By Jasper Saah
Forty years ago the headquarters of MOVE, a Philadelphian radical black liberation, environmentalist organization and commune, was raided by the Philadelphia Police Department. after months of harassment and tensions. MOVE is unique in the Black radical tradition: the ideology of founder John Africa infusing elements of anarchism, primitivism, and environmentalism into his theory of liberation. On August 8th, 1978, the Philadelphia Police Department raided the MOVE house after months of tension and harassment. The city and police were determined to crush MOVE, firing live rounds into the Powelton Village home and flooding it with fire hoses. PPD Officer James J. Ramp was killed in the raid by a bullet of still unknown origin, as the MOVE family was taking shelter in the basement of their home.
Nine members of the MOVE family, five men and four women, were arrested, convicted collectively, and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison each for the murder of Officer Ramp in a clearly political move. Judge Malmed, who heard the case, stated that MOVE people said that they are a family, and so he sentenced them as a family. The nine arrested activists became known as the MOVE 9, and have been routinely denied parole despite decades of good behavior. Two of the MOVE 9, Merle and Phil Africa, died while imprisoned.
Debbie Africa became the first of the MOVE 9 to be released on parole in June 2018 after spending 39 years behind bars. Pregnant at the time of the raid in August 1978, 22-year-old Debbie Africa gave birth to her son Mike while in prison. These past weeks have been the first time that Debbie and Mike have been able to be together outside of a prison visiting room, something still out of reach for the other members of the MOVE 9.
Seven years after the MOVE 9 arrest, MOVE relocated their headquarters to Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. In the infamous 1985 standoff with the PPD, the MOVE headquarters was flooded with fire hoses, shot at (with over 10,000 rounds of bullets), and ultimately firebombed from a helicopter (the only aerial bombing carried out by police on US soil). People attempting to escape the blaze were fired upon by police. Eleven were killed, including MOVE founder John Africa and five children.
Janet and Janine Africa are members of the MOVE 9 who, like Debbie, also had young children at home when they were arrested. Janet and Janine were told of their children’s’ deaths in the raid at Osage Avenue by their prison guards. The fires were left to burn and over 60 houses in this area of West Philadelphia were destroyed in the blaze leaving over 250 residents homeless with little to no support from the city in long-term rebuilding.
In the decades since the MOVE bombing, the type of state repression faced by MOVE in the 70s and 80s was enacted across the country against the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Anti-War Movement, and more. Dozens of activists from this era remain political prisoners to this day such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, and several other Black and Native American liberation activists including former Black Panthers. Last year we saw Native lawyers and protestors involved with anti-Dakota Access Pipeline actions receive inordinately harsh prison sentences for their work.
The same neighborhoods that MOVE called home in the 70s and 80s have been overrun by gentrification, which is abetted by the city’s economic policies and commitment to occupation-style policing. From stop and frisk and other routine forms of harassment to the outright murder of Black people by the police, existence for Black Americans has been criminalized while tens of thousands of working class Black and Brown families have been forced from their homes in an economic campaign to “revitalize” the inner cities. Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C., and countless other American cities have adopted this form of demographic social engineering and displacement.
While not always as horrific as firebombing a residential neighborhood, the demographic reengineering of the inner cities is a violent process of economic and physical coercion. The experiences of police brutality, collective punishment, political imprisonment, separation of entire families, and forced displacement should be familiar to Palestinians and anyone who considers themselves a supporter of Palestinian human rights.
Take for example the now 17 year old (16 at the time of her arrest) Palestinian from Nabi Saleh, Ahed Tamimi. She was arrested seven months ago for slapping an Israeli soldier while her mother Nariman was arrested for filming the incident. Ahed was then subjected to torture, sexual harassment, and seven months of imprisonment for slapping a fully armed soldier entering her land, threatening her family, and representing a military force responsible for murdering several members of her family. Ahed and Nariman were released last week, but they rejoin life as stateless persons under occupation. This is a world where cousins and siblings can be murdered at random and with impunity, where Palestinian mothers are forced to give birth in prisons or at checkpoints, where entire families are imprisoned as collective punishment, where abuse and humiliation at the hands of IDF soldiers and military police are commonplace, and where travel abroad is just as difficult as finding a job at home.
In 2016 Israel passed a ‘stop and frisk law’ modeled after its American equivalent, which provides the legal basis and incentive for police forces to stop and search any person who they deem suspicious without any legal justification. This is just one example of what American activists have dubbed a “Deadly Exchange” between U.S. and Israeli police forces. Groups such as AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sponsor these exchanges. For example, last year the ADL held their “National Counter-Terrorism Seminar” in Israel. D.C. Metropolitan Police Commander Morgan Kane was one of the many representatives of American police departments at the conference.
