Sunday, May 15, 2022

Historical Document: MOVE Letter alleging that MOVE's founder may have murdered three people

The pages of the letter I've posted below are from the same letter that I referenced in this previous post. The letter is long, and these are pages I have not previously released. In order to contextualize the letter, I'll quote directly from my previous post: "Written on the top-left corner of the first page is "Copy of info Bert Brought back 12/83" and in the top-right corner, it's dated 2/84. In the 70s and 80s, it was common practice for a MOVE prisoner to talk to Vincent Leaphart on the phone, take notes, and then write out the notes long-form. This "information" given by Leaphart (John Africa) was passed on to another MOVE prisoner who was expected to copy it out by hand (often multiple times) and then pass it along to other members. There are thousands of pages of documents written in this way. These notes were originally taken by Alberta in December of 1983, but this particular copy was made in February of 1984."

As with most inner-circle MOVE documents, this one can be difficult to understand unless you know the multiple names of each person. In this letter, Vincent Leaphart/John Africa is referred to as "The Co.," which means "The Coordinator," and "Baul." Baul is also sometimes spelled "Ball." I've heard many stories about how he came to have this name. The most common is that Leaphart took on the name Bill when MOVE was underground in Rochester, NY and that Ria's son, Tomaso, mispronounced Bill as Ball. "Mama" is one of MOVE's words for God or Mother Nature. 

There is a lot to untangle in these pages, and at some point, I'll expand on the strange details in the first few pages. For now, however, I will focus on a section that appears in the last two pages. It's worth reading through the entire document, but for ease of reading I've typed out the section I'm referring to here:

“The Coordinator said when he was young he did everything like an animal, instinctively, he only know one way then - Mama’s way. One day he was in the park with the dogs and he seen these people fishing. It was 2 men and a woman, the Coordinator was about 11 at that time, and when he saw them people hook that fish he went off on em! He attacked em, him and the dogs, but the Coordinator did the most to them. When he got finish, all three of them people was laid out. The Coordinator just left ‘em there. He said they was most likely dead, he didn’t stay to find out. He just left em but he said they was fucked up, and all layed out like they was dead. The Coordinator at that time when he was young didn’t know nothing about why people do what they do. He ain’t know nothin about reconditioning, or this system. That’s why he attacked them three people like that. All he saw was wrong and he dealt with it, and that’s how he was until he got a little older, and something just came over him, and he just knew how he had to handle people. From then on, he understood about this system, the reconditioning in people, and what he had to do to deal with the situation, and get rid of it ultimately. But until that came over him to reveal that to him, the Coordinator was like a wild animal, and he did things like a wild animal. What we see in the Coordinator is what he allows us to see based on our understanding cause we would not relate to him otherwise.”

In the above story, an 11-year-old Vincent Leaphart stumbles upon two men and one woman fishing in Fairmount Park and is so enraged by their violation of nature that he beats them, possibly to death. For my purposes here it doesn't matter whether or not there is a shred of truth to this story, the important thing is that this is a story that is told within MOVE. Keep in mind that for the author of this letter, and for the letter's intended audience, Vincent Leaphart/John Africa is the only perfect being (more information on that here). Within MOVE, it is taught that John Africa never made a mistake. He was born as a perfect channel of Mama nature, completely in touch with his instincts, and sent by God to destroy civilization and return the planet to Edenic harmony.

The fact that this story is told within MOVE, and that many similar stories are told in a jovial and boastful fashion, demonstrates how little value is placed on human life within MOVE. The crime that the God-man, Leaphart, may have murdered three people for was attempting to catch fish. The insanity of this story is typical of the insanity and inconsistency that runs through every facet of MOVE. Contrary to MOVE's curated public image, MOVE has never been a vegan or vegetarian organization. During my 20 years around MOVE, there was never a member who was consistently a vegetarian for more than a year. Vegetarianism isn't even a goal within MOVE.

If one is going to eat fish, then what could be a less destructive, more natural way, than catching it yourself? Yet, this story was widely circulated within MOVE and no one dared to question it. This is important because it demonstrates that within MOVE, justice is whatever Vincent Leaphart said it was. That's a key to understanding how John Africa could intentionally lead his people to die in the house on Osage Avenue on May 13th, 1985, murdering Delisha, Zanetta, Katricia, Phil, and Tomaso, who were children and had no choice. During my time in MOVE, justice was whatever Alberta and Ria said it was. The murder of Alberta's ex-husband, John Gilbride, could be justified in a similar fashion.

It's been many months since I've written here, and I don't plan to resume frequent posting, but the anniversary of the May 13th bombing has caused me to think about this subject even more than usual. I'm aiming to publish a few posts in the coming weeks. In the meantime, this platform is available for guest posts from former members or close supporters of MOVE, or anyone who has been harmed by MOVE. I plan to continue to keep this blog up as a resource, and hopefully a place people will stumble upon as they research MOVE. I can always be reached at

Saturday, November 13, 2021

John Africa's desire for control, even in death (including a Historical Document)

In the last episode of Season One of "Murder at Ryan's Run," former MOVE member, Mario Hardy talks about how John Africa/Vincent Leaphart intended for everyone to die in the house on Osage Avenue on May 13th, 1985 (I also write about that here). For those unfamiliar with the psychology of cults, this may be difficult to believe. The 1983 MOVE letter that I've posted below provides supporting context demonstrating the inner dynamics of MOVE leading up to the tragedy of May 13th. It shows that the death drive that led to that tragedy was not unique to that event and that Leaphart had an almost unimaginable degree of psychological control over the adults at 6221 Osage Ave. 

