Nobody was Supposed to Survive
by Alice Walker
from Living by the Word, London: Women's Press (1988), 155-7, 159-60.
[More on MOVE]
'Nobody was supposed to survive.' - Ramona Africa (New York Times, 7 January 1986)
Police Drop Bomb on Radicals' Home in Philadelphia
- New York Times 14may85
I was in Paris in mid-May of 1985 when I heard the news about MOVE. My traveling companion read aloud the item in the newspaper that described the assault on a house on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia occupied by a group of 'radical, black, back-to-nature' revolutionaries that local authorities had been 'battling' for over a decade. As he read the article detailing the attack that led, eventually, to the actual bombing of the house (with military bombing material supplied to local police by the FBI) and the deaths of at least eleven people, many of them women, five of them children, our mutual feeling was of horror, followed immediately by anger and grief. Grief: that feeling of unassuageable sadness and rage that makes the heart feel naked to the elements, clawed by talons of ice. For, even knowing nothing of MOVE (short for Movement, which a revolution assumes) and little of the 'City of Brotherly Love', Philadelphia, we recognized the heartlessness of the crime, and realized that for the local authorities to go after eleven people, five of them children, with the kind of viciousness and force usually reserved for war, what they were trying to kill had to be more than the human beings involved; it had to be a spirit, an idea. But what spirit? What idea?
There was only one adult survivor of the massacre: a young black woman named Ramona Africa. She suffered serious burns over much of her body (and would claim, later in court, as she sustained her own defense: 'I am guilty of nothing but hiding in the basement trying to protect myself and ... MOVE children'). The bombing of the MOVE house ignited a fire that roared through the black, middle-class neighborhood, totally destroying more than sixty houses and leaving 250 people homeless.
There we stood on a street corner in Paris, reading between the lines. It seems MOVE people never combed their hair, but wore it in long 'ropes' that people assumed were unclean. Since this is also how we wear out hair, we recognized this 'weird' style: dreadlocks. The style of the ancients: Ethiopians and Egyptians. Easily washed, quickly dried - a true wash-and-wear style for black people (and adventuresome whites) and painless, which is no doubt why MOVE people chose it for their children. And "for themselves: 'Why suffer for cosmetic reasons?' they must have asked.
It appeared that the MOVE people were vegetarians and ate their food raw because they believed raw food healthier for the body and the soul. They believed in letting orange peels, banana peels, and other organic refuse 'cycle' back into the earth. Composting? They did not believe in embalming dead people or burying them in caskets. They thought they should be allowed to 'cycle' back to the earth, too. They loved dogs (their leader, John Africa, was called 'The Dog Man' because he cared for so many) and never killed animals of any kind, not even rats (which infuriated their neighbors), because they believed in the sanctity of all life.
Further: They refused to send their children to school, fearing drugs and an indoctrination into the sickness of American life. They taught them to enjoy 'natural' games, in the belief that games based on such figures as Darth Vader caused 'distortions' in the personalities of the young that inhibited healthy, spontaneous expression. They exercised religiously, running miles every day with their dogs, rarely had sit-down dinners, ate out of big sacks of food whenever they were hungry, owned no furniture except a few pieces they'd found on the street, and refused to let their children wear diapers because of the belief that a free bottom is healthier. They abhorred the use of plastic. They enjoyed, apparently, the use of verbal profanity, which they claimed lost any degree of profanity when placed next to atomic or nuclear weapons of any sort, which they considered really profane. They hated the police, who they claimed harassed them relentlessly (a shoot-out with police in 1978 resulted in the death of one officer and the imprisonment of several MOVE people). They occasionally self-righteously and disruptively harangued their neighbors, using bullhorns. They taught anyone who would listen that the US political and social system is corrupt to the core - and tried to be, themselves, a different tribe within it....
... the city officials and MOVE neighbors appeared to have one thing in common: a hatred of the way MOVE people chose to live. They didn't like the 'stench' of people who refused, because they believe chemicals cause cancer, to use deodorant; didn't like orange peels and watermelon rinds on the ground; didn't like all those 'naked' children running around with all that uncombed hair. They didn't appreciate the dogs and the rats. They thought the children should be in school and that the adults and children should eat cooked food; everybody should eat meat. They probably thought it low class that in order to make money MOVE people washed cars and shoveled snow. And appeared to enjoy it.
MOVE people were not middle class. Many of them were high-school dropouts. Many of them were mothers without husbands. Or young men who refused any inducement to 'fit in'. Yet they had the nerve to critique the system. To reject it and to set up, in place of its rules, guidelines for living that reflected their own beliefs.
The people of MOVE are proof that poor people, not just upper- and middle-class whites and blacks who become hippies, are capable of intelligently perceiving and analyzing American life, politically and socially, and of devising and attempting to follow a different - and, to them, better - way. But because they are poor and black, this is not acceptable behavior to middle-class whites and blacks who think all poor black people should be happy with jherri curls, mindless (and lying) TV shows, and Kentucky fried chicken.
This is not to condone the yelping of fifty to sixty dogs in the middle of the night, dogs MOVE people rescued from the streets (and probable subsequent torture in 'scientific' laboratories), fed, and permitted to sleep in their house. Nor to condone the bullhorn they used to air their neighbors' 'backwardness' or political transgressions, as apparently they had a bad habit of doing. From what I read, MOVE people were more fanatical than the average neighbors. I probably would not have been able to live next door to them for a day.
The question is: Did they deserve the harassment, abuse, and, finally, the vicious death other people's intolerance of their life style brought upon them?
Every bomb ever made falls on all of us.
And the answer is: No.