The IDF and countless American police forces participate in exchanges to share tactics and strategies, and they are supplied by many of the same U.S. based arms and crowd control device manufacturers. Night raids, daily harassment, surveillance, restrictions on movement, and especially the types of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other crowd control techniques used against Americans resisting the wanton murder of unarmed black people or the continued destruction of the planet by mega-corporations were all “field tested” by the IDF on Palestinian civilians.
This particular sort of repression from the state is designed to make the eventual removal of the targeted populations easier. In Palestine this has been the case since the first Zionist militias began operating during the British Mandate, a process which echoes the European settlement and colonization of the Americas from the 16th century until today.
Gentrification is not equivalent to settler colonialism or genocide, but it mirrors the process of settler colonialism in many ways, especially in its relationship to the idea of progress. The classical justification for colonialism and imperialism is that it represents the progress of civilization against “backwardness.” Neither colonialism nor gentrification seek to improve the conditions of existing communities, but to displace and replace them in the name of “progress” or more recently “development.” Gentrifying developers never consider the existing communities, prioritizing the profits that can be extracted by catering to the wills of wealthier, whiter, and generally more transient renters.
This breaking up of community structures is where the greatest damage is done. There is an assumption in all of these cases that the displaced persons are not truly human, and are more part of the environment than people with claims to their land. During the first decades of American expansionism in the late 18th century, the indigenous peoples forced out of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes were pushed further west into “Indian Country” without regard to the ancestral and community structures even “nomadic” peoples develop in a space. This excuse has been used against Palestinians since well before the Nakba: the idea that Palestinians should have been happy to permanently give up their homes and live in Jordan or Syria simply because they are all “Arab countries.” Ignoring the roots that people have put down and the community structures that have been built up treats the trauma of dispossession and community breakup as merely a regrettable consequence of progress and development, not as an act of genocide. White supremacy, the societal devaluing of non-white life, makes this possible.
The goal of this method of policing and occupation in Palestine and the United States is the immediate and total disruption of people’s normal lives, and their eventual displacement or removal to make way for more racially or economically “desirable” populations. Violent and invasive policing, mass incarceration, and economic siege aren’t the only tactics for depopulating and redeveloping neighborhoods under capitalism. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina national, state, and local support for rebuilding dwindled. Private developers were then able and encouraged to come in and flip entire neighborhoods. Rebuilding not to support the community displaced, but to bring in more lucrative renters and businesses. This is of course not limited to housing in a neoliberal capitalist system in which countless basic services are privatized. One need only to look into the privatization and austerity measures forced on Puerto Rico last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to see this strategy in action.
D.C. is a hotbed for these issues. Last month Aristotle Theresa, an Anacostia based lawyer, filed a lawsuit against the city for its role in promoting and facilitating gentrification. Theresa is representing three working class Black residents of the District as well as Current Area Residents East of the River (CARE), a community group of residents living east of the Anacostia in one of the most impoverished areas neighborhoods of the city, with a poverty rate three times as high as the city average. As the city at large has been recovering economically for some time, Southeast is being left behind and long-time working class Black residents are being increasingly pushed east of the river as prices rise on the western bank of the Anacostia.
The suit describes the District’s policies as “intentionally trying to lighten black neighborhoods,” and move long-term Black residents around like “potted plants or flowers” by promoting the demolition of old, affordable, family homes with much more expensive loft or single bedroom rental properties, which can be seen all over Northeast and Southeast DC.
This is just the most recent step in a long history of this sort of displacement in the District and in this country at large, dating back to the “urban renewal” programs of the 1950s and 60s. In the past ten years 39,000 Black DC residents, most of whom have lived here for their entire life and have no desire to move, have been priced out of the city while around 50,000 wealthier, white transplants have moved in. Between 1970 and today, the Black population of DC has fallen from 71 percent to less than 50 percent according to statistics compiled in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit described above is not the only mobilization against these forces in DC. The activist group We Are Family is dedicated to “reaching out to isolated inner-city seniors with free services, advocacy, and companionship, building a network of caring eyes and ears that enables at-risk seniors to age in place.” Grassroots organizing and community building like this are the first wall of defense against displacement and and the first step in building momentum to fight racial and economic injustice and the eventual decolonization of our settler society.
We should celebrate the releases of political prisoners like Debbie Sims Africa and Ahed Tamimi, and work for the release of all political prisoners, but also realize that release from prison into a colonized existence is not liberation. A path forward will only become clear through taking into account how the seemingly disparate events and injustices, present and historical, domestic and international, are functions of the same systems of power.
Jasper Saah is a Summer 2018 intern at the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. Jasper is Palestinian-American and studying History, Arabic, and Fine Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. You can see more of Jasper’s work at www.jaspersaah.com.