Three women whose children were killed in the MOVE bombing 36 years ago said they find no solace in the city’s discovery of human remains that were declared destroyed earlier in the week.
In fact, the women expressed varying levels of outrage, incredulity, and bitterness in interviews at Cobbs Creek Park in West Philadelphia on Saturday during a rally commemorating the event:
“I don’t believe anything the city says, but I know I’m insulted,” said Janine Phillips Africa, 65, who lost a son, Phil, 11.
“Do you know what kind of trauma they’re putting us through?” asked Janet Holloway Africa, 70, who lost a daughter, Delisha, 13.
“We resent the hell out of this situation,” said Consuewella Dotson Africa, who describes herself as “almost 70” and who lost two daughters, Katricia, 13, and Vanetta, 11.
It’s not known whether the remains belong to any of the children.
Initially, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration announced that, without notifying relatives, it had cremated and discarded remains from the May 1985 bombing in West Philadelphia that led to the deaths of 11 people. But on Friday night, city officials acknowledged the remains were never destroyed.
The revelation came after city officials learned that a subordinate apparently disobeyed Health Commissioner Thomas Farley’s order in 2017 to dispose of the remains, said Leon A. Williams, an attorney for the family of the MOVE victims.
Farley, the city’s top health official since 2016, resigned Thursday after acknowledging he had ordered the remains cremated and disposed of without notifying the Africas.
Kenney said in a statement late Friday that he had personally informed the family of the discovery of the remains previously believed to have been destroyed. He described the remains as partial bone fragments, or perhaps teeth.
But the three mothers bristled on Saturday, saying no one from the city had told them anything.
“We get all our information from the media,” Janine Africa said. “Nobody called us. It seems to me the city is scrambling to get themselves out of a bad situation.
“Their story has changed three or four times in the last 48 hours. All it does is make us relive what happened.”
On Saturday night, a spokesperson for Kenney said that while he hadn’t met with the three mothers at the rally, he had spoken with several family members on Thursday and Friday, including Pam Africa, Mike Africa Sr., and Mike Africa Jr., among others.
“The mayor completely understands why the family doesn’t trust the city and has acknowledged that he would feel the same way if he were in their shoes,” the spokesperson said. “He informed ... [Africa family members] of everything he learned about this situation within two hours of finding out personally. He is more than willing to meet with any family member that is interested in meeting with him.”
A city’s sin
The zigzagging tale of the remains, coming during the anniversary of an internationally infamous event that’s often seen as Philadelphia’s greatest sin, seems to have reignited ill feelings over systemic mistreatment of Black people at the hands of police. Speaker after speaker at the Saturday rally referenced racism and violence against African Americans.
“How treacherous, how monstrous all of this is,” Janet Africa said. “This is a crystallized example of how people have treated us, and how they have felt about MOVE for years.”
Along with the confusion over the remains, the women described themselves as enraged over another scandal involving remains of a MOVE victim: The Penn Museum arranged last month to return bone fragments from one girl — believed to be 14-year-old Tree Africa — who died in the bombing. Those remains had for decades been shuttled between researchers and staff at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.
“They have sawed and drilled into that poor girl’s bones,” Janet Africa said.
Consuewella Africa compounded the image: “Imagine our babies in some stagnant lab like that. Our children had life, they were not some specimen.”
Most remains were released from the Medical Examiner’s Office in 1986 and buried at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Delaware County.
All three women served long prison sentences related to an event that predated the MOVE bombing by seven years. In 1978, Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp died in a Powelton Village shootout. Consuewella Africa served 16 years for simple assault, while the two other women served 40 years for murder.
The women professed their innocence in the killing. They were incarcerated at the time their children died in the bombing.
Asked whether they plan to sue the city over the mistakes made about the remains, the women flatly said no.
“For us to sue and then for them to have to give us money lets the city off the hook,” Janine Africa said. “We’re not going through that.”
In a surprising revelation, Janine Africa said the mothers have just one demand: Free writer and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal from Mahanoy State Correctional Institution in Frackville, Schuylkill County.
Abu-Jamal is serving a life sentence without parole after being convicted in the 1981 killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
Long supported by MOVE members, Abu-Jamal had in turn been a champion of MOVE, which long advocated equal treatment for African Americans, as well as respect for nature and animals.
On Saturday at the rally, photos and writings of Abu-Jamal were omnipresent. Fresh fruit was offered for free to any of the approximately 50 people who showed up. Orange and black T-shirts with a reproduction of a photograph of the bomb that was dropped from a helicopter onto MOVE members were being sold for $15 apiece.
Reflecting on the lack of precision about the remains, Eddie Africa, 71, who described himself as “part of the MOVE family,” said he’s not sure what to think about the reappearance of a box once thought burned.
But he unhesitatingly attributed the misunderstandings to a purposeful attempt by city officials to keep people off-balance.
“It’s like they’re trying to make us emotionally torn, because they believe it will weaken us,” he said. “All this does is raise emotions and create pain.
“And there is no solution we can see.”