Move 9 women freed after 40 years in jail over Philadelphia police siege

Ed Pilkington in New York

The last two women belonging to the Move 9, a group of black radicals in Philadelphia who were rounded up in a police siege in 1978 and collectively convicted of killing an officer, have been released from prison after serving more than 40 years for a crime they say they did not commit.

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Janine Phillips Africa, 63, and Janet Holloway Africa, 68, were released from SCI Cambridge Springs in Pennsylvania on Saturday morning, after a long struggle to secure parole.

They are the second and third of four female members of the Move 9 to be allowed out on parole in the past year, signaling a willingness on the part of the authorities to offer the group a second chance after more than four decades of incarceration.

Last June, Debbie Sims Africa, who gave birth to her son Michael Davis Jr in a prison cell, was also released on parole. A fourth woman, Merle Austin Africa, died in prison in March 1998.

Of the men, three remain in prison: Eddie Goodman Africa, who has recently gone before a parole panel and is awaiting an outcome, and Chuck Sims Africa and Delbert Orr Africa. Michael Davis Africa Sr, the father of the boy born in a cell and husband of Debbie, was released in October. Phil Africa died in prison in January 2015.

The attorney for the two released women, Brad Thomson of People’s Law Office, said their parole was a victory not only for them and their loved ones but also for the Move organization and the “movement to free all political prisoners”. He pointed out that prison staff had described them as model prisoners and that neither of them has had a single disciplinary incident in over 20 years.

“While in prison, they have participated in community fundraisers, and social programs, including training service dogs. They are remarkable women to deserve to be free,” Thomson said.

The saga of the Move organization was one of the most dramatic and surreal of the 1970s black liberation struggle. Along with their peers, they lived in a communal house in Philadelphia under the leadership of founder John Africa, AKA Vincent Leaphart. All members took the last name “Africa” to show they considered themselves a family.

A cross between the Black Panthers and west coast hippies, Move campaigned not only for equal treatment for African Americans but also for respect for animals and nature, caring for 48 stray dogs in the house.

Janine Phillips Africa, whom the Guardian corresponded with from her prison cell.

Janine Phillips Africa, whom the Guardian corresponded with from her prison cell. Photograph: Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images

Such unconventional attitudes brought them into conflict with neighbors and the Philadelphia police, a notoriously brutal force even by American standards. After a siege lasting several months, on 8 August 1978 officers went in to clear the group from the property and, in the melee, police officer James Ramp was shot and killed with a single bullet.

Despite the single shooter, and despite the fact that the group always protested that they were unarmed and that Ramp was killed by fire from fellow officers, the five men and four women were each sentenced to 30 years to life.

The Guardian corresponded with Janine Africa from her prison cell over two years as part of a journalistic project to chronicle the lives of 19 black radicals who then remained behind bars, having been convicted of crimes during the black liberation struggle. She described how having been arrested at the age of 22 she went on to share a cell with Janet and Debbie Africa.

After 40 years in captivity they kept their spirits up by caring for a dog kennelled in their cell which they trained to work with vulnerable individuals. They also helped younger female prisoners cope with the trauma of prison and grew vegetables in a plot in the prison grounds.

Janine wrote that one coping mechanism was to avoid birthdays, Christmas and New Year or any other events that emphasized the passage of time.

“The years are not my focus,” she wrote, “I keep my mind on my health and the things I need to do day by day.”

She also revealed to the Guardian the double tragedy of her life. Two years before the siege that led to her imprisonment, police turned up at the Move house in Powelton Village, Philadelphia and began harassing the group. A scuffle ensued and Janine was knocked over as she held her three-week-old baby, Life, in her arms.

The baby appeared to have been trampled, his skull shattered. He died later that day.

Then on 13 May 1985, by which time Janine Africa had already been in prison for seven years, she was told the terrible news that the remaining members of the Move “family” had been assaulted by police a second time. On this occasion police didn’t just go in guns blazing – they dropped an incendiary bomb from a helicopter on to the Move house.

It caused a fire that destroyed the Move house and 60 other homes in a largely African American neighborhood. Eleven Move members who were in the house burned to death. They included the group’s founder John Africa and five children, one of whom was Janine’s other son, Little Phil, aged 12.

Related: Philadelphia's Osage Avenue police bombing, 30 years on: 'This story is a parable'

In the correspondence, the Guardian asked Janine how she came to terms with having seen two children killed by police brutality.

“There are times when I think about Life and my son Phil,” she wrote, “but I don’t keep those thoughts in my mind long because they hurt. The murder of my children, my family, will always affect me, but not in a bad way. When I think about what this system has done to me and my family, it makes me even more committed to my belief.”

Janine and Janet Africa are now likely to return to live in Philadelphia. The Move organization still exists in the city, where it continues to campaign on issues of racial justice and environmental protection.

Neither Debbie nor her husband Michael Sr have had any infractions or violations under their parole terms since they were released. Once joined by their two women colleagues, they will press for the release of the three remaining members of the Move 9.