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What Happens to Black Activists When Cops Write the History Books?

Tommy Oliver talks about his HBO documentary ‘40 Years a Prisoner,’ which chronicles a deadly 1978 showdown between MOVE members and local law enforcement — and the effect it’s had on racist policing today

What does domestic terrorism look like? In the late 1970s, the Philadelphia Police Department labeled the members of MOVE a “terrorist organization,” and if that group’s name doesn’t ring a bell, it certainly does in the City of Brotherly Love. Inspired by the revolutionary rhetoric of the Black Panthers but advocating for all living things — including animals — MOVE was very much a product of the counterculture, preaching the value of communing with nature and avoiding violence. On their website, they declare, “Nothing is more important or as important as Life, the force that keeps us alive. All life comes from one source, from God, MOM NATURE, MOMA. Each individual life is dependent on every other life, and all life has a purpose, so all living beings, things that move, are equally important, whether they are human beings, dogs, birds, fish, trees, ants, weeds, rivers, wind or rain.”

Made up primarily of Black members, who changed their last name to Africa — the group’s leader dubbed himself John Africa — MOVE took up residence in a Philadelphia house, angering neighbors who complained about what they perceived as health-code violations, including visible piles of garbage and unvaccinated children who wore little clothing and didn’t go to school. Soon, MOVE members (who were occasionally seen brandishing weapons) were being drawn into altercations with the cops. (In 1976, Janice Africa accused the police of killing her infant during one of those skirmishes.) Philadelphia authorities wanted them gone. It was only a matter of time until the escalation grew worse.

Filmmaker Tommy Oliver was too young to remember the two tragic events that unfolded over the next several years. The superb 2003 documentary Let the Fire Burn (directed by Jason Osder) chronicled the 1985 showdown that led to the authorities dropping explosives on the MOVE property, resulting in 11 deaths and the destruction of several city blocks, and now Oliver has made his own companion piece of sorts with 40 Years a Prisoner, which looks at the 1978 raid that first intensified the two sides’ conflict. 

The documentary (which premieres December 8th on HBO and HBO Max) recounts a troubling moment in our country’s history. With the blessing of racist, so-called tough-on-crime Mayor Frank Rizzo, authorities launched an orchestrated operation to remove MOVE from the house, which involved setting up a blockade so that the members couldn’t receive outside assistance and cutting off the home’s water supply. When MOVE refused to vacate after a court order, an arrest warrant was granted in order to evict the members by force. The resulting August 1978 melee left one cop dead — nine MOVE members were ultimately sentenced to prison for his death, their terms ranging from 30 to 100 years. Never mind that the cop was likely killed by friendly fire — and that the police brutally beat one of the nine accused MOVE members, an unarmed Delbert Africa, with the whole incident being captured on film. As far as the law was concerned, the terrorists had been properly punished. 

Oliver, whose fiction film 1982 was based on his Philly upbringing, wanted to talk about this miscarriage of justice but also personalize it. His in was meeting Mike Africa Jr. — the son of two jailed MOVE members, Mike and Debbie — who was working to obtain their release. Like the other prisoners, Mike and Debbie had gone up for parole several times over the years, always getting turned down. Oliver decided to follow Mike Jr.’s journey to free his parents, whom he never knew — after all, he’d been born in prison and then separated from his dad and mom.

40 Years a Prisoner certainly speaks to our current Black Lives Matter moment, but Oliver, who’s in his mid 30s, also views it as a potent history lesson. MOVE’s visibility isn’t as high now as it was then, but the documentary argues that this forgotten standoff informs much of the debate we’re having today about police brutality and media representations of activism. “[40 Years a Prisoner] is an effort to remind people that there are very real people in what they are watching,” he tells me. “It’s not just history for the sake of history. It’s not just a shootout for the sake of an action sequence. There are people who are affected on both sides and who will be affected for decades to come.”

Last week, I talked to Oliver about the danger of labeling a group as “militant,” what aspect of the 1978 altercation still shocks him and whether MOVE actually managed to change anything. And he has some thoughts about why MOVE might have been ahead of its time — and not just in terms of pointing out systemic racism. 

You grew up in Philadelphia. How much did you know about MOVE before this project?

I heard about MOVE, but it was never with any real clarity. It was, “They were some group, and there was some bombing,” but I never understood any of the details. So I went down the rabbit hole of research. I just started reading everything that I could — I watched everything that I could. I went through books, probably 60 articles, then I went to the Temple Urban Archives and their 72 boxes of content and dug through a ton of that. 

But I realized that there was still a lot missing. I had a friend who used to work for the mayor introduce me to MOVE. I met Ramona Africa and she brought along Mike [Jr.] with her. At that meeting, things just sort of opened up in a big way. And Mike, despite all of that he had gone through and the fact that his parents were in prison — and that he was born in prison — he didn’t have an ounce of bitterness. He was just a guy who wanted his family home — that was it. There was something very special about that.

