It has been 34 years since nine members of the radical group MOVE were convicted for the 1978 murder of Philadelphia police officer James J. Ramp during a police seizure in Powelton Village, and four years since eight members of the original MOVE 9 — Debbie Sims Africa, Janet Hollaway Africa, Janine Philips Africa, Williams Philips Africa, Delbert Orr Africa, Michael Davis Africa, Charles Sims Africa and Edward Goodman Africa — became eligible for parole.
The ninth member, Merle Austin Africa, died in prison in March 1998.
And depending on who is telling the story, the MOVE 9 are either guilty as charged, or a symbol of an oppressive judicial system hell-bent on silencing its critics and stamping out left-wing revolutionaries.
“Charles Africa’s parole hearing is coming up, and Debbie saw the parole board in June and was denied,” said MOVE spokesperson Ramona Africa. “The issue MOVE has is the demand for MOVE people to ‘take responsibility for the crime.’ MOVE people did not kill Ramp; we were in our own home when we were surrounded by thousands of cops. We didn’t go to [former Mayor Frank] Rizzo’s house, and we didn’t go to [former Police Commissioner Joseph F. O’Neill’s] house; they came to our house and attacked us in warlike fashion.”
Ramp was killed by a shot to the back of the head, and all members of the MOVE 9 were convicted of third degree murder.
The August 8, 1978, shooting of Ramp was the culmination of several confrontations MOVE had with the police department, and a chilling precursor to the infamous May 1985 Osage Avenue clash that resulted in a bomb being dropped on MOVE’s Osage Avenue compound, which led to the death of 11 people, including MOVE founder John Africa, and the decimation of several city blocks containing 65 homes.
Ramona Africa contends that “MOVE people didn’t kill anybody,” and believes there are holes in the theory that points to her organization as the culprits.
“If officials really believed MOVE killed Ramp, they wouldn’t have demolished the scene of the crime — but they demolished it within hours,” Africa said. “There should never have even been a trial once [the city] demolished the scene — that’s destroying evidence, leaving MOVE with no way to adequately defend itself.”
Africa contends MOVE 9 opted for a bench trial in front of late trial Judge Edward Malmed because the group didn’t want to appear before a slanted jury. But that decision came at a price.
“The burden was put squarely on the shoulders of Malmed, who is supposed to be learned in the law, objective and sworn to simply follow the legality that dictates procedure,” Africa said. “The judge did not do that, because if he had, he would have dismissed the case because of destruction of evidence.
“After the trial, Malmed convicted nine of my family members of third degree murder and conspiracy,” Africa continued. “And that is a contradiction. If he’s saying they conspired to kill a cop, wouldn’t that be first degree and not third? There are numerous inconsistencies here that clarify that my family was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 100 years, not because they committed any crime or any officials believe they did, but because they are MOVE people and committed revolutionaries.” Africa also contends that MOVE member and current life sentence prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal once asked Malmed to name the person responsible for Ramp’s murder, and Malmed allegedly responded that he hadn’t the faintest idea.
Officials with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole wouldn’t comment further than confirming the hearing dates, and the minimum and maximum time each member must serve. While all remaining MOVE 9 members have been denied parole at their most recent hearing, two were denied parole for curious reasons. Edward Goodman Africa was denied due to a negative recommendation by the Department of Corrections, while Michael Davis Africa was denied due to his “denial of offenses committed,” according to parole board spokesperson Leo Dunn.
“Most people know, if nothing else, that in order to convict someone, whether judge or jury, you have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Africa, who has been denied visitation rights with her incarcerated family members, despite being out of jail herself for 20 years and has had a clean criminal record since her 1992 release. “Judge Malmed, obviously, was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The fallout from the 1985 bombing of MOVE’s compound resulted in former Mayor W. Wilson Goode authorizing a commission to investigate the decision-making of officials involved, and make recommendations on ways to avoid such confrontations in the future.
Africa contends that both the mayor and district attorney’s offices aren’t adhering to the commission’s suggestion of keeping open the lines of communication.
