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Cop’s death in clash was a spark | 2010

A reporter recalls years leading up to the 1985 inferno.

Police and firefighters duck after others were hit by gunfire at the start of the Aug. 8, 1978, shoot-out. Officer James Ramp was killed and many others were injured.
Police and firefighters duck after others were hit by gunfire at the start of the Aug. 8, 1978, shoot-out. Officer James Ramp was killed and many others were injured.Read more

This article appeared in the Daily News on May 7, 2010.

“OH MY GOD! They shot a cop!”

I shouted into the phone to a Daily News editor who was taking notes as police surrounded the MOVE compound in Powelton Village.

Cops were trying to get the radical cult members to drop their weapons and come out of the basement with their children.

Suddenly, gunshots came from the basement window of the MOVE house.

From a third-floor apartment window, I looked down to where stakeout cop James Ramp was slowly kneeling to take a shooting position on the sidewalk with others. Ramp abruptly fell backward, blood coming out of his mouth.

It was 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 8, 1978, in the first armed battle between MOVE and the Philadelphia Police Department. Ramp was killed and 16 cops and firefighters were injured.

At 6 a.m., an officer had read a warrant and ordered the MOVE members to surrender, then Msgr. Charles Devlin, of the Cardinal's Commission on Human Relations, and many others appealed to MOVE to end the siege.

"Please on behalf of everything that is sane and honest, send out the children," said Devlin.

Bulldozers shoved away the parapet where for 15 months MOVE had threatened a showdown if four of their members weren't released from prison. Using a battering ram, flak-jacketed cops rammed the front, side and basement windows, then a wall, revealing a bag of onions, peanut butter, potatoes and waxed paper.

Deluge tanks were positioned close to the house, where they discharged columns of water directly into the basement.

Hundreds of rats and dozens of dogs emerged from the house all morning, eventually followed by 11 MOVE members and 11 children.

But the rage felt by some police upset by the death of one of their own was saved for the vitriolic Delbert Orr Africa, an ex-Black Panther member and Army vet who counted dead soldiers before shipping them home from Vietnam.

When Delbert Africa climbed through the basement window, a cop grabbed his dreadlocks, dragging him down the street, while others kicked and pounded his body. Other officers jumped the cops to pull them off.

Daily News photographer Norman Lono, who had hidden in the shower of the same apartment as I had, documented the horror from beginning to end.

The next morning I awoke screaming from the images of war. Covering MOVE was a recurring nightmare.

The siege begins

Only 15 months earlier during a nine-hour standoff with police, 18 MOVE members, in tan fatigues and black berets, brandished rifles and handguns on the parapet at the MOVE compound, a twin house illegally taken over at 33rd and Pearl streets.

They demanded that four jailed members be freed and threatened to kill city officials, judges, cops and reporters. After nine hours, Civil Affairs Inspector George Fencl persuaded the members to put away their weapons.

From that day on - May 20, 1977 - police began a 24-hour surveillance of MOVE, whose members relished the attention and publicity, and incited crowds with racial epithets and harangues against city officials.

When I wrote about their exploits - their arsenal, their bombs, the beating of neighbors, their finances, their drug dealing and their relocation of a few members to a Richmond, Va., property - in the Daily News, I garnered their ire, harassment and a place on their hit list, which included the mayor, the police commissioner, the district attorney and other city officials.

MOVE was co-founded in 1971-72 by a third-grade dropout, the bearded, slightly built brown-skinned Vincent Lopez Leaphart, once known as the "dog man" for surrounding himself with dogs, and by Donald Glassey, a white social-work graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

As a MOVE founder "John Africa," Leaphart told his rambling, disjointed thoughts to Glassey, who researched them and wrote them down.

In the early days, the ragtag members demonstrated against the Philadelphia Zoo over the caging of animals, at a pet store, as well as against celebrities, leftists and community leaders. They were arrested hundreds of times, mostly on misdemeanors, clogging the court system.

An underground newspaper, the Drummer, and a police-intelligence white paper arrived at the same conclusion: The group was reactionary and potentially fascist.

Leaphart had urged his four dozen disciples, many from his own family, to prepare for Armageddon since the summer of 1976, after a bitter protest at the 17th Police District in South Philadelphia.

Members spent hours reciting "The Book," snippets of the bizarre theories of Leaphart. They wanted to take civilization back to a primitive culture. They said their name was "Life," and their age was "one," because "life has no beginning and no end."

They said that they'd obey only the "law of nature," and that was anything they claimed it to be. They threw their garbage in the yard, where rats and other vermin bred, causing neighbors to complain. Then they beat up their neighbors, yet refused to kill rats.

To prepare for battle, John Africa directed MOVE members to operate in cells without knowledge of what each other was doing. They rigorously exercised and sparred regularly, nearly beating on each other to toughen themselves.

Their lexicon was a game of semantics. They used "tools," but the same implements in the hands of police were called "weapons."

In 1976, Janine Africa claimed her infant had been killed in a scuffle with police, but a former MOVE member later said the baby had been stillborn. MOVE invited city officials to their house, where they saw a dead baby lying on a straw-like bed. Later in a tug-of-war with the Medical Examiner's Office, MOVE refused to give pathologists the corpse for an autopsy.

By August 1977, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) seized MOVE's arsenal: 11 weapons including rifles; 49 pipe bombs and parts; gun powder; chemicals, and books to make bombs. A federal grand jury indicted 11 members on bomb-plot charges.

