unsupervised. Supporters believed it, and got to work to ruin him.

On different occasions, the Allens say, Sue Africa told them to dress up and take a fake press pass to the courthouse to try to interrogate the Gilbride family, The tactic did not produce any information useful in the custody fight, they say.

Lori Allen orchestrated the protests at Gilbride’s parents’ home outside Washington, including the distribution of the flyers.

Behind the scenes, the couple even used MOVE’s reputation against Gilbride.

They phoned US Airways trying to get him fired, telling airline officials that the baggage supervisor was involved in a violent terrorist group and should not be allowed to work at the airport.

Gilbride, 34, was gunned down on Sept. 27, 2002, while sitting in his car in the parking lot of his apartment complex.

Investigators recently declined to discuss the status of the investigation. Last year, Burlington County, N.J., Prosecutor Robert Bernardi said that authorities had interviewed MOVE members but had come to no conclusions about the case.

“There is still this problem with the timing of this homicide, given what was pending in the custody dispute,” Bernardi said at the time. “Is that a coincidence, or is there something more to it?”

If joining MOVE was easy, leaving was not.

For Lori Allen, the break started with a conversation in which she accidentally addressed Sue Africa as an equal. This, she said, provoked a stern rebuff from Africa at a meeting that left her limp.

And it continued as Lori Allen became more confident as a mother and more worried about raising her daughter inside a group in which children had ended up slain.

Tony Allen, always the more skeptical of the two, had already been grappling with doubt.

“It takes time to realize what you’re getting from them isn’t real,” he said. “At some point, you have to reclaim your dignity as a person, live and die by your own decisions.”

After eight years entrenched in MOVE, the couple decided in March to go it alone.

Since then, they have reconnected with family. Over the summer, their daughter has finally gotten to know grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

The Allens say they have also talked with Burlington County investigators, volunteering their insights into MOVE’s quarrel with Gilbride.

And they have gotten in touch with Gilbride’s family.

“We don’t hold a grudge for what they did and said as members of a cult,” said Gilbride’s father, Jack. “Their actions reminded us much of John’s. He grew out of it, and we’re glad they did, too.”

The Allens see themselves as bent on making things right.

“I have to redeem myself,” Lori Allen said. “I misinformed a lot of people.”

GROUP BEGINNING

MOVE was founded in the early 1970s by a Mantua, N.J., handyman, Vincent Leaphart, who called himself John Africa. Its aggressive protests, back-to-nature lifestyle and conflicts with neighbors put it on a collision course with authority. The name MOVE is not an acronym.

MOVE also took control of an apartment building in Powelton Village, Pa. When the city tried to inspect the property – neighbors were complaining of garbage and human and animal waste – MOVE put up an 8-foot stockade.

MOVE members stood on top of it, brandishing guns. They also stockpiled bombs – later seized by police – and warned in a statement, “Don’t attempt to enter MOVE headquarters or harm MOVE people unless you want an international incident.”

After a two-month blockade, police moved against the Powelton compound on Aug. 8, 1978. Gunfire broke out and Police Officer James J. Ramp, 52, was killed. Nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder and given 30- to 100-year prison terms.

The remnants of MOVE moved into a row house farther out in west Philadelphia. Neighbors complained that MOVE had harassed them with loudspeaker harangues demanding freedom for the MOVE Nine.

The city took no action as MOVE fortified the house’s interior with tree trunks and timber, nailed slats over the windows and built a “bunker” with a gun port on the roof.

On May 13, 1985, police laid siege to the house. In a 90-minute barrage, they fired thousands of bullets at it, but no MOVE members surrendered. Later that day, a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the house, trying to destroy the bunker.

Improvising, officials then elected to let the resultant fire burn, figuring they could put it out after it drove MOVE members out. Instead, the inferno gutted the house and 61 others.

Six adult MOVE members, including John Africa, and five of their children died. Only Ramona Africa and a 13-year-old boy, then known as Birdie Africa, escaped.

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Philadelphia Inquirer, via The News-Sentinel, USA
Sep. 26, 2004
Monica Yant Kinney
www.fortwayne.com

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This post was last updated: Sep. 6, 2013