“For a little over a month now, we’ve been trying to get a meeting with [District Attorney] Seth Williams and Mayor Michael Nutter to discuss the issues pertaining to my family,” Africa said. “Nutter is the mayor of this city and needs to know what’s going on. We are not going to allow him to feign ignorance; we want to meet them.
“We want to meet with Williams because as district attorney he has authority over any criminal case, and because he gave a negative recommendation as district attorney to the parole board,” Africa continued. “Seth Williams doesn’t even know my family, as he was just a kid in 1978.
“The thing is that commission Wilson Goode put together said the city made a terrible mistake by not meeting with us and keeping lines of communication open — that it never happens again and to keep lines of communication open. The mayor is not doing that, and the district attorney is not doing that.”
District Attorney Spokesperson Tasha Jamerson draws a stark contradiction to Africa’s claims. While not commenting on the merits of the MOVE 9’s conviction and subsequent parole denials, Jamerson did take issue with Africa’s claim of communication misfires.
“The district attorney gets swamped by piles of mail and requests, and anyone who requests to meet, I go over it with [Williams],” Jamerson said, noting the process calls for anyone wishing to meet with Williams to submit a formal written request — something Jamerson said Africa failed to do. “If Ramona Africa sent any kind of request, I would have asked about it. If she asked for a meeting, I think [Williams] would meet with her, but no letter has come, and no phone call has come.”
Jamerson noted that Williams isn’t ducking any confrontation; rather, he and Africa have been in the same building at the same time on numerous occasions, one being at a recent screening and discussion about Tigre Hill’s controversial film, “The Barrel of A Gun,” and said there was a time when Williams tried to approach Africa — only to be shunned.
“There has been some communication back and forth,” Jamerson said. “But I’d point out that before the election in November, Williams was at an event in Old City and wanted to shake her hand and talk to her a little bit.
“She brushed him aside.”
Mayor Michael Nutter’s spokesperson Mark McDonald confirmed that Nutter will not meet with Africa, as Nutter has no leverage or dealings in the matter.
“Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison handled the matter, and he says, what he learned from Africa is that her fight is with the parole board, and the mayor has no jurisdiction in this matter,” McDonald said. “Having a meeting for meeting’s sake doesn’t make sense. Ramona Africa has been informed of this some time ago. The mayor is polite and respectful of her, but won’t be meeting.”
In terms of release, Africa doubts her compatriots will ever be released before maxing out, meaning all MOVE 9 members are facing the prospect of dying in prison. And Africa doubts any of the incarcerated MOVE 9 members will ever cop a plea to somehow earn an early release.
“Our aim is not simply to get out of prison. Our aim is to expose and eliminate the rotten system that is the root of such injustices, so they will never say they are guilty. We continue to fight because we know our work is the same, whether we’re on the prison block or street block,” Africa said. “Guilt or innocence is not an issue with parole. What is supposed to determine parole is whether or not you’ve completed any designated programs, and my family has — they’ve even taught lessons. They also need an acceptable home and work plan, …
“None of my family members have bad conduct records,” Africa continued, allowing that one or two of her brothers may have had minor skirmishes while locked up. “Most importantly, their parole sheets don’t include any write-ups for misconduct. MOVE people aren’t going to lie, and more importantly, should not have to lie and say we are guilty if we are not.”
Long goodbyes overshadowed the passage of several pieces of legislation — including a landmark zoning ordinance — in City Council on Thursday, as members held their final meeting of the year and bid farewell to six retiring colleagues, most notably long-serving Council President Anna C. Verna.
“It’s so very difficult to believe that this is my last Council session,” Verna said in a speech at the end of the meeting, during which she was showered with accolades from members and an impromptu visit from Mayor Michael Nutter, who presented her with a Philadelphia Bowl, one of the city’s highest honors.
“She is the longest serving public servant in the entire city of Philadelphia,” he said, noting that he learned a great many political lessons from her during his tenure as a city councilman. “The great thing about our Council president is that she wears her passion for this city on her sleeve. She cares so much.”
