MOVE is a black liberation group founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) in 1972 and Donald Glassey, a social worker from the University of Pennsylvania. The name is not an acronym. The group lived in a communal setting in West Philadelphia, abiding by philosophies of anarcho-primitivism. The group combined revolutionary ideology, similar to that of the Black Panthers, with work for animal rights.
The group is particularly known for two major conflicts with the Philadelphia Police Department. In 1978, a standoff resulted in the death of one police officer, injuries to several other people, and life sentences for nine members who were convicted of killing the officer. In 1985, another confrontation ended when a police helicopter dropped a bomb on the MOVE compound, a row house in the middle of the 6200 block of Osage Avenue. The resulting fire killed eleven MOVE members, including five children, and destroyed 65 houses in the neighborhood. The survivors later filed a civil suit against the city and the police department, and were awarded $1.5 million in a 1996 settlement.
The group's name, MOVE, is not an acronym. Its name was chosen by John Africa to say what they intended to do. Members intend to be active because they say, "Everything that's alive moves. If it didn't, it would be stagnant, dead." When members greet each other they say "On the MOVE".
The group was originally called the Christian Movement for Life when it was founded in 1972. Its founder, John Africa, was functionally illiterate. He had dictated his thoughts to Donald Glassey, a social worker from the University of Pennsylvania, and created what he called "The Guidelines" as the basis of the communal group. Africa and his contemporary, mostly African-American followers wore their hair in dreadlocks, as popularized by the Caribbean Rastafari movement. MOVE advocated a radical form of green politics and a return to a hunter-gatherer society, while stating their opposition to science, medicine, and technology.
They identify as deeply religious and advocate for life. MOVE members believe that as all living beings are dependent, their lives should be treated in equal importance. They advocate for justice that is not always based within the institutions. MOVE believes in order for something to be just, it must be just for all living creatures. As John Africa had done, his followers changed their surnames to Africa to show reverence to what they regarded as their mother continent.
In a 2018 article about the group, Ed Pilkington of The Guardian describes their political views as "a strange fusion of black power and flower power. The group that formed in the early 1970s melded the revolutionary ideology of the Black Panthers with the nature- and animal-loving communalism of 1960s hippies. You might characterise them as black liberationists-cum-eco warriors." He noted the group also functioned as an animal rights advocacy organization.
He quoted member Janine Africa, who wrote to him from prison: “We demonstrated against puppy mills, zoos, circuses, any form of enslavement of animals. We demonstrated against Three Mile Island and industrial pollution. We demonstrated against police brutality. And we did so uncompromisingly. Slavery never ended, it was just disguised.”
John Africa and the MOVE members lived in a commune in a house owned by Glassey in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. As activists, they staged bullhorn-amplified, profanity-laced demonstrations against institutions that they opposed, such as zoos (MOVE had strong views on animal rights), and speakers whose views they opposed. MOVE activities were scrutinized by law enforcement authorities, particularly under the administration of Mayor Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner known for his hard line against activist groups.
In 1981 MOVE relocated to a row house at 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia. Neighbors complained to the city for years about trash around their building, confrontations with neighbors, and that MOVE members were broadcasting sometimes obscene political messages by bullhorn. The bullhorn was broken and inoperable for the three weeks prior to the police bombing of the row house.
The police obtained arrest warrants in 1985 charging four MOVE occupants with crimes including parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terrorist threats. Mayor Wilson Goode and police commissioner Gregore J. Sambor classified MOVE as a terrorist organization. Residents of the area were evacuated from the neighborhood. They were told that they would be able to return to their homes after a twenty-four hour period.
On Monday, May 13, 1985, nearly 500 police officers, along with city manager Leo Brooks, arrived in force and attempted to clear the building and execute the arrest warrants. Water and electricity was shut off in order to force MOVE members out of the house. Commissioner Sambor read a long speech addressed to MOVE members that started with, "Attention MOVE... this is America". When the MOVE members did not respond, the police decided to forcefully remove the members from the house.
There was an armed standoff with police, who lobbed tear gas canisters at the building. The MOVE members fired at them and a gunfight with semi-automatic and automatic firearms ensued. Police went through over ten thousand rounds of ammunition before Commissioner Sambor ordered that the compound be bombed. From a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter, Philadelphia Police Department Lt. Frank Powell proceeded to drop two one-pound bombs (which the police referred to as "entry devices") made of FBI-supplied water gel explosive, a dynamite substitute, targeting a fortified, bunker-like cubicle on the roof of the house.
The resulting explosions ignited a fire from fuel for a gasoline-powered generator in the rooftop bunker; it spread and eventually destroyed approximately 65 nearby houses. Despite the earlier drenching of the building by firefighters, officials said they feared that MOVE would shoot at the firefighters.
Mayor Wilson Goode later testified at a 1996 trial that he had ordered the fire to be put out after the bunker had burned. Police Commissioner Sambor said he received the order, but the fire commissioner testified that he did not receive the order. Eleven people (John Africa, five other adults, and five children aged 7 to 13) died in the resulting fire. Ramona Africa, one of the two MOVE survivors from the house, said that police fired at those trying to escape.