MOVE, 2002: Modern home, original beliefs

Philadelphia Inquirer/October 7, 2002
By Miriam Hill

Playing with two dogs outside the large Victorian stone house where he lives in West Philadelphia, he would hardly stand out in a crowd of young Philadelphians, with his gray sports jersey and baggy shorts.

But get him talking and a familiar rant emerges.

"We don't put nothing past this government," Blizzard Africa said. "They don't care about legality. Legality is what allows them to keep prisoners in jail unjustly."

Blizzard Africa is MOVE , the next generation. He's only 20, yet he espouses the same antiestablishment beliefs that MOVE founder John Africa did 30 years ago, long before Blizzard was born.

Nearly two decades after the city bombed MOVE's former home on Osage Avenue, killing 11 of its members - including John Africa - the group appears to be thriving. More than a dozen members - adults and children - live in the sprawling Victorian in the 4500 block of Kingsessing Avenue.

With an aboveground pool, computers and cell phones, they appear by most outward appearances little different from their neighbors.

"Now you're into about, what, the third generation of MOVE children, and they're beginning to have firsthand experience of the world," said Thad Mathis, a Temple professor who has studied the group.

MOVE members, who have lived quietly since the 1985 bombing, were back in the news recently when they boarded up the windows of their house to protest a judge's decision allowing former member John Gilbride unsupervised visitation with his 6-year-old son, Zack. Alberta Wicker Africa Gilbride, John Africa's widow, is Zack's mother. Nine days ago, Gilbride was shot dead, execution-style, outside his apartment building in Maple Shade, N.J.

So, once again, reporters are showing up at the house. People slow as they drive by, gawking at the house and the sign that hangs from it, saying: "This custody case is nothing but a witch hunt so cops can kill more MOVE babies."

Despite the angry talk, MOVE leader Ramona Africa said her group would talk to police about the Gilbride case if contacted. Burlington County officials investigating the case have met with Philadelphia police but not with MOVE members.

Ramona Africa said she and her "family," as MOVE members call one another, are grieving their "brother," Gilbride, who married Africa in 1992.

"They laughed," Ramona Africa said of the match between 54-year-old Alberta Africa and Gilbride, who was 20 years younger. "They had fun together."

After the couple moved to Cherry Hill in 1998, Gilbride began telling his wife that he didn't want MOVE members coming to their home or calling, Ramona Africa said.

In September 1998, Alberta Africa returned home to find that her husband had fled. He disappeared for six months, Ramona Africa said. When he resurfaced, he filed for divorce, complaining that when he and his wife disagreed, she would "involve several MOVE members and have an intervention, wherein I was expected to sit in the middle of the room while each member and my wife would degrade me."

Ramona Africa said Gilbride's family had turned him against MOVE and tried to deprogram him because they believed it was a cult.

She said she was horrified that, even as she and the other members mourn Gilbride, untrue rumors about the couple's child persisted. Because Alberta Africa was 48 when she conceived Zack, some have speculated that the child was conceived in vitro.

"What are they trying to say - that this isn't my sister's son?" Ramona Africa asked. "That is absolutely not true."

Many MOVE members said they wished the media and the world would leave them alone.

"We haven't been a problem. We're not bringing on disaster," Consuella Africa said. "We're simply doing what we got to do because the system has made us this way."

Ramona Africa, 47, would not say how many people live in the Kingsessing Avenue house, but six women, five men and five children wandered around the yard recently.

Unlike the MOVE of old, today's MOVE has money. Some group members, such as Mo Africa, also known as Alfonso Robbins, support themselves by doing home improvements. The group also received about $3.3 million in settlements from lawsuits stemming from the bombing.

MOVE's house is well tended, another sign of how the group has changed since the 1970s, when neighbors complained of odors from trash and animal excrement. People who have been in the house say lace curtains hang on the other side of those now boarded-up windows.

Technology was a no-no when John Africa was alive, but computers and the Internet now help the group spread its message.

The message hasn't changed. Members still believe modern society has poisoned the environment and puts money before people. They advocate a natural lifestyle, focused on healthful food and free of intervention from authorities.

An abbreviated history lesson: In the early 1970s, a charismatic Mantua handyman, Vincent Leaphart, started living with some of his followers in Powelton Village. He called himself John Africa.

In 1977, complaints from neighbors about rats and odors led Philadelphia police to lay siege to the house in Powelton Village. That ended in a shoot-out that left Officer James Ramp dead and nine MOVE members in prison.

MOVE maintained that friendly fire from police, not its members, killed Ramp. Their protests against the convictions - some in the form of obscenity-laden harangues over bullhorns late at night - led to more complaints. On May 13, 1985, police laid siege to a MOVE compound on Osage Avenue. A police helicopter dropped a bomb on the house, setting a fire that destroyed 62 houses.

John Africa and 10 others died, including five children.

These are the stories Blizzard Africa and the other young MOVE members grew up on. These are the stories that buttress the belief shared by MOVE members that society at large is out to get them, that "the system" is evil.

"The system, technology, industry, has poisoned the very air we breathe," longtime member Mo Africa said. "We don't give up like so many other people do. Just because it's legal don't mean it's right. There are plenty of examples of things throughout history that were legal. Slavery was legal."

"We see this system as a belief in death," Mo Africa said.

Despite that message, neighbors say they haven't had any problems with MOVE, though they don't like the boarded-up windows.

MOVE members help Fran Opher, who lives on the block, carry her sick mother in and out of the house.

"They've been helpful to the neighbors, especially the elderly neighbors," Opher said.

Even Philadelphia police say the group has been considerate. When MOVE members have protests, mostly for death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, they check with Bill Fisher, Philadelpia police captain of civil affairs.

"I've been dealing with this group for five years," Fisher said. "In fairness to them, there's never been a problem."

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