Verna has been Council president since 1999, the 2nd District’s representative since 1975, and has worked at City Hall since 1951.
It was also the last meeting for five other members — Frank DiCicco, who has represented the 1st District for 16 years; Joan Krajewski, 6th District representative since 1979; Donna Reed Miller of the 8th District, who has held her seat since 1996; at-large Councilman. Jack Kelly, who has served since 1988, and Councilman Frank Rizzo, who has served as an at-large member since 1995.
“I wish you Godspeed as you continue the important work that still needs to be done,” said Verna in a farewell speech to those remaining in office. Then turning to those about to enter retirement, she said, “I wish you continued good health and happiness. Enjoy every minute of it.”
Moments earlier in more candid remarks, Verna noted that over the course of her career she’d spent more time in City Hall than she had at home.
“I wonder if that’s a good thing to do,” she said, adding: “I’m going to miss this place.”
Verna received three prolonged standing ovations during the meeting.
During the meat-and-potatoes portion of the meeting, Council unanimously approved a proposal from Councilman Jim Kenney that would require subcontractors to report to L&I (the Department of Licenses and Inspections) when they sign with a general contractor on any job.
Kenney said the move was intended to make sure that workers pay the city’s taxes and worker’s compensation.
“One general contractor will pull a permit and they will hire unlicensed contractors who bring in workers who get paid cash or as independent contractors so we’re not getting any of the wage taxes or the permit fees,” he said.
The bill prompted comment from two Black contractors.
Colin Johnson, a licensed plumber and electrician, said he did not oppose the bill, but told Council he would like to see some legislation that would force contractors and the trade unions to add Black members.
“The present PLAs (project labor agreements) that the city has with the trade unions is unfulfilling to African-American males in terms of inclusion,” he said. “Because the specialty trades, which are made up or predominantly white males … they are going to make decisions which are reflective of their white male colleagues.”
“We can’t allow bills to come before this Council and we don’t do anything for African-American males,” agreed Jihad Ali, noting that Kenney’s bill was not intended to address his concerns and adding that he hoped Council would soon tackle the problem of union inclusion. “Look at the record, we’re not reflected in the unions. We’re here to change that.”
The departure of the six members paves the way for a radical change in the make up of Council. And, Verna’s retirement sets the stage for the election of a new president, which means there will likely be much jockeying among three contenders for the office over Christmas recess. Majority Leader Marian Tasco, Majority Whip Darrell Clarke and at-large Councilman Kenney have all expressed an interest in the position. Clarke appears to have the backing of the nine members he’ll need to secure the spot, but with several weeks before the new Council is seated that could change.
Of the departing members, several will receive large DROP payments upon retirement. It was a fact that DiCicco couldn’t help but tweak his fellow retirees about as Nutter gave each a framed print of City Hall along with a mayoral citation for service.
“These are blow-ups of the DROP checks,” quipped DiCicco.
In another unanimous move, Council passed a new zoning ordinance, ending five years of work on an overhaul of the zoning code.
Among its major provisions: a requirement that developers to keep communities abreast of their plans, allowing them to shape projects long before they’ve had that opportunity under the current zoning code, where most issues are addressed at Zoning Board of Adjustment hearings. The proposed code requires developers to notify registered community organizations, or, in their absence district Council representatives, of large projects. It also requires developers to meet with those groups so they can air their concerns.
The new code also deals with uses that often did not exist when the old code was drafted. Among them are some that often end up being the most contentious —like private re-entry facilities, group homes and group medical practices.
Council also passed a lead paint abatement bill 16-1 with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell opposing the measure.
In other news, Council amended a proposal by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown aimed at keeping children from coming into contact with lead paint. The bill requires landlords who rent to families with children age six or under to remove lead paint from their properties.
Finally, Nutter vetoed a bill that would have allowed a “wall wrap” billboard planned for a property at Sixth and Spring Garden streets.
A chorus of civic leaders is calling on City Council to rename the Criminal Justice Center in honor of the nation’s first female Black judge, and the state and nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice — Juanita Kidd Stout.