Written on the top-left corner of the first page is "Copy of info Bert Brought back 12/83" and in the top-right corner, it's dated 2/84. In the 70s and 80s, it was common practice for a MOVE prisoner to talk to Vincent Leaphart on the phone, take notes, and then write out the notes long-form. This "information" given by Leaphart (John Africa) was passed on to another MOVE prisoner who was expected to copy it out by hand (often multiple times) and then pass it along to other members. There are thousands of pages of documents written in this way. These notes were originally taken by Alberta in December of 1983, but this particular copy was made in February of 1984. It's worth noting that the original recipient was Alberta, as the first section of the letter justifies violence against enemies of MOVE. 

The beginning of the letter references infamous events in MOVE's history; two occasions when MOVE's Naturalist Minister, Frank Africa, physically attacked his mother, Louise James. Frank, also known as Nick, is viewed within MOVE as the strongest and most committed MOVE member other than John Africa. He was the example that all of us, members and supporters, were told to follow. Frank was Leaphart's nephew and was known to have submitted his will to John Africa more than any other MOVE member. 

The events in question are well summarized in "Let it Burn" by Michael and Randi Boyette. In my opinion, this is the best book on the history of MOVE. I'll quote at length here:

"The violence on the street was matched by increasing violence within the home itself. One day in early December neighbors watched in alarm as Louise ran down the street chased by her son, an ax in his hands." (pg. 147)

"In a police report filed later, Louise said that John Africa had once ordered Frank to beat her after Sharon Sims, her niece, refused his order to marry Jerry Africa. She told police that one day in October (1983) Frank had seen her slip a letter into her pocket and confiscated it. John Africa had called the other MOVE members into Louise's bedroom and ordered her to read the letter out loud. It was from a MOVE member in Muncy prison, and it attacked Louise virulently. After reading a few sentences of obscenities and rants, Louise refused to go on. 

Vincent, she told police, had turned to Frank and ordered him to beat her until she started to vomit. Then Frank took a pillow and put it over her face.

"Do you want her cycled (killed)?" he asked, looking at Vincent. "No," he said. "Not this time." (pg. 148)

MOVE has always done everything they could to downplay these allegations. In a recent podcast episode, Mike Africa Jr. disingenuously characterizes the event in question as simply the result of a MOVE member with bad judgment that in no way implicated Leaphart or MOVE as a whole. Here's a quote from the letter which is posted below. In the quote Frank is called Nick (the most revered MOVE member), Lou is his mother Louise (who is also Leaphart's biological sister), and M's stands for mothers. 

  "People will say they can't do what Nick did to Lou cause they say they love they M's and cant hurt em (this is what reds and greens be sayin) but what people gotta understand is the same way they feel about they M's is the same way they feel about cooked food, that socall feelin can be compared to any distortion and it will come out as the same way they feel for they M's, and it can be proven that it (them so call feelins) aint valid just like any other distortion can be proven invalid. If people say they care about they mothers then they are sayin they cant hurt em cause they see that as wrong, so if people are sayin they cant do wrong (which is what they sayin when they say they cant hurt mothers cause they see it as wrong) If people are sayin they cant do wrong, that they concerned about right, then why do they eat cooked food, if they concerned about right they got to be concerned about health - so why do they eat cooked food - they eat cooked food for the same reason they are now sayin they love their M's - cause that is what they been TAUGHT! If they love they M's how can they turn against MOVE LAW  which is right, they gotta substantiate  that." 

If you're not used to reading MOVE documents this can be a bit difficult to understand. Essentially it's saying that MOVE members only have a problem with Frank attempting to kill his mother because they have a systematic attachment to their mothers in the same way that they have a systematic addiction to cooked food (MOVE believes humans liberated from "the system" would only eat raw food). If they were as committed to John Africa as Frank was then they would not have a problem doing what Frank did (brutally assaulted his mother based on the orders of John Africa, and stopped just short of killing her, also on John Africa's orders). Louise James’ only crime was questioning her biological brother and speaking out against her niece being forced to marry another MOVE member against her will. 

The document goes on to explain that MOVE members have no right to question Leaphart/John Africa, who throughout the rest of the document is referred to as "The Coordinator."

"You are not at liberty to question the Coordinator once you have said that MOVE Law is right. When a person says that MOVE Law is right, when they admit that and really see it, accept it, then they are not at liberty to question the Coordinator because you are contradicting yourself if you do once you have admitted that he is right. People think they have the liberty to question things based on they personality cause that is the way people are taught in this system and they used to doin it, but once you have admitted that MOVE Law is right you don't have the right to turn around and question the Coordinator"

I've written in a few places about how John Africa never intended for the MOVE 9 to get out of prison, and about how Ria and Bert continued this legacy by sabotaging the legal avenues for their release. However, this document provides the philosophical grounding, within MOVE's belief structure, for why they, and the other MOVE prisoners, should stay in prison. 

