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40 Years a Prisoner Director Tommy Oliver Interview
On May 13th, 1985, an American city bombed its residents. Philadelphia’s police force dropped a C-4 explosive on the home and headquarters of a Black radical group called MOVE, killing 11 people inside the residential building and sparking a fire that destroyed 60 houses in the surrounding middle-class Black neighborhood, leaving more than 250 people homeless. Five of the dead were children.
The 35-year-old story has gained renewed attention this year, as the uprising in the wake of the killing of George Floyd sparked interest in the nation’s history of racism and police brutality. Last month, Philadelphia’s city council formally apologized for the bombing. And on Tuesday, HBO debuts a new documentary about MOVE. But the film, 40 Years a Prisoner, doesn’t tell the story of the bombing that is the best-known part of the group’s history. Instead, filmmaker Tommy Oliver examines an earlier bloody confrontation between MOVE and Philadelphia police, one that took place in 1978 and resulted in the death of an officer, an infamous instance of police brutality caught on camera, and nine murder convictions. It also set the stage for more violence to come. “Without what happened in ’78,” Oliver tells Esquire, “there would have been no ’85.”
MOVE was founded in 1972, and was one of the era’s many experiments in alternative living. Like the Black Panthers, they advocated for Black liberation. Like other back-to-nature groups, they wore long hair and were animal rights activists. But far from the agrarian lifestyle often associated with communal living groups, MOVE, whose members all adopted the last name Africa, was headquartered in the heart of a major American city. And the group’s habits, which included allowing dozens of stray dogs to roam its property and preaching their ideology through a megaphone, fed disputes between MOVE and some of its neighbors in Philadelphia’s Powelton neighborhood.
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Longstanding neighborhood tensions and violent encounters with police, including one instance in which a newborn baby died after his mother, a MOVE member, was knocked over while carrying him, culminated in the city’s efforts to evict the group. Then-mayor Frank Rizzo, an ex-cop who once vowed to campaign as a candidate so tough that he would “make Attila the Hun look like a f*ggot,” built a highly-policed blockade around the property. Despite the fact that children lived in the home, the city turned off their water and tried to starve MOVE out in a months-long siege that ended in a shootout. A police officer named James Ramp died and 18 other officials were injured during the 1978 confrontation which involved authorities pumping water and tear gas into the home.
The city bulldozed the house the same day, erasing much of the evidence that might have otherwise appeared during the murder trial. “Why does one destroy evidence? We know what the answer typically is,” says Oliver. Officials said that MOVE owned the gun that killed Ramp, while the group maintains that the officer was killed by friendly fire. Despite the fact that the officer died from a single gunshot wound, nine of the organization’s members were convicted of his murder.
40 Years a Prisoner Director Tommy Oliver
To tell the story of the siege and shoot-out that ended it, Oliver, who, with his wife Codie, is the creator of OWN’s Black Love series, uses meticulously sourced archival footage, including tapes from a 40-year-old student film that had been molding away in a closet. But the film also tells a contemporary story, following Mike Africa Jr., a man whose entire life has been shaped by the events of August 8, 1978. Two of the Move Nine are his parents, Debbie and Mike Africa. Debbie was eight months pregnant at the time of her arrest, and Michael was born in her prison cell. She and other incarcerated women concealed his birth from the guards so she could spend three days with her newborn son before relinquishing him. As an adult, Michael Africa Jr. spent years campaigning for the release of his parents, efforts that are chronicled in 40 Years a Prisoner. Oliver was drawn to Michael’s story as a still-ongoing saga from this decades long tale. “This guy had committed his entire life to getting them out of prison,” Oliver Says. “He was just a kid who wanted his parents, and that’s what he was doing with every waking moment. And to me, there was something that was beautiful about that.”
40 years a Prisoner also tells the story of the attack on Delbert Africa, who surrendered during the 1978 confrontation only to be kicked and beaten by officers. The assault was captured on video, and the resulting footage and photographs would become some of the 1970s’ best-known images of police brutality. Three officers were arrested for the attack before a judge dismissed the case.
After the Powelton shootout, MOVE relocated to the middle class Black neighborhood of Cobb’s Creek. There, tensions with the surrounding community mounted again, and the city’s efforts to evict the group culminated in police dropping an improvised bomb on the MOVE house. In the city’s October apology, it wrote that Philadelphia officials “failed to use the best judgement and strategies to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering to the MOVE Family, their neighbors, friends, and first responders.”
Oliver interviews MOVE members and their allies, but also the group’s critics, including cops who were on the scene in 1978. Even decades later, a former police officer featured in the documentary seems untroubled by the disproportionate aggression levied against the group, telling Oliver during an interview that the officers “helped” Delbert, who suffered broken ribs and a broken jaw, out of the house. “He was being helped out by the three officers, and then promptly went to the hospital,” says the now-ex policeman in 40 Years a Prisoner, “but he should have went to the morgue.”
“He was saying that straight faced,” says Oliver of interviewing the officers. “They felt as though they had nothing to hide. And it seems as though they were just recounting war stories in the same way they likely had 50 times over.”
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Compared to law enforcement sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco, the stories of MOVE’s 1978 siege and 1985 bombing have been under examined. Oliver believes that this is due in part to the misleading and dehumanizing way in which the men, women, and children of MOVE were depicted by authorities and the media. After Delbert’s beating, the police commissioner at the time justified the attack by saying that, “Delbert Africa wasn’t a man, he was a savage.”
“It’s hard to engender sympathy beyond a place like Philly if there’s not enough sympathy in the city to begin with,” Oliver says. “And part of that is because they were misrepresented. If the city doesn’t care, and the city doesn’t care because they’ve been fed this grossly inaccurate story, why would anybody else care?”
This concern with accurately documenting history and of people who are often inaccurately treated is a running theme in Oliver’s work. During the protests of this summer, he took to the streets of Los Angeles to document the marching crowds, participants in an uprising that echoes many of the themes in 40 Years a Prisoner. The Smithsonian is now acquiring his work for its archive of the protest movement. “The things MOVE members were fighting against 40 years ago,” says Oliver, “Police brutality, wrongful incarceration, systemic racism, abuse of power, [it’s the] same shit we’re fighting against now.”
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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