“There is still no public building [in Philadelphia] named after a woman, let alone a woman of color,” said Deborah Willing, a former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “So, it is only fitting that the Criminal Justice Center … and the courtrooms in which her presence was so strongly felt be named after Justice Kidd Stout.”
Council is expected to decide whether or not to name the Filbert Street building, across the square from City Hall, the Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice on May 31. As a first step councilmembers heard testimony at a public hearing on the issue this week.
Stout, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, migrated to Philadelphia in 1950 and in 1959 she was the first Black woman elected to a U.S. court, after winning a seat in the city’s municipal court. She followed that up by being the first Black woman to be elected to the Court of Common Pleas, serving from 1969 to 1998.
During the 1960s she earned a reputation as tough judge particularly interested in juvenile delinquency and gang violence. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed her special ambassador to the United States Delegation to the Kenya Independence Celebration.
In 1987, Stout was the first African-American woman to serve on the state Supreme Court after being appointed by Gov. Robert Casey. The appointment also made her the first Black female justice on any state supreme in the land. She served from 1988 to 1989.
“She was a role model and a woman of many firsts,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.
He and Willing were just two of approximately 15 people who unanimously urged Council to approve the name change in her honor.
Among them was President Judge Pamela Dembe, who, along with many others, spoke warmly of Stout, singling out her good humor, insistence on punctuality, grammar and punctuation.
“Justice Stout was a role model for many of us over years,” Dembe said. “She was a great and generous soul. She was also a teacher right to the very end, so be sure your grammar and punctuation are correct.”
District Attorney Seth Williams noted that Stout was not always appreciated in her lifetime and that the local chapter of the ACLU protested her “swift justice” tactics.
But, “to the Philadelphia legal community she was a paragon of justice,” he said.
Stout was born March 7, 1919, in Wewoka, Okla., and died on Aug. 21, 1998. She graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in music, attending university in Iowa because no Oklahoma university would accept a Black woman. Stout went on to attain her law degree from the University of Indiana. She was inducted in the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame in 1983.
Renaming the Criminal Justice Center has not been without controversy.
Among the other proposals, naming it after former Mayor Frank Rizzo; former two-term Councilman Edgar Campbell Sr., the first Black chairman of the city Democratic Party; former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former state Supreme Court Justice James McDermott.
If, as the old saying goes, politics is a contact sport; then Philadelphia politics is a no-holds-barred, steel cage death match.
Every campaign season, we are inundated with candidates whose shameless win-at-all-costs philosophy embarrasses us into not voting for them, or not voting at all. Every Election Day, whether primary, general or special, we are treated to stories of dirty tricks, underhanded tactics, and outright sabotage in the name of winning a public office.
Then the winners somehow expect the public to forget everything they’ve seen and heard for the past six months and trust them as honorable, fair-minded servants of the people.
This explains pretty much everything wrong with local politics: the feeling of voter apathy, the general distrust of elected officials, and the pathetic 15 to 18 percent voter turnout numbers we’re used to seeing.
We, the long-suffering public, are expected to wade through a knee-deep quagmire of lies, corruption, and stupidity to arrive upon a candidate who can move this city, and this country forward without succumbing to the temptation of greed and corruption themselves.
It’s not easy, and it’s not pretty, but once in a while, the good guys actually win.
There are several examples, but I’ll just cite a couple for now.
State Rep. Jim Roebuck, who has quietly led West Philly’s 188th District for more than 25 years, suddenly found himself in a dogfight for his seat with Fatimah Muhammad, a 27-year old neophyte with lots of youthful enthusiasm, and an equal amount of youthful naiveté.
Ms. Muhammad received about $25,000 for her campaign coffers from Students First PA, the pro-voucher group who spent a fortune bankrolling the campaigns of local politicians willing to sign on to the school voucher philosophy.
Strongly worded campaign literature floated around the district painting the incumbent Roebuck as an anti-child, anti-education dinosaur because of his opposition to school vouchers. While Muhammad denied any connection to the literature, and in fact stated in a Tribune editorial board meeting that she wouldn’t vote for the voucher bill as it is presently written, the association stuck.