"We in jail becuz we guilty and we got to understand that, it aint got nothin to do with the courts, if the courts is decidin thing then the Coordinator would be in jail. We in jail though, cause we are not innocent, the Coordinator is innocent and thats why he aint in jail only guilty people go to jail, we are guilty and our personality is the cause of our guilt!"

According to John Africa/Leaphart, John Africa is the only person on earth who should not be in prison. He's the only person who is not guilty of "violation" (sin). In MOVE's worldview, all things are coordinated by John Africa, so if the MOVE prisoners were not meant to be in prison then they would not have been found guilty. The fact that Leaphart was found innocent at his 1981 Federal trial, despite mountains of evidence, significantly bolstered his point. 

Based on other internal documents it's clear that the psychological health of many MOVE members was severely compromised by 1983. Many who had joined in the mid-70s as idealistic young people were trapped by psychological control, prison sentences, poverty, or by their children being essentially held as hostages. It's clear that many MOVE members were desperate to find a way out of the psychological torment they were enduring. In this era Leaphart begins to focus heavily on how there's no way to escape "MOVE's work" and he repeatedly emphasizes that not even suicide gets them out of the work they've committed themselves to as MOVE members. 

"People think suicide is the solution but it aint, goin in the ground is a cop out and its a violation because suicide is goin against the Coordinator. Only the Coordinator know when we should cycle, not us, we dont have that understanding. The Coordinator is the only one who can coordinate our goin in the ground, he knows exactly when we are supposed to do that activity and to go the way of suicide is to challenge the Coordinators wisdom"

After explaining that Leaphart himself is the only person with the authority to decide when a MOVE member dies, he goes on to explain that "violators" (anyone other than Leaphart) can feel everything that happens to them after they die. His claim is that a person remains completely conscious after death and can feel everything that happens to them during an autopsy. According to Leaphart, if a body is not allowed to decompose it will be preserved in a state of pain forever, and this suffering is even greater for MOVE members who kill themselves. 

"People better realize that nothin dont stop once we go in the ground, that is not the end as this system teach, as a matter of fact it is the beginning of your most intense sufferin if you go in the ground thru suicide, you really wont even get to the ground becuz the coffin, the embalmin fluid will interfere with that you will be aware of everything happenin to you too, but there will be nothin you can do about it except just lay there and see them people, them doctors, scientist, lookin down on you talkin about doin things to you and in your mind you'll be screamin "I aint really dead!" but them maniacs wont hear you, and they will fuck you up, stagnate you, suffocate you, you will suffer, if you do your work and go in the ground when the Coordinator coordinate you to go in the ground, you will be right, and sufferin, pain does not exist in righteousness."

In closing, the letter touches on MOVE's stance on homosexuality by saying "That monster is a faggot, whenever he comes at you think of Mama, John Africa." The monster being referenced here is "personality," which is essentially any aspect of individuality, any part of the psyche that is not under the control of John Africa. 

For those who've peripherally supported MOVE the contents of this letter bear little resemblance to the MOVE that they know. However, for first-generation MOVE members, none of this is a bit surprising. Similar documents have regularly circulated amongst members throughout MOVE's history. The internal workings of MOVE are burdened with fifty years of dark secrets. That's why it's so infuriating to me that first-generation MOVE members are silent, and that those who have acknowledged the MOVE reckoning at all are only doing so in the interest of protecting themselves. 

Pam and Ramona were on Osage Avenue and knew full well that Frank was ordered by John Africa to beat his mother nearly to death. They saw how the children at Osage Avenue were treated. Carlos, Eddie, Janet, Janine, Debbie, Mike, Ria, and Bert know that the story they've told about the murder of Life Africa is a lie. They know that the entire pretext for the August 8th, 1978 confrontation was a fabrication. Ria, Alberta, and many of the other first-generation members know that what happened on May 13th of 1985 is exactly what Vincent Leaphart intended to happen, and I'm fairly certain they know exactly what happened to John Gilbride. Any first-generation MOVE member who claims they didn't know about the rampant abuse of children within MOVE is lying.

Vincent Leaphart controlled through manipulation and fear. He used children as pawns. He made his followers believe that he could even control them in death, that they would never escape. However, it's only been a few decades since his death and his entire enterprise has come apart at the seams. There are very few MOVE members left and they appear to be living in a bubble

When we launched this project in late June I hoped that at least a few first-generation members would do the right thing and speak out about what they know. I hoped that conscience would compel them to support the survivors coming forward and that they would feel a responsibility to tell the truth to the Gilbride family. That hasn't happened yet. In the meantime, there are many of us who will not allow these issues to be forgotten, who feel a responsibility to Delisha, Zanetta, Katricia, Tomasso, and Phil (the children who died on Osage Ave), to John Gilbride and his family, and to all of the second and third generation MOVE members who were denied educations, neglected, and abused. As the seams of John Africa's creation continue to tear apart hopefully some light will be let in. 