On top of that, the realization that many of the things MOVE has been fighting against some 40 years ago — police brutality, wrongful incarcerations, racism, abuse of power — were the exact things we were fighting against at that point, which was three-and-a-half years ago or so. Well, we’re still fighting it today. I just wanted to be a part of what he was doing — I wanted to figure out how to showcase that in some light. That set me on the dual path of chronicling his quest to free his family, while also digging into the research to understand what put them [in prison] in the first place.

Mike Africa Jr.

Since you were starting without a lot of knowledge about MOVE, what surprised you in the research? 

What I realized pretty early on was that they were represented — or, more accurately, misrepresented — pretty significantly in the media, and they were dehumanized in a lot of ways. The more research I did, the more I realized that those representations by the media were often grossly inaccurate.

40 Years a Prisoner bears that out, but the blame also belongs on the local Philadelphia government. We hear MOVE members being described by officials as “savages.” The powers-that-be worked very hard to give off the impression that MOVE were domestic terrorists. 

Under Rizzo as [police] commissioner and then mayor, there were so many shitty things that happened and shitty policies. Once you dehumanize a people, it makes it very easy to justify anything. The government — the elected officials, people that we’re inclined to believe and inclined to trust — you couple that with the media portrayal, why would you not accept [the idea that MOVE were terrorists] as fact? The people that I’m supposed to be able to trust to take care of me, that’s what they’re all saying — it must be the truth, right?

Even today in articles and on Wikipedia, MOVE is described as a “militant” group. That word has such a pointed connotation — it suggests a frightening, dangerous organization. 

Their starting principles were about the preservation of life in its many forms, whether it’s animals or humans or whatever you want to include in that definition. They weren’t militant, and they wound up taking a defensive [posture] as a result of a ton of altercations and run-ins with the police, many of which were incredibly violent and led to things like pregnant women being beaten to miscarriage. But that wasn’t how they started, and that wasn’t what they were aiming to do.

Mike Africa Jr. and his dad

You mention in 40 Years a Prisoner that the MOVE members in prison were denied parole several times. I couldn’t help but wonder if their association with MOVE was held against them. 

It absolutely did. There were times where they were told flat-out, “If you renounce MOVE — if you say that you’re no longer a MOVE member or are associated with MOVE members — then you will likely be set free.” And none of them chose to do that. Because they remained steadfast — because they remained committed to MOVE — the parole board [felt] they had chosen a side, and that was a problem.

Which is interesting, because it’s not as if MOVE is as prominent as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. But they wouldn’t budge.

[MOVE] is a different thing now. It’s still a set of shared beliefs and not something they were willing to compromise on. But even though it’s not what it was, that didn’t matter to them.

You spent nearly four years making this movie. Nothing that has transpired during that time has made the film any less relevant. Between 1978 and now, is America essentially the same? Are we facing the same series of problems that we did back then?

The fact that that question has as much merit as it does is both terrifying and an answer in and of itself. We screened the film at the Philadelphia Film Festival — it was the only in-person screening we did, and it was at a drive-in. That very day that we screened the film, Walter Wallace Jr. was shot by the police. He was shot around the corner from what happened to MOVE in 1985 — and on the very street where a MOVE member, somebody in the film, lives. That was on a Monday. The following weekend, at a protest for Walter Wallace Jr. at Malcolm X Park in Philly, the organizers, who had all seen the film, talked about how eerily similar the situation was [to 1978] and how uncomfortable and problematic that was. 

What happened in the film happened 40 years ago, but it could have happened 20 years ago, it could have happened 10 years ago, it could have happened 40 days ago, it could have happened 40 minutes ago. It could happen four years from now, and nobody will bat an eye. Nobody will be surprised, and that is not okay.

You make it clear that Philadelphia was going to do everything it could to force MOVE out. Cops were willing to kill MOVE members if they had to. 

You got to remember that Frank Rizzo, at the time, was the mayor of the fourth-biggest city in the country. He said, “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a f*ggot.” Direct quote. He also said that our police are so well-armed that we can [invade] Cuba and win. He was somebody that took pride in the idea of cracking skulls and shared that publicly. As a result, none of this stuff is that surprising — it happened under his regime. It’s sad, it’s hard to accept, but it’s not surprising. 

But you know what was hard or surprising to me? The three cops who beat Delbert, who were then subsequently let off by the judge, even though it was a jury trial — the fact that the three of them went on air and doubled down. Even though they had beat him nearly to death, they all said [on TV] that they would do the exact same thing again. 

To this day, I cannot reconcile that. I just don’t know how to accept that. I don’t know, I really don’t. It’s like, is that just pure evil or hatred or ignorance or sociopathy or just racism? I don’t know. I can’t process that. I can’t process somebody beating somebody viciously and then saying they’d do it again, publicly. Even under somebody like Frank Rizzo. 

