Fire on Osage Avenue, May 1985: Sorrow for Wilson Goode, justice for nine others.
A tale of two bullets, and one blaze: Justice in Dallas, justice for MOVE
Once upon a time there were two magic bullets. One of them, it is said, killed a president. Fired from an antiquated Italian carbine of World War II vintage, it supposedly penetrated the neck of John F. Kennedy to the right of the spine, exiting below the Adam’s apple and proceeding, like a heat-seeking missile, to enter beneath and behind the right armpit of his traveling companion, Texas Governor John Connally, shattering four inches of rib before exiting below the latter’s right nipple, passing through his right wrist and lodging two inches deep in his left thigh, whence it would be recovered, according to legend, in virtually pristine condition.
The legend’s author, Arlen Specter, is still, 46 years later, holding and seeking public office. A wondrous world we live in.
The second bullet possessed no less magical properties. It was the one that killed police officer James Ramp in the shootout at the MOVE compound in West Philadelphia on August 8, 1978. Apparently it was fired from nine guns at once, because nine individuals were found guilty of firing by Common Pleas Judge Edwin Malmed, who sentenced all nine of them to prison terms of 30 to 100 years each.
Actually, the bullet was originally attributed to no fewer than 12 guns, but the murder charges were dropped against two MOVE members after they agreed to disavow their affiliation with MOVE, and a third at first charged couldn’t be conclusively identified as a MOVE member.
Judge Malmed’s rationale
Of course, the fatal bullet could have come from hundreds of guns, since that many armed police had converged on the compound and no single source or trajectory for the bullet was ever established.
When asked on a radio interview about condemning and sentencing nine people for a crime that couldn’t be forensically imputed to any one of them, and of which eight at least were by the laws of physics necessarily innocent, Judge Malmed replied, “They called themselves a family. I sentenced them as a family.”
The Nazis used to go in for that kind of thing. Kill one of theirs, they’d take revenge on ten of yours, or a hundred.
Actually, the Nazis were fairer. The odds seem better than even that Officer Ramp was killed by friendly fire, given the number of guns in play.
No matter. If you belonged to MOVE that day, you were guilty of murder. But just as magically, if you renounced MOVE, your guilt was removed.
The MOVE Nine were sentenced for one crime, and one alone: For calling themselves a family.
Thirty-one years have gone by since the MOVE Nine were sentenced. Eight have served their minimum sentence; one, Merle Austin Africa, died in prison in 2000. The eight survivors remain imprisoned.
Thirty-one years down. Only 69 to go.
Still in court
This week marked the 25th anniversary of the infamous bombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue that left 11 dead, five of them children, and burned two city blocks. MOVE survivors and their attorney, Leon Williams, appeared in court to file civil criminal complaints against former mayor Wilson Goode and ten other officials. It isn’t the first time they’ve done it, and it very likely won’t be the last.
The current district attorney, Seth Williams, thinks that justice can still get two bites at the apple in the case of William Barnes, who after spending nearly a lifetime in prison is being retried because a cop he shot in 1966 died in 2007. But Williams has shown no interest to date in what happened on Osage Avenue in 1985, for which only MOVE survivors were prosecuted.
When civilians shoot cops in Philadelphia, time is never served. When state agents kill citizens, no harm and no foul.
Ramona Africa, one of the two Osage Avenue survivors, addressed the issue of trauma at the May 12 MOVE press conference at the Friends’ Center on Cherry Street. “People ask me if I have nightmares,” she said. “I don’t have nightmares. . . . Have any of you looked at Wilson Goode lately?”
Goode gets religion
Mayor Goode, also reflecting on the bombing’s anniversary, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I view it as an aberration in my life. I don’t view it as part of a continuum in my life… You don’t let enemies or anyone define you by it.”
Mayor Goode is said to have gotten religion after leaving office, something probably every departing Philadelphia mayor should consider. He earned a degree in divinity and for a while pastored souls. Apparently, no one ever tended to his. The first thing a Christian is called upon to do is repent.
MOVE cannot be separated from the race war of the 1960s, when entire cities burned, nor from the repressive regime of Mayor Frank Rizzo in the 1970s. If MOVE offered provocation, it never resorted to violence except in self-defense.
The math is still clear: one police officer killed, nine life sentences; 11 men, women, and children killed, no indictment ever issued.
Ramona Africa up close
I’ve come to know Ramona Africa fairly well. She is an impressive, self-possessed and remarkably eloquent woman. She speaks with quiet force, and without rancor. Over the years she has become a kind of civic icon, an image of a city in quest of justice, of its own lost soul.
Ramona says she isn’t interested in revenge. There was sorrow in her voice when she spoke of Wilson Goode, sorrow not merely about him but for him, the man who by his own admission has never spoken of Osage Avenue with his wife and his now-grown children (one of whom is himself a City Councilman).
Justice isn’t about retribution. It’s about setting to rights. In the case of the MOVE Nine, it is about setting free, at long last.
Justice may wait. It sometimes sleeps. In Philadelphia, it often seems to be in a coma. But it always comes in the end. In the meantime, we all suffer from its absence.