(L to R) Louise James (sister of Vincent Leaphart), Vincent Leaphart/John Africa, Frank James/Nick Africa (Louise James' son)

Friday, October 22, 2021

What the survivors of MOVE deserve

When June (formerly Pixie) and my wife, Maiga, started messaging in March, the conversation developed rapidly. It was the first time Maiga or I had been completely honest with someone in MOVE about how we’d come to view MOVE as a cult. It was also the first time June had shared many of her stories about the horrors she’d endured as a child in MOVE. When June found out that I was participating in the “Murder at Ryan’s Run” podcast she was scared for my family. She reported that, in the past few years, as Bert and Ria had lost power they were talking about M-1 more frequently, and insinuating potential violence against those whom they’d deemed traitors. 

When the MOVE 9 started coming home, power within MOVE fractured. It became obvious to many of us that Bert and Ria had never intended for the MOVE 9 to get out of prison at all. Mike Africa Jr. was pivotal in pushing for the release of the MOVE 9, and Bert and Ria turned on him and his parents for actually working towards freedom. Those within MOVE who had sympathy for Mike Jr. were seen as disloyal to Bert and Ria. The absurdity of a group who had publicly claimed to fight for the release of the MOVE 9 for four decades turning on other members for actually trying to make that happen was just too much. Fractures and distrust within MOVE became more severe and Bert and Ria were losing power and control over internal narratives. 

June worried that in this climate that Bert and Ria may respond to my speaking out with violence. I pointed out that Lori and Tony Allen had not been physically harmed when they left MOVE and started speaking out in 2004. June countered that Ria and Bert had not lost control over the group at that point. She reiterated that they’d been talking about M-1 (the underground, military faction of MOVE) with increasing frequency, that they were rapidly losing touch with reality, and were capable of absolutely anything. This was disconcerting to hear, and definitely made Maiga and I pause and evaluate the position we were taking. I felt strongly about speaking out about what I knew about the campaign of character assassination against John Gilbride that preceded his murder. I also took June’s concerns very seriously. 

The next day June let us know that she wanted to record everything she knew for the “Murder at Ryan’s Run” podcast. She decided that exposing the abuse of children within MOVE may give her the needed exposure to escape MOVE with her own children. She’d attempted to leave MOVE with her children on other occasions and Alberta had threatened her with murder if she ever tried again. She was told that she could leave, provided she never opened her mouth, but that her children belonged to MOVE. Now that June had decided to speak out our fates were intertwined and we began the process of planning the safest escape with the most possible exposure. We began reaching out to others within MOVE who might be ready to take the same steps. We had to be careful not to reveal too much, or to trust the wrong person. Such a misstep could be fatal, especially for June. Whit and Josh soon joined in on the plan and a date was set. 

The three and a half months from when Maiga and I began communicating with June until I launched this blog were the most stressful months I hope that I ever live through. They were a hundredfold more stressful for June, Josh, and Whit. I vividly remember a night in April when I was up late preparing documents for this blog. I'd also been messaging back and forth with June as she was telling me more about the specific threats Alberta had made against her. As I walked up the stairs to bed around 1 a.m. all of the power in our house went out. I had an intense panic attack and froze in place. I had difficulty breathing and tunnel vision. I feared that when I went into my basement to check the circuit breaker that I’d be shot in the head by a member of M-1 trying to prevent what June had revealed about the inner workings of MOVE from becoming public. It turned out that all of the power had gone out on our whole block. 

This may seem paranoid, but in the previous weeks I’d learned that June had been threatened with death on numerous occasions, as had other MOVE members. We were also spending a great deal of time discussing the murder of John Gilbride. June voiced concerns I’d already considered, that MOVE had contacts in law enforcement who were in cahoots in some way. To someone who buys MOVE’s official narrative of being at war with “the system” this would seem crazy, but when you understand what MOVE actually is it seems much more reasonable. When you look at the fact that MOVE has gotten away with child abuse, sex crimes, forced marriages, financial crimes, and likely a few murders its easy to believe that there might be people in law enforcement who allow this to continue. This could be because of the mandate MOVE gained as a result of the tragedy of May 13th, 1985, but June had been told for her entire life that MOVE had members of M-1 working in law enforcement who ensured that MOVE would be protected. Is there any possibility this was true, or was this just another lie told to children in MOVE to keep them from speaking about their experiences?

When information about the inner workings of MOVE started being released on the “Murder at Ryan’s Run” podcast and on this blog in late June/early July I expected it to get much more attention than it did. Considering all of the positive attention MOVE had received in mainstream media in the previous year I hoped that more journalists would take interest in the story and start digging. I felt that this would provide an added level of protection for June, Josh, and Whit, and Maria, Salina, Sara, and Rain who followed soon after. But I understand how difficult this story is to tell, and how it cuts so sharply against a narrative that would be so much more convenient, if only it were true. The survivors of MOVE, though, are owed so much more.

First, I would like more people to understand how truly incredible they are; to recognize how much they put on the line to protect their children, their younger siblings, and to heal themselves. I’ve spent 14 years studying cults, and what they’ve done just doesn’t happen. I’ve never heard of another time when people who were raised in a cult left in such a united front despite believing that they could be killed for doing so. Cults specialize in keeping people isolated and scared. The events that have occurred during this MOVE reckoning are far from the norm and will hopefully serve as an example for others leaving similar groups. 

