After serving 39 years and ten months, Debbie Sims Africa, 61, one of the remaining incarcerated members of the MOVE organization, known as the MOVE 9, has been released on parole.
On Wednesday, June 13, authorities notified Sims Africa of her discharge from a Pennsylvania prison located in Cambridge Springs. She was freed that following Saturday, on June 16.
Reunited with her son, Michael Davis Africa Jr., her daughter, Michele, and her grandchildren, Sims Africa was 22-years-old and 8½ months pregnant with her second child when she initially went to prison. Subsequently, her son was taken away shortly after his birth, while her daughter was just shy of turning 2-years-old when she was apprehended.
MOVE 9 lawyer, Brad Thomson, of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, expressed his thoughts on the release of Sims Africa.
“The parole board made the right decision in granting parole to Debbie, this result was long overdue, but it shows that the board has the ability to be fair and to look at the facts in a reasonable and objective manner,” Thomson said.
Sims Africa’s victory comes after much support from activists and advocacy groups around the world. Some organizations include Friends of MOVE, Workers World, the International Action Center, the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, along with an international community of MOVE sympathizers.
MOVE supporter and member of the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Orie Lummumba, has been involved in efforts to see all MOVE 9 freed. He organizes mass callings and letter-writing campaigns to the Pennsylvania Board of Probation calling for their release. Lummumba has also served as a character reference for the members.
“The amount of work done has been tremendous; being able to travel to places like South Africa and France and able to promote the case of The MOVE 9,” Lummumba proclaims, “My experience with MOVE has been the most life changing thing imagined. MOVE are some of the most genuine, warm, consistent[ly] loving people in the world.”
Sims Africa’s release is an important victory for many who claim to be unjustly incarcerated as political prisoners and for those who have received harsh sentences for their radical leaning stances.
According to Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ), there are a little over four dozen political prisoners or “prisoners of the empire.” Defined by AfGJ as “individuals who are currently incarcerated in the US, [these prisoners] are targets because of their actions threatening US imperial power… imprisoned for their political activity.” Detained persons range from political activists whose work exposed brutality and excessive force by the Rochester police department in New York, to calling for radical social change in countries such as Colombia and Honduras.
Out of the forty-plus political prisoners, 13 originate from the Black liberation movement, a crusade that was highly active from the late 60s to the early 80s. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist jailed in the 80s for allegedly killing an officer, knew the MOVE members, and is also among those believed to be imprisoned for their ideology and radical actions.
MOVE and the police
Sims Africa’s 1978 jailing was part of an ongoing, aggressive campaign by Philadelphia law enforcement targeting MOVE, a Black liberation, naturalist, and environmental justice advocacy group that originated in 1972.
From about 1974 to 1985, MOVE members engaged in a contentious back-and-forth with several District Attorney’s Offices within the city of Philadelphia, the police and local media outlets, even though they once had a year long editorial column in the Philadelphia Tribune.
Davis Africa Jr. also attributes MOVE’s conflicts with Philadelphia city officials to an escalation in negative press.
“A lot of that negative press is what led up to the things that happened to MOVE over the years,” Davis Africa Jr. said. “That negative press is what gave people the justification to spew their hatred, and their racism, and their anger.”
The confrontations with police often ended in violence, sometimes resulting in death. This was no exception for the women who endured surges in infant mortality.
Treatments inflicted by prison authorities reflected what women in MOVE experienced beforehand.
From May 1974 to November 1976, there were at least 4 attacks against mothers in the movement.
These incidents included resulting miscarriages of two pregnant MOVE women who were brutalized, arrested, and held overnight without food or water; the miscarriage of a pregnant member who was repeatedly kicked and beaten in the womb and vagina; a nine-month-pregnant woman beaten, resulting in the premature birth of a bruised baby that died minutes later; and lastly, the beating and trampling of Phillips Africa while she was holding her 3-week old baby, Life Africa, who died in her arms.
The baby’s corpse was shown by MOVE members to the press including former Philadelphia council members Jannie and Lucien Blackwell. All acts were said to have been perpetrated by Philadelphia police.
At their pinnacle of clashes with cops, eight MOVE members, including Sims Africa, were arrested after a police search and seizure at one of their communal homes in 1978, leading to a shoot-out. After bullets stopped flying, one police officer, James Ramp, was killed and 16 suffered injuries.
Though no evidence linked any MOVE members to the shooting death of Ramp or the wounded city officials, Sims Africa, Merle Austin Africa, Janet Holloway Africa, Janine Phillips Africa, William Phillips Africa, Charles Sims Africa, Michael Davis Africa Sr., Delbert Orr Africa, and Edward Goodman Africa (MOVE 9) were charge with the third-degree murder of Ramp. They were each given 30-100 years sentences.
MOVE claims that Ramp was killed by police friendly fire, adamant that they did not discharge any shots. Veteran journalist and Temple University professor, Linn Washington, tells Cohort Media that he heard, off-the-record from multiple sources in the Philadelphia Police Department and SWAT team, that Ramp was murdered by friendly fire.