I hear you, but that also seems like something we see today: Cops still won’t acknowledge their mistakes when they kill unarmed Black citizens. 

I would agree with that, but to me, though, the three [cops] doing that [in 1978] was different. It wasn’t even the trite line of, “I feared for my life,” or whatever you want to insert as justification. It was just, “Yeah, I would do it again.” Even though there is video showing you exactly what happened — [Delbert Africa] was a defenseless man that was kicked again and again, hit on the head with a steel helmet, dragged by his dreadlocks. These [cops] who were supposed to protect and serve — who we’re supposed to be able to depend on and trust — these are the people who, when they show up at your home, you think they’re going to make things better. Yet, [these three cops] would beat somebody nearly to death again, given the opportunity.

MOVE members in the 1970s

In the documentary, we see footage of the MOVE house, with kids walking around naked and all these random dogs. The impression from your film, and Let the Fire Burn, is that it wasn’t the most sanitary of places — or, at least, that’s what the media reported. Was that accurate? 

It’s funny. Questlove, who is one of the film’s executive producers and is from Philly, made a realization after seeing the film. The media used to talk about the idea of MOVE eating raw food — because there were dogs and such around, the idea was that they were eating raw meat or eating dog meat or whatever unsavory things you could think of. But in reality, it was raw vegetables and such things that many people are doing today as a way of being healthy. The idea of a “big trash pile” in the back, [it was] actually a compost pile. 

Were they spick-and-span clean? No. Were they nasty? Were they dirty? Not from my understanding — they did things differently. They had their hair naturally, and they didn’t wash their hair every day because you don’t wash dreadlocks every day. We, as a people, often have a hard time categorizing “different” — and especially in the media, if it’s “different,” you’ve got to figure out how to call it something. Hence, the narrative that took off.

But MOVE is described, even by their lawyer at the time, as being a cult. Did you see them as having any cult-like qualities? 

I think that there is most certainly an argument to be made that there were cult-like things. But at the same time, you think about the way that most modern, large religions of today started — just about every one of them would’ve been considered a cult as well. Make of that what you will.

Did they think of it as a religion?

I think [for] some of them. It’s probably a little bit complicated, and I don’t know that I can totally speak to it. Some of them are Christian as well, and so it’s not a traditional religion, but it’s sort of like that. It’s a little more nuanced.

Mike’s parents get out of jail near the end of the film. Obviously, that’s fantastic, but I’m always curious about the adjustment period — both for them and their son. They had never really been together before.

I did a bunch of interviews with them after. For structural reasons, they didn’t make sense to include in the film — I wound up cutting a 35-minute epilogue, which will be on HBO Max, that tells a good amount of the story from their perspective, which is something that we don’t hear a lot of in this film. 

But they have been very happy together. There’s been a lot of firsts and a lot of new things and a lot of different experiences. One of the things that Mike said was when you go see people when they’re in prison, they’re always happy — they’re always on their best behavior because they’re just happy to see you. But then coming home and having to deal with reality — [you have] to accept not just intellectually, but in reality, that the people who you knew [before] you went into prison, many of them are no longer around. They’ve lost brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. Having to experience that and deal with that is new. 

So it’s been a pretty big adjustment, but Mike and Debbie, they are incredibly happy together, and they’ve been spending lots of time with their grandkids. They both lived with Mike for a bit after they got home before moving into their own place together. Mike jokes about how it was sort of like his kids leaving the nest. He had gotten used to them living with him — [it wasn’t for] very long, but enough to get comfortable with it. But overall, they are all happy.

Ultimately, did MOVE achieve its objectives? Did they succeed?

It’s a great question. They were fighting for something in a city that I love. In so many ways, this [documentary] is a love letter to Philly, even if it’s not obvious. It’s a love letter in the way that you don’t stop arguing with somebody that you love — you just don’t stop and [not] care anymore. But some 40 or so years ago, MOVE fought against police brutality, mass incarceration, against racism, abuse of power. Cut to a couple of months ago, after George Floyd’s murder: I saw a video of Philadelphian police, and they had a Black man pinned down and a knee was on his neck. He yelled out, “I can’t breathe,” and they screamed back, “That shit don’t work here.” 

So, did [MOVE] succeed? I think that it’s too early to answer that question. If you’re trying to answer that question on the basis of a year or 10 years or 40 years, the answer is probably no. They planted some incredibly important seeds, and some of their work is now starting to bear fruit. But so much of what they did was forgotten — so much of this event was forgotten. And when we forget our history, we’re doomed to repeat it, so there’s a real potential for film and TV and media to shine a light on these things and to help push them into the collective consciousness in a way that’s needed.

If I had to answer [your question] today, the answer would be, “Unlikely.” If I could cut to 40 years from now and you look at all what’s happening — including the fact that Philadelphia’s City Council officially apologized for [the] 1985 [bombing], and that took 35 years to happen — I do think that the trajectory is positive. But we have a lot of work.