Roebuck won his seat, and Muhammad has presumably been left to ponder the consequence of taking large sums of cash from single-issue contributors. That money isn’t free, folks, and you’re nuts if you think they don’t want something for it. Deviate from the script, and bad things happen.
Up in North Philly’s 197th District, Jewel Williams, the 27-year old daughter of newly elected Sheriff Jewell Williams, ran for the state rep seat he held for years. She didn’t campaign much, didn’t work to get her name out there much, and didn’t do much to quiet the increasing number of voices complaining that she was looking for a free ride by cashing in on her father’s familiar name.
It’s a cynical idea, and one both her and her father should have worked hard to quash. Philadelphians have voted for the offspring of famous politicians before: Goode, Rizzo, Williams, and Green come to mind, but it’s usually a fact that the offspring makes a special effort to be their own person, to prove that they are much more than just ‘whats-his-name’s kid.’
If I were to leave my job tomorrow, I would not attempt to install my 22-year old daughter as city editor of the Tribune. While I love her more than anyone on earth, I also recognize that she is completely unqualified to run a newsroom. To ignore that fact would be an insult to my colleagues, and to our readers.
To their credit, the voters of the 197th didn’t fall for the old okey doke. They elected J.P. Miranda, who is also very young, but brings with him a wealth of experience as a legislative aide and community organizer.
In my South Philly neighborhood, state House candidate Damon Roberts faced a much more dangerous opponent than Jordan Harris, who beat him out for the 186th seat vacated by Kenyatta Johnson – his own campaign staff.
Apparently, Roberts was attempting to pay his workers their promised $100 each by check - already a bad idea - when he then ran out of checks. As you can imagine, it got ugly. So ugly, in fact, that Roberts had to call the police to protect him from his own workers.
Let this week’s election serve as a cautionary tale for future office seekers: be careful whose money you take, have an actual platform to run on, and most importantly – make sure you have the cash on hand to pay up on Election Day.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
Federal prosecutors announced this week that a 23-count indictment was leveled against Joanna Mastronardo, daughter of the late Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, along with her husband, Joseph “Vito” Mastronardo and 14 other defendants connected to a major illegal sports betting organization that raked in millions every year.
According to United States Attorney Zane David Memeger, Joanna Mastronardo is charged with one count of structuring for allegedly making 72 deposits totaling more than $500,000 over a year. Her husband, Joseph Mastronardo is charged with 23 counts of RICO conspiracy, illegal gambling, money-laundering and related offenses.
Federal prosecutors allege that the Mastronardos and their associates ran a major illegal gambling organization using the telephone, the Internet, Skype, text messaging and one-on-one communication. Allegedly, they met bettors in person and either collected or made payments ranging from $1,000 to $100,000 and more. As a mailing address and a drop off site, the crew used the Five Points gas station on Norristown Road in Blue Bell, Pa. Payments were mailed to the station by Federal Express and other carriers, or delivered in person.
“Technology allowed the defendants to allegedly expand their gambling and money laundering operation far beyond the borders of Pennsylvania,” Memeger said. “Unfortunately for the defendants, however, we have the necessary statutory tools to investigate and prosecute those who openly flout our illegal gambling and financial reporting laws.”
The indictment alleges that “Vito” Mastronardo and his son John supervised the organization, laundered money, collected debts and instructed others to collect. Between Jan. 1, 2005, and Jan. 1, 2011, the crew used websites and telephone numbers that allowed bettors to place sports bets on football, baseball, basketball, golf, horse racing and other sporting events. Residents of Costa Rica staffed the Internet and telephone sites. According to Memeger, the Mastronardos hid more than $1 million in and around their homes, including in specially-built compartments and in utility pipes buried in the yard.
“This alleged racketeering operation was anchored in Montgomery County, but had tentacles spreading across the U.S. and beyond,” said Montgomery County District Attorney Risa A. Ferman. “Despite our attempt to shut it down in 2006–2007 with a Montgomery County prosecution, my office discