Nineteen years ago today, John Gilbride was murdered. Sometime around 11 pm on September 26th, 2002 John pulled into the parking spot in front of his apartment in the Ryans Run apartment complex in Maple Shade, New Jersey. The rain was falling hard and he'd just finished a long day working at the Philadelphia airport. Before he could even turn off the engine or take off his seat belt he was shot multiple times in his face and chest at point-blank range with what was likely a semi-automatic with a silencer. For 19 years his family has waited for justice.
Earlier this week, on September 20th, Charles Sims, known for most of his life as Chuck Africa, passed away after a long struggle with cancer. Chuck was released from prison in 2020 after serving over 41 years in prison for the death of police officer James Ramp and the wounding of other police and firefighters during the confrontation between MOVE and police on August 8th, 1978. MOVE was founded only 6 years earlier in 1972 by Chuck's uncle, Vincent Leaphart. Chuck was only 12 years old when he became involved with MOVE.
Yesterday, Mike Africa Jr. and Mike and Debbie Davis (formerly Debbie Africa and Mike Africa Sr.) renounced MOVE in an article in the Guardian titled "Disenchanted Move members have quit the Black liberation group." All three former MOVE members acknowledge that cult dynamics within MOVE extend all the way back to the leadership of John Africa/Vincent Leaphart.
Up until the publication of the Guardian article I planned to write a post exclusively dedicated to John Gilbride on this 19th anniversary of his murder. I'm a bit conflicted because I regret that his life, and who he was as an individual, are so often overshadowed by his time in MOVE and the circumstances of his murder. However, I'm committed to raising awareness about the circumstances that led to his murder, and feel that justice for John is inextricably linked with the subject of the article in the Guardian. For this reason, I've decided to dedicate this post to delving more deeply into my thoughts on the history of MOVE than I have in previous writings in the interest of trying to allow for as much reconciliation and redemption as is possible after so much tragedy. In the future, I hope to dedicate more time to writing specifically about John Gilbride as an individual and the tremendous loss that was suffered when his life was stolen 19 years ago.
When I left MOVE intellectually in 2007 I immediately began researching the history of MOVE in order to understand what I had become involved in. I became a devout MOVE supporter in my teens and up until 2007, I had mostly only read MOVE-approved versions of MOVE's history.
When my wife, Maiga, and I began communicating with June, Josh, and Whit in March of 2021 about the abuse they had suffered in MOVE I was shocked by what they had experienced. Their testimonies fit in with patterns that had been mentioned in documents and newspaper articles I'd read but had hoped were exaggerations. Since March I've been digging much more deeply and have also been able to access primary source MOVE documents, many of which had never previously been viewed outside of the inner circle of the group. I'll be linking to a few of them here and will be posting many more of them to this blog in the future.
Understanding MOVE in this new context provides insight into why so much tragedy has followed in MOVE's wake. Hopefully, it will help those of us who dedicated so much of our lives to heal and to speak honestly about the tragedies that are still open wounds.
My understanding is that the persona of John Africa was a co-creation of Vincent Leaphart and Donald Glassey when they founded MOVE in 1972. John Africa was a romanticized and caricatured version of Vincent Leaphart that took on a life of its own. As Glassey and Leaphart discussed and created MOVE's philosophy, the John Africa character took on increasingly mythic proportions until, eventually, John Africa and God were synonymous.
In the beginning, MOVE shared many similarities with other radical organizations emerging at that time, but the religious nature of MOVE added a dimension that made them unorthodox, even amongst radical organizations of the early '70s. While MOVE's position has always been that Vincent Leaphart was all-knowing and that the strategy and philosophy of John Africa were always known by Leaphart, I believe that Leaphart and Glassey were making it up on the fly. When Leaphart, in his early 40s, began sending teenagers and people in their early-20s out to protest against the school boards, zoos, and leftist public intellectuals, I believe that he enjoyed and became addicted to the power that he felt in being obeyed in this way.