Friends of MOVE associate, Bob Massey, also led an effort to file a Post-Conviction Relief Act-appeal on behalf of the MOVE 9 in 2001. He argued that the shot that killed Ramp was fired from North 33rd Street and Baring Street, by a neighbor.
Still, the group maintains their innocence.
Years after the MOVE 9 were jailed, the organization had another deadly encounter with police. This time, the fatalities were organization members.
In 1985, after a stand-off that started as a removal effort of the MOVE from their compound in working class, predominantly Black, West Philadelphia, local police dropped Tovex and a C4 bomb on a MOVE residence on Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek. Members who tried to escape were shot at by police officers, forcing them back into the burning house to die.
I want my people to be free
MOVE 9 first became eligible for parole in 2008. Austin Africa passed away in 1998 and William Phillips Africa died in 2015 before either were released. With the exception of Sims Africa, the rest remain incarcerated.
Thomson notes that MOVE’s encounters with the city of Philadelphia have been politically motivated, with the actions of the parole board following suit. He claims that the years of police assault, harassment, and arrests of MOVE members is irrelevant to their release, yet plagues their cases.
“Parole is not supposed to be a political determination, parole is supposed to be based on whether or not there’s any justification to keep that person incarcerated continually,” Thomson further explains.
Thomson and the MOVE 9’s other attorney, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh, submitted three 150 page packets, along with a 13-page memorandum to Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office on behalf of the women.
Those submissions were followed by letters of recommendation for Sims Africa, Holloway Africa, and Philips Africa from Kranser’s office.
Janet Holloway Africa and Janine Phillips Africa, went before the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole in May, the same time as Debbie, but they were denied parole. They will be eligible for consideration in May 2019.
“[Holloway Africa and Philips Africa’s] records are virtually identical…Debbie was involved in the same programs and activities that Janet and Janine had been involved in,” Thomas emphasizes,“The facts in all three of these cases, and the other members of the MOVE 9, show that there’s no rational justification to keep any of them incarcerated.”
The four remaining men, Charles Sims Africa, Michael Davis Africa Sr., Delbert Orr Africa, and Edward Goodman Africa, will be appearing before the parole board later this year, starting with Davis Africa in September.
Thomson believes that justice can be served with four members awaiting their hearing. “I am confident that if the board looks at the facts and the institutional records of the other members of the MOVE 9 and analyzes them with an objective and fair analysis, that they will come to the conclusion that they came to regarding Debbie: that they are all excellent candidates for parole,” said Thomson at Faith Immanuel Lutheran Church in East Lansdowne on Tuesday, June 19. with Sims Africa and her son.
During the brief outing, Davis Africa Jr. relayed communication from Holloway Africa and Philips Africa through a letter written by the former earlier this year.
“Things went so smoothly with Debbie leaving,” Davis Africa, Sr. read, “Everybody here, especially the lifers and long-termers, are uplifted and motivated by Debbie leaving.”
“We could see things moving into place, all we’ve got to do is stay strong and move along with the flow,” the letter further stated. “Tell my sister I love and miss her a whole lot; tell her that she took a piece of our heart when she left, but it balances out because she left a piece of hers with us.”
Thomson says that the remaining incarcerated MOVE 9, have all met parole requirements like Sims Africa. As well, they have the support of numerous corrections officials, some of who are now retired, along with community and family support networks that entail plans for housing and jobs. Thomson, reassures that they are more than fit to re-enter society.
Aluta continua in a renewed life.
Now that Sims Africa is free, she in the process of learning how to use a cellphone and has expressed marvel towards functional, flushing toilets. Many people incarcerated for decades must acclimate quickly in a society rapidly changing with technology.
“To a large extent, many of the 6,000 released [annually from prison] will have to “re-learn” society,” says Rolanda West, a re-entry expert and professor in the Justice Studies Department at Northeastern Illinois University.
She continues, “Time must be given to the returning citizen to heal before returning to the community. Workforce and educational programs must be put into place, as well mental health and wellness initiatives that allow the returning citizen to cope with the life changes that he or she had to endure including the loss of freedom, family, and ability to be self-sustaining.”
As for Sims Africa, she wants to move forward with her life and work onthe release of the remaining MOVE 9. The separation from her son shortly after conceiving him, while incarcerated, was traumatic. She emotionally describes,“It is quite an adjustment, but because I have such a wonderful, great support group, they have just really helped me through it,” Sims Africa said. “The most important thing is that I am ecstatic, especially that I’m with my son; and I have a daughter who was two years old at the time this all happened.”
Like Thomson, Davis Africa Jr. points to his mother’s activism, and that of others as the deterrent to release other MOVE members who have a stellar record.
“Our belief is life; our belief is clean water, clean air, clean soil; we have this belief of life,” Davis Africa Jr. said. “These industries…we talked about [and because our voices] we were targeted very forcefully.”
Headline photo: Debbie Sims Africa at public appearance says, “I’ve been in prison almost forty years,” said Debbie Sims Africa at a June 19 press conference, adding: “I still don’t think I’ve actually caught up with my feelings.” (Photo: Joe Piette)