The other thing that's so incredible about Josh, Whit, June, Maria, Sara, Salina, Rain, and many who have privately left MOVE, is how empathetic and compassionate they are despite the torture they’ve endured. The first time I talked to Josh he said that he’d be willing to do whatever he needed to do to protect June. Whit is one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever had the honor to know. All of them are brilliant, witty, strong, or courageous in their own ways. When you really understand the physical and psychological torture they’ve endured their psychological survival is miraculous, and they deserve to be celebrated for that. 

Second, I hope the journalists will do a far better job of reporting on MOVE in the future. Reporting on MOVE in the ‘70s and ‘80s was likely more accurate, but was often so infected by the racism and prejudice of its day that it played directly into MOVE’s claims about media bias. Early reporting on MOVE often discredited itself by caricaturing MOVE and glorifying the police. As the winds of public opinion have shifted, reporting on MOVE in the last year has largely painted MOVE as heroic, and many media outlets have adopted the MOVE narrative whole cloth. Neither view of MOVE is correct and both equally obscure the realities of life for children born into the group. It’s my hope that journalists, historians, and documentarians become much more careful in telling the story of MOVE, and that the experiences of children born into MOVE are always included in their narratives. 

Third, I hope that Ria and Alberta, and all of those who assisted them, will be held responsible for their crimes against the children born in MOVE, the Gilbride family, and anyone else who they’ve harmed in their desires for power and money. It’s telling that in the nearly four months since this has gone public they haven't publicly uttered a word. They’re silent in an attempt to protect themselves. Now that MOVE members are speaking out publicly they have no idea when the next shoe may drop and I’d guess they’re hoping that if they stay quiet this may all eventually blow over. 

Fourth, I hope that first generation MOVE members decide to publicly disclose what they know about the fifty years of secrets within MOVE. What’s been disclosed thus far by second and third generation MOVE members is just a small fraction of what’s been hidden. The survivors who've come forward so far have stated the following:

  • 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, Salina, Sara, Maria, Rain, 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.

This and so much more is owed to the children who were born into MOVE. They deserve to be given the truth, and the support and space to heal. I have no idea where, if anywhere, all of this will go from here. I’m grateful to have been included in this important work and plan to continue to push for support for the survivors and justice for the Gilbride family. I hope that in the coming months more of the truth will be revealed, that the action of the MOVE survivors will be given the recognition it’s due, and that their courageous example will inspire others seeking freedom from similar groups. The survivors of MOVE have demonstrated that incredible things are possible when truth and solidarity are prioritized. Now I hope that they get all that they deserve. 

Second and Third Generation children born in MOVE


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

MOVE: A Psychological Pyramid Scheme

Survivor of MOVE, Rain Robbins, started out a post on this blog by saying: "Have you ever had a conversation with God? I know people who have. I know people who stood on trial with him. He was god and Jesus all in one. The only being in this human form to truly know the will of Momma (Mother Nature and the universe). Have you ever been so close to divinity that sitting in a house in West Philadelphia reading “Guidelines” to a group of your peers rivaled listening to the Pope lead prayer in Rome’s most beautiful cathedral? Have you ever held the last true remnants of the real gospel in your hands? Words so powerful they’d bring the world to its feet? ….I have." 

In Rain's insightful and beautifully written piece she describes one of the most important factors in keeping people in MOVE long after the veneer has lost its shimmer: being in MOVE makes you feel special. On one level this is obvious, after all this is a factor in drawing people towards not just cults, but nearly every human endeavor. However, there are specific ways that special status is used as capital within MOVE that make it deserving of a closer look. It's this selling of specialness that has recently led me to start thinking about MOVE as a sort of psychological pyramid scheme. 

Of course, there are other elements of MOVE that are also similar to a pyramid scheme. Alberta Africa has managed to use the steep pyramid structure of MOVE to siphon millions of dollars from the members and supporters below her. However, unlike in a pyramid scheme, those in the lower levels aren't making any money from the people directly beneath them. For most MOVE members, involvement in MOVE makes them poorer, no matter how many supporters are under them. In this way, the structure of MOVE represents not so much a pyramid, but an oil rig, with Alberta extracting everything from those below her. 

When MOVE was founded in 1972, Vincent Leaphart (who came to be known as John Africa) and Donald Glassey created a mythos that turned Leaphart into God. The teenagers and twenty-somethings who gravitated around Leaphart, a man in his early 40s, felt that they were privileged to be in the presence of such greatness. They came to believe that Leaphart had existed before time itself, that he could speak any language he needed to, and that he was the messiah sent to return humanity to a state before civilization. John Africa was the focus of reverence and attention, extreme specialness, for every MOVE member and supporter below him on the hierarchy. 

The psychological pyramid scheme model within MOVE operates using specialness as the incentive. The price that must be paid in order to receive this specialness is intentional blindness to the hypocrisy and warning signs that are visible in the level of the pyramid directly above. Therefore, by unconsciously ignoring any problems exhibited by Leaphart, all of those under him became special by proxy, so long as no one disrupted the pattern. Each level of the MOVE pyramid was able to seem special to the rung below them, with closeness to Leaphart being the rare commodity driving the market. The levels of association with MOVE extend far out from the center, with many sympathetic academics, authors, and filmmakers depending on the romanticized image of MOVE used to support the specialness they received through association. This mutual dependence on a shared narrative kept the MOVE pyramid strong for many decades, and disincentivized people from being honest about their experiences. 