As John Africa's/Leaphart's character received more religious devotion and loyalty he began to fully believe in his own mythology and became confident that MOVE could indeed defeat the system. Leaphart's conception of the system, however, was quite different than that of most revolutionary organizations. According to Leaphart, the system was everything humanity did that went against the natural world. This included cooking food, wearing clothes, and even speaking human languages. Leaphart's goal was not to overthrow the US government but to permanently destroy civilization and take humanity back to a state before our Homo Erectus ancestors harnessed fire, over a million years ago. Leaphart believed that the system was so evil that anything he needed to do to destroy it, including and especially lying, was morally justified.
From 1972 to 1975 MOVE mainly held demonstrations, had conflicts with their Powelton Village neighbors, and spread the teachings of John Africa. The 1976 death of Life Africa is a turning point in MOVE's history as it provided justification for MOVE's increasing militancy. The death of Life Africa is an incredibly difficult subject but I've chosen to include it here because of the way that MOVE used the death of Life as a mandate to intensify their confrontation with police. Questioning MOVE's version of events is in no way intended to endorse Rizzo's police force, which was as racist and brutal as MOVE has claimed. This is a case of MOVE taking a just cause-protesting police brutality- and exploiting it to advance an agenda that has everything to do with the whims of Vincent Leaphart and little to do with the cause.
MOVE's claim has always been that three-week-old Life was murdered by police when police attacked MOVE members in front of MOVE headquarters. Life's mother, Janine Africa was knocked to the ground, and MOVE claims that police stomped on Life Africa, killing him. However, other stories about what happened to Life have always circulated within MOVE. In the interview that former MOVE member Valerie Brown gave in May of 1985, she stated that Life died of natural causes, and likely wouldn't have died had MOVE sought medical help. Instead, MOVE staged a confrontation with police and accused police of the murder of Life Africa in order to escalate tensions and advance their revolutionary platform.
This is a pattern that continues throughout MOVE's history. I'm painting in very broad brush strokes here, and as this project continues I plan to post and analyze more documents. However, for the purposes of this post, I'll say that I believe that the events in MOVE's history that followed the death of Life Africa happened exactly as Vincent Leaphart intended them to happen. The intended result of the August 8th, 1978 confrontation was for MOVE members to go to prison for as long as possible and become martyrs for a cause that MOVE could mobilize others to rally around. There are many reasons to believe this, but one of the simplest is that Leaphart instructed the MOVE 9 to request a bench trial instead of a jury trial, nearly guaranteeing their conviction and the longest sentence possible. At this point, it has been publicly acknowledged by many MOVE members, including Mike Africa Jr., that current MOVE leaders, Ria and Bert, never intended for the MOVE 9 to be released from prison. I don't believe that Vincent Leaphart ever intended for them to come home either.
The actions of MOVE members in this period cannot be understood without factoring in the messianic nature of the group, the true belief of MOVE members that John Africa was God, and that he had the power to overthrow the system and restore humanity to an Edenic state. Following the 1978 confrontation, Vincent Leaphart was put on trial in the Federal courts in a 1981 trial which MOVE refers to as "John Africa versus the System." The fact that Leaphart beat Federal authorities on bombmaking, weapons running, and conspiracy charges that would have landed him in prison for the rest of his life still seems nothing short of miraculous. This victory only increased MOVE members' faith in him and his own faith in his plan to overthrow the system.
The absolute tragedy of the bombing of Osage Avenue and the deaths of the 11 people who perished in 6221 Osage Ave. is difficult to write about for a number of reasons. In speaking honestly about how I feel about the events of that day it's important to note that nothing I say about MOVE or about the intentions of Vincent Leaphart excuse police violence or the racism that is rampant in policing and the criminal justice system. However, I feel that for Zanetta, Katricia, Tomasso, Phil, and Delicia's (the children who were killed on Osage Ave.) lives to be honored we have to acknowledge that they were prisoners of MOVE and not MOVE members. Whit Sims was a child on Osage Ave. and has already spoken publicly about what it was like living in the basement of that house under the tyrrany of Vincent Leaphart.
