After 40 years, Debbie Africa has been released from Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs, the first of the infamous MOVE Nine to be paroled. Founded in 1972, the Philadelphia-based Black liberation group drew national attention after a stand-off with the Philadelphia Police Department in 1978 — resulting in the death of Officer James J. Ramp and Africa’s subsequent conviction along with eight others — and again in 1985, after authorities pushed for MOVE to vacate a row house in Philly. Following a violent standoff, police dropped two one-pound bombs on the rooftops, burning 65 homes in the neighborhood in the process. Eleven MOVE members, including five children, were killed in the 1985 standoff and fire.
At the time of the 1985 bombing Africa was still in jail, serving decades after being held responsible for the death of Ramp. The 1977 Philadelphia Police Department received a court order allowing them to enforce a vacate notice at the MOVE living quarters, the Powelton Village house on N. 33rd Street. A year later police made a move to forcibly remove any remaining members, with members fleeing to the basement as shots rang out around them.
Aug. 8, 1978, was a night of terror that Africa described as, “All I could do was scream, I was scared. Dogs and beams were flying everywhere and I cried when I saw our dogs being hurt and killed. I held tight to my baby and stayed low while the men hovered around us to protect us. When the cops started shooting I closed my eyes and just held tight to my stomach and protectively shielded them the best that I could from flying debris and planks. It was the most frightening situation I’ve ever been in. At one point I couldn’t even see the baby’s face because of the smoke bombs and tear gas thrown in the basement by the cops.”
When the smoke had cleared Officer Ramp was dead. The MOVE members charged insisted that Ramp had been killed by friendly fire, and none of the weapons recovered from the group were operable. Eyewitnesses support their account, with some claiming the shots came from the opposite direction of the basement, where police had entered. Still, after nearly 40 years Africa is the first to see freedom again.
In a letter detailing the event, she described her conviction as “The cops testified that the men had guns, but none of the nine of us have weapon charges. All the DA’s witnesses, who were all cops, could say about the four women was that we were all in the house together and that was because we are committed MOVE members. They pushed for our conviction because their aim was to lock up all committed MOVE members. This is the issue that we have spent almost 20 years of our lives, 20 years of our children’s lives, our families lives in prison for.”
Now she’s left to pick up the pieces, namely, reconnecting with the daughter that was only 2 on the night of the assault, and the son that was taken from her arms shortly after birth in a prison cell. At the time of her arrest she was 22 and eight months pregnant, nearly a lifetime ago for a woman that’s now a grandmother.
In a way her parole is bittersweet, with Africa left feeling helpless at leaving the others, women she has spent nearly 40 years of her life behind bars with, behind. “Although I felt excited and overwhelmed and happy, I still felt incomplete, because I left prison and my sisters Janine and Janet didn’t,” Africa told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“We came in on the same charges. We had the same everything. But when it came time to get out of prison, they didn’t do that the same. It’s a bittersweet victory for me,” she added.
Still, Africa is optimistic for the future, including the days ahead with her son, Michael Africa. His father remains at Graterford Prison but will be able to plead his case for parole in September.
It’s a road that Africa knows all too well, having applied for parole three times prior to her eventual release. Her lawyer, Brad Thomson, thanked 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.”
Her son Michael is also ready to move forward. He described his lifetime of separation from his mother to the Philadelphia Sun: “It was hard. It was not easy. There are things that people don’t understand and take for granted, like needing a parent to talk with you. Growing up without parents and not having that guidance was hard. Luckily, I had a strong support system.”
“A mother needs to have the feeling of nurturing,” Debbie added. “What kept me going was my beliefs.”