When I became obsessed with MOVE as a teenager I was awestruck when I met Pam Africa at a demonstration in Washington DC. I met Ramona Africa a few months later and felt as if I were an early Christian meeting one of the apostles. Ramona wasn't John Africa, but she was as close as I thought I would ever come to him. I moved to Philly a few days after I turned 18 and started spending more time at MOVE headquarters. As I started to get closer with Ria and Alberta I really felt like I was special. After all, according to every MOVE member I talked to, they were the strongest MOVE members. At that time I was around Pam and Ramona Africa on a daily basis and both of them told me to look to Ria and Bert as guides. If I listened to Ria and Bert I was sure to stay on course. 

Alberta had been MOVE-married to Vincent Leaphart (John Africa) and was, therefore, said to be the closest living person to him. Ria is Alberta's fiercest and most unquestioning defender. She's the only white MOVE member who remained loyal to John Africa (there were many white MOVE members in the early days) and is the obvious second-in-command. I was frequently told by Ria, and every other MOVE member, that Alberta was mentally the strongest person in the world. Despite the fact that Alberta spends the majority of her time on the couch ordering other people around, complaining, and in withdrawn depressive states, MOVE members talked about her as if she was one of the most incredible people to have ever lived. In order for MOVE's psychological pyramid scheme to continue functioning MOVE members couldn't be honest with themselves, or each other, about who Alberta really is. They'd built their own identities around the power they gained through Vincent Leaphart's specialness, the very same power from which Alberta drew her authority. 

By the time I encountered Ria and Bert I was already completely sold on the MOVE mythology. If Ria and Alberta had been my introduction to MOVE I would have never gravitated toward MOVE in the first place. However, I first encountered MOVE, not in the form of a person, but in the form of an idea. When I read Mumia Abu-Jamal's characterization of MOVE in Death Blossoms I fell in love with his image of MOVE. The first MOVE members I met, Pam, Ramona, and the Seeds of Wisdom, were close enough to the concept of MOVE that I'd fallen in love with. By the time I encountered Ria and Bert I was already so sold on MOVE and had invested so much that it made psychological sense to project greatness onto them. I integrated myself into the pyramid, working hard to rise closer to the top. 

My commitment to MOVE was externally supported by the respect that I gained from many activists for my close association with Ramona and Pam, and for being so committed to the cause. I benefitted from the mystique and romance that surrounds MOVE so long as you don't look too closely. As a white activist, my own unsophisticated idea of anti-racism was validated by being so deeply accepted in a predominantly Black "revolutionary" organization. There are many ways that white activists (like myself) have exploited their connections with MOVE for personal gain. There's a whole lot more that needs to be explored about the fact that most of the close MOVE supporters were white, and the way this white supporter network intersected with MOVE's white supremacist inner-circle beliefs. I plan to explore this more deeply in a future post. 

My support for MOVE was also externally supported by meeting people like Zack de la Rocha, Danny Glover, Michael Franti, and many more, and hearing them talk glowingly about MOVE. A few months before I moved up to Philly, Danielle Mitterrand, the former First Lady of France, had spent the day at MOVE headquarters. At the height of the Mumia movement, there was an endless amount of external support which made me (and other supporters) feel as if I was on the right track. Everyone involved in this pattern had some stake in upholding the idea that MOVE was something that it is not; a righteous, revolutionary, liberation group. 

However, there were many cracks in the veneer that I should have seen, so many signs I should have paid attention to. Cult psychology is complicated, and I was very young when I came around, so I try to cut myself a bit of a break. But it's also important that I take full responsibility for the things that I saw; the things I should have acted on but didn't. When Pixie (now June) was pregnant at the age of 12 I knew something was wrong. I was 18 at the time and I attended the forced wedding between 13-year-old Pixie and an 18-year-old man at MOVE's Kingsessing Ave. headquarters (as did doctors, psychologists, college professors, and other mandated reporters who have, unfortunately, continued to remain silent about what they knew and when they knew it). 

Until June started confiding in my wife, Maiga, and me this past March I didn't know nearly how bad things were, but I knew enough that I should have asked questions and looked more deeply. However, I'd built my entire identity around MOVE. Being in MOVE made me special, it gave my life meaning. To look at MOVE unflinchingly, to actually allow myself to see what was right in front of me, would have destroyed the image of MOVE I had invested in so deeply. 

I imagine that first-generation MOVE members went through the same process. I'm certain that all of them saw things in Leaphart that gave them pause, but they continued on. After all, if he wasn't who they claimed he was, then who were they? In a recent Guardian article, Mike Africa Sr. (now Mike Davis) talks about how he saw signs that MOVE was a cult early on, but he felt compelled to stay in MOVE so that he didn't lose his family (looking at MOVE's long history of splitting up families and stealing peoples' children this seems like a very valid concern). It seems likely that the MOVE members who lived at MOVE's Osage Avenue headquarters walked the same line. Even as it became clear that Vincent Leaphart intended for everyone in the Osage Avenue house to die MOVE members in the house continued to remain loyal to their vision of Leaphart as God (which reinforced their own ideas of themselves as direct disciples of God). 