I firmly believe that Leaphart intended for every person inside of the house to perish on that day. By dropping the bomb the police were merely playing into his hand. This may seem far-fetched, but Leaphart believed that if he could get the police to kill MOVE people in front of the whole world, that it would trigger a global revolution, and that the remaining MOVE members would act as a vanguard to overthrow civilization itself. I'll be developing this idea more in the future. For now, I'll post two documents that I don't believe have previously been publicly available. This first document is a MOVE letter to the Osage residents from May of 1985 and explicitly states that MOVE planned to force the police to kill them. The second document was not passed out on Osage Ave in the weeks leading up to the bombing, like the previous document. This document is a MOVE letter about one of their hunger strikes. The letter explains MOVE's strategy to speed up their own deaths during hunger strikes in order to lay those deaths at the feet of the system. The two letters together show MOVE's pattern of creating tragedies to later exploit for greater credibility and justification for future actions.
The tragedy of May 13th, 1985, and the death of John Africa left a power vacuum within MOVE that Leaphart's wife Alberta was eager to fill when she came home from prison in 1988. However, Alberta had two things that Leaphart didn't: the political mandate that MOVE was afforded due to May 13th and millions of dollars. As MOVE's new leader, Alberta was able to absorb much of the reverence and loyalty that had previously only been afforded to Leaphart. All of the parents who lost children on May 13th were incarcerated. When they won millions of dollars in a civil suit against the city Alberta was happy to take control of the trust to spend as she saw fit.
This is the context in which June, Josh, Rain, Sara, Salina, and Maria were born (Whit was born under the leadership of Leaphart). This is also the context that John Gilbride was entering into when he became obsessed with MOVE as a teenager, and when he married Alberta in 1990.
There are some encouraging aspects to the recent article in the Guardian. It's hopeful to me that Mike and Debbie Davis, and Mike Africa Jr. have publicly acknowledged that MOVE has always had cult tendencies (I would say that MOVE has always been a cult, but I'm trying not to put words into their mouths). However, there is so much that the article still gets wrong. For one, MOVE has never been a Black Liberation group. However, what I find most disconcerting is the downplaying of the testimonies of abuse by MOVE leadership and the near erasure of John Gilbride from the story.
The article makes it seem as though the worst thing that happened within MOVE is that teenage girls (or 12-year-old girls in June's case) were forced to have sex, become pregnant, and give birth to children that MOVE leadership would have control over. This would be horrific enough but is far from the extent of the abuse. Josh has stated that young men in MOVE were forced to go to sex workers starting in their early teens in order to prove that they were not gay (homophobia is rampant in John Africa's teachings). The survivors have also stated that MOVE children are taught to perform sex acts on one another, starting as early as three or four years old and that the word for this within MOVE is "mooching." They have stated that MOVE leadership psychologically tortured them and that Alberta threatened to have June killed on many occasions, starting when she was only 13.
The fact that Ed Pilkington of the Guardian references this blog as documenting the stories of the survivors of MOVE, but never bothered to reach out to me, June, Whit, Josh, Salina, Sara, Rain, or Maria is disconcerting, to say the least. The near-erasure of John Gilbride from the story is equally troubling. People continue to try to remove the murder of John Gilbride from MOVE's story, but it can't be done if you want to tell the story honestly. Mike Africa Jr. knew John well and, like me, participated heavily in the campaign against John and his family. Mike and Debbie both participated in the campaign against John from prison and I would hope that they have deep regrets about that. It's important that those regrets be publicly stated and accounted for.
When we released the first "Leaving MOVE Group Statement" on July 2nd, 2021 we made the following requests:
We’re also asking other current and former MOVE members to speak out about the real history of MOVE in order to protect June, Josh, Whit, and many others who have suffered as a result of being born into MOVE. We recognize that many MOVE members will be uncomfortable with inner circle knowledge being revealed publicly. However, continuing to promote the romanticized past of MOVE creates the conditions that allow for the ongoing suffering of many who were born into MOVE, as well as other victims of MOVE such as the Gilbride family.
We are calling on MOVE members of good conscience to begin to tell the truth about MOVE history, including the events that led up to the 1978 and 1985 confrontations, the treatment of children, and any information related to the harassment and/or murder of John Gilbride.