Mayor Frank Rizzo promised to "show them more firepower than they've ever seen," and MOVE members threatened to "cycle" - or kill - their naked children if city inspectors or officials came near.

MOVE, meantime, had dug a tunnel from their compound to the basement of a store and could crawl out of a vent on to Powelton Avenue a half block away.

After the mayor barricaded a four-block area around the MOVE compound for 56 days, Rizzo vowed he’d “starve them out.” Numerous people, concerned about MOVE children inside, tried to end the siege, including City Council members, community leaders, drug dealers and attorneys. The result: Members received boxes of requested raw vegetables.

In early May 1978, a settlement appeared to have been reached. MOVE members turned in weapons - mostly broken - and agreed to be charged with offenses and the barricade was lifted.

To the public, it appeared as if Rizzo had won, but there was more to the deal.

As members left the compound to surrender to police, four long-jailed MOVE members who had just been released from city prisons as an unpublicized part of the deal stood waving at them from 33rd Street and Powelton Avenue.

The concession was a victory for MOVE after the 15-month standoff.

Emboldened by their win, MOVE members reneged on their promise and refused to leave the compound on Aug. 1, 1978. Seven days later came the shoot-out in which Officer Ramp was killed.

During the 19-week trial that followed, Ramona Johnson, a Temple University student who had intended to become a lawyer, served as a liaison between the jailed MOVE members and their lawyers. She would later become Ramona Africa, a spokeswoman for the group.

On May 8, 1980, nine MOVE members were convicted of third-degree murder in Ramp's death and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in state prison.

At last, there was peace.

But in 1981, an ATF squad led by agent Walter Wasyluk arrested John Africa and several MOVE members, then shorn of their dreadlocks, without incident in Rochester, N.Y., where they had bought a piece of the American dream: a half-dozen properties, a luncheonette and an auto-body shop.

Earlier they had obtained property in Virginia.

Inside the Rochester Police Department building, the MOVE members resorted to their old behavior, spouting claims of police brutality and refusing to be fingerprinted in the federal bombmaking case stemming from the seizure of weapons in 1977.

Wasyluk appealed to John Africa for quiet. John Africa raised his hand in a salute, silencing his followers.

During John Africa's 10-day trial here, in which he was cleared of bomb-making charges, MOVE members filled the courtroom. After testimony one afternoon, the hall was filled with agents, attorneys and MOVE members.

I was interviewing John Africa’s sisters, LaVerne Sims and Louise James, who were also MOVE members, when I suddenly looked up and realized the agents and attorneys were gone.

I was alone in the hall with Louise and LaVerne, 16 other MOVE members and Mumia Abu-Jamal, a radio reporter for WHYY who recently had grown his hair in dreadlocks. I knew I was hated by MOVE, after being on their hit list in 1978.

They surrounded me and began pummeling me with their hands and grabbing at my notebook. I tried to shield my face and moved toward the wall, holding onto the notebook.

Abu-Jamal shouted repeatedly: "Get her! Get her! Get her!"

The MOVE members continued to hit me on the back, as I inched closer and closer to the door to the judge's chambers.

I was pounding on the door as they were hitting me. Finally, a court officer opened the door, looked around at the MOVE members and saw me and let me inside.

When I returned to the Daily News, I told managing editor Zack Stalberg what had just happened. I didn't want to stop covering the story, and I didn't care if Abu-Jamal had a different angle on a story.

But I was upset that another reporter, Abu-Jamal, would incite MOVE members to assault me.

Stalberg called WHYY to file a complaint about Abu-Jamal's behavior. Apparently, WHYY was having its own problems with him.

The next time I would hear of him was eight months later, when he was charged with fatally shooting Officer Daniel Faulkner at 13th and Locust streets. Abu-Jamal had been driving a taxi after he lost his job at WHYY.

Abu-Jamal was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. During his time on death row, he became an international cause célèbre and sought to become an honorary member of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, where I was a Local 10 vice president.

And he later tried to become an honorary member of the Communications Workers of America, with which the Guild had merged.

His attempt to boost journalism credentials through union membership failed on both counts.

As the second wave of supporters joined the MOVE cause, some were paying more attention to the "Free Mumia"campaign than they were to the nine MOVE members who had been convicted of Ramp's murder.

After his '81 bomb-making acquittal, John Africa moved into his sister Louise's home at 6221 Osage Ave., where she was caring for the MOVE children of imprisoned members.

Soon, James' home became MOVE headquarters.

John Africa, however, was becoming more irrational, and at his direction, James' son, Frank James Africa, evicted his feisty, outspoken 4-foot-10 mother from her house, chasing her down the street with a wooden club.

By then, MOVE's legal runner had changed her name to Ramona Africa and moved into the Osage Street house. Meantime, MOVE members tried various ways to spring jailed members sentenced in Ramp's killing.

Their ploys included:

  1. Sending death threats to 10 judges who had convicted MOVE members unless they reversed their convictions.

  2. Meeting with ATF agent Wasyluk in a bid to recruit him as a supporter. Instead, Wasyluk wanted to reopen an investigation into MOVE, but ATF nixed it.

  3. Meeting with various city and law-enforcement officials in a vain attempt to gain support for MOVE.

Meantime, appeals of the Ramp-related convictions reached the state Supreme Court, but the high court refused to overturn their convictions.

When direct pressure on authorities failed, MOVE began building a rooftop bunker, arming themselves and returning to a tactic that had been successful in the past: harassing their neighbors so they would pressure the city.