For this reason, it seems utterly disingenuous that some first-generation MOVE members have publicly distanced themselves from Ria and Bert while feigning scandal about what has now been publicly revealed about the abuse within MOVE. For a first-generation member, it would have been impossible not to have known about the abuse and psychological torture that the survivors have revealed. I understand how psychologically difficult it is to leave a cult. I know that leaving a cult often necessitates the death of an old identity, which can feel like actual death. However, the survivors have been very clear about their desire for first-generation MOVE members to be transparent about the truth of MOVE's history. I hope that these first-generation members can eventually come to terms with MOVE's true legacy so that they can give the people who were born into MOVE (and had no choice in being MOVE members) the transparency and healing they've asked for. 

Equally disappointing to me has been the response from so many of the academics and professional activists who've built careers off of their associations with MOVE. Many of these people have spent decades around the children who were born into MOVE. I believe that some of these people genuinely care about the MOVE survivors but may be scared to speak out publicly due to the political ramifications of the MOVE reckoning. On my more cynical days, I think that it has more to do with the fact that many of them have published books, made documentaries, and written articles selling a romanticized version of MOVE that the testimonies of the survivors now render void. In the end, I think it all comes back to the specialness that MOVE sold all of us. Many still cling to the idea that what's been revealed in the last three and a half months is an anomaly in MOVE's history. Some hold on to the idea of MOVE as a liberation group. However, if one looks honestly at the testimonies and documents that have been presented on this blog, and on the Murder at Ryan's Run podcast, I don't believe that view can be maintained with any degree of intellectual honesty. 

Much of the psychological pyramid scheme that held MOVE together has already crumbled. If one is honest about MOVE's history it becomes clear that the romantic image of MOVE has always been built upon the suffering, forced silence, and death of children. I don't believe a MOVE member, MOVE supporter, or sympathizer can actually listen to the testimonies of Whit, June, Josh, Maria, Salina, Sara, and Rain and feel anything but regret about romanticizing MOVE's history (much less validating your own sense of self through association with the romanticized image). Look deeply into the events that led up to August 8th, 1978, and May 13th, 1985 and it seems clear that Vincent Leaphart was not concerned at all about the children in the basements of Powelton Village and Osage Ave.  I hope that the veneer of MOVE continues to be chipped away; that more people will distance themselves from the pyramid and tell the truth of what they know so that the survivors can get the transparency, acknowledgment, and healing that they deserve. 

The top of the pyramid: Alberta (L) and Ria (R), at Alberta's wedding to Gary Wonderlin less than two months after Alberta's ex-husband, John Gilbride, was murdered


Monday, October 11, 2021

Historical Document: MOVE Letter about John Africa from the mid-1980s

This is an internal MOVE letter written about John Africa (referred to within MOVE as "The Coordinator"). From the context of the letter, it appears to be from some time in the mid-1980s, before Vincent Leaphart/John Africa was killed on Osage Ave. in 1985. I'm posting this here to reference in a future post, but the document also stands alone. This letter highlights the way that Vincent Leaphart was viewed to have supernatural powers, to be able to have absolute knowledge of pre-historical events. Within MOVE it's believed that John Africa has always existed. At first glance, it seems as though MOVE members are using the name John Africa as another name for God in this context because they surely couldn't believe that Vincent Leaphart, who they call John Africa, has always existed. However, after spending enough time in MOVE it becomes clear that that is, in fact, what is believed. Current MOVE leaders, Alberta and Ria, have often claimed that Leaphart did not actually die on Osage Ave. on May 13th, 1985, but that he made himself invisible and walked right out of the house. 

These claims are not terribly unusual in a religious context. However, in Leaphart's case, this total devotion and veneration allowed him to experiment on children, lead many people to their deaths, justify murders, and tear apart families. My hope in posting documents like this is to provide context so that MOVE can be better understood, and that this will, hopefully, prevent destructive patterns like this from reoccurring in the future. 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Night John Was Murdered

On the night John Gilbride was murdered, September 26th, 2002, I was at a MOVE supporter meeting in a crowded room of a twin home in Pennsauken, NJ. I was living in the house, as were other MOVE supporters at the time. The home was owned by longtime MOVE supporter, Gary Wonderlin. Though these events were fully reported in last week's episode of "Murder at Ryan's Run" they feel worthy of a bit of exploration here too. 

The small room was crowded with over a dozen people and things felt tense. We were all there to strategize about how to protect MOVE in what we thought may be a confrontation similar to the one on May 13th, 1985. John was scheduled to have an unsupervised visit with Zack, his son with MOVE's leader, Alberta Africa, the next day and we knew that MOVE would not allow that to happen. The windows at MOVE's Kingsessing headquarters had been covered in slats for weeks and MOVE was ready for war. 

Many of us in the room had, unfortunately, been heavily participating in the campaign of character assassination and harrassment of John Gilbride for years. We'd been in dozens of MOVE supporter meetings together, but this one was particularly strange. For one, this is the only meeting that I can ever remember taking place at Gary Wonderlin's house in Pennsauken. Most of the MOVE supporters lived in Philly. On top of that, MOVE was preparing for a confrontation, and until this point had wanted supporters staying as close to headquarters as possible in case police tried to enter the house. For the past month I'd spent most of my time crashing at a house at 45th and Springfield in West Philadelphia so that I could get to headquarters in minutes. 

To make things stranger, this meeting had no agenda from MOVE's heirarchy, specifically Ria and Bert. MOVE is very heirarchical and, typically, if a MOVE member wasn't present at a MOVE supporter meeting we would be given specific directives from leadership on how to steer the meeting while giving the appearance of group decision making. For this particular meeting we were given no direction from Ria and Bert. However, Ria was very clear that the meeting needed to take place at Gary's house. The order was given, and most of the supporters drove over the bridge from Philly into South Jersey for this meeting with no clear purpose. 

The meeting began around 8 pm and meandered on until sometime around 10, maybe later. This would all just be a strange footnote, something I'd likely not even remember, if John hadn't been murdered four miles away roughly an hour after the meeting ended. The next morning when we heard the news of the murder some of us were so concerned by the proximity, in time and distance, of our meeting to the murder that we checked in with one another to confirm alibis. 

I was a true-believer at the time. I was so enamored with MOVE that I didn't consciously allow myself to think about the fact that Alberta very likely had John killed. It wasn't until years later, reflecting on these events, that I realized that Bert and Ria were attempting to set supporters up as suspects. The fact that we had never before had a meeting at that house, and the proximity of Gary's house to John's apartment seems far too convenient to be a coincidence. 

Until hearing last week's podcast episode I was unaware of the experience of former MOVE supporter Tony Allen dropping by MOVE's headquarters on his way to the meeting. In the weeks previous to that night MOVE members had been on watch in front of the house 24 hours a day. We've since learned from June (formerly Pixie Africa) that MOVE men were also stationed on the roof with guns. That evening Tony stopped by and found the post in the front yard abandoned. In the previous month I'd driven by MOVE headquarters dozens of times at all hours of the day (supporters were doing 24 hour driving patrols of the neighborhood) and in all that time I never saw that post abandoned, even for a minute. 

All of these aligned circumstantial pieces lead me to believe that the level of security at MOVE's Kingsessing Ave. headquarters had shifted because the leadership knew that within a few hours the custody case, and the threat of potential confrontation, would be over. We, as supporters, were moved into place as pawns, easily sacrificed in the interest of protecting the queen. 

Alberta has a history of sacrificing supporters in order to cover for actions she orchestrated. In March of 2000, while being cross-examined during a custody hearing, she was asked about a major event in the harrassment campaign against John Gilbride's parents; the fliering of their entire neighborhood with fliers making some very serious, and false, claims. I took part in this reprehensible action and know first hand, based on receiving orders from her, that Alberta organized the entire event. At trial Alberta blamed the harrasment campaign on MOVE supporter Tony Allen, and acted as if she had no control over the supporters. At that very moment there were a dozen MOVE supporters picketing in front of the courthouse at her demand. This exchange can be found on page 160 of the trial transcript. 

When Alberta insisted that Mario Hardy (formerly Mario Africa) sit next to her at the press conference in MOVE headquarters the morning after John was murdered she knew exactly what she was doing. In the previous week she'd already set Mario up in a position to be in a physical altercation with John. The altercation resulted in a police report being filed. By pulling Mario into the spotlight that morning she knew that she was putting him in  postion to be a suspect. Mario had been pushing back, trying to protect his kids from MOVE, and Alberta had the leverage to keep him in check. 

When June (formerly Pixie Africa) started opening up to my wife, Maiga, and me in March of 2021 she told us that Alberta often blamed John's murder on whichever MOVE supporter she was angry with at the time. When Tony Allen left MOVE and began challenging them publicly in 2004 Alberta would tell people that Tony had killed John. When Mario left the next year she told people at MOVE headquarters that Mario killed John. And apparently, when I began pushing back against MOVE leadership the same was said about me. 

Some have voiced concern over the desire that I, and many of the survivors, have expressed; that evidence will surface, and that Alberta and Ria will be arrested for the murder of John Gilbride, the psychological and sexual abuse of children, and a myriad of financial crimes. I understand why many in the activist circles that have gravitated to MOVE wince at that. I understand how deeply troubling the US criminal justice system is. However, many of the survivors will not feel safe as long as Alberta and Ria are free, and the Gilbride family (and many others) deserve justice. 

Some have even said that we're calling for the arrest of leaders in the Black liberation movement. This is an area that is much more clear; Alberta, Ria, and even John Africa have nothing to do with Black liberation. MOVE has nothing to do with liberation. Alberta is a fraud; a con artist who's exploited radical politics for personal gain and would not have lost a night's sleep if one of us had ended up in prison for the rest of our lives. She would have found a way to turn a profit from it, happily selling t-shirts with our faces on them, claiming to fight to free us while refusing to pay attorneys, and going on European vacations. For 33 years Alberta has run a cult that operates as a crime family and disguises itself as a liberation group. Based on what I've learned from the survivors I don't believe that Alberta has a conscience, but I'm really hoping that someone who knows something does. 

Photo of John Gilbride's car, taken on 9/27/2002, the morning after he was murdered while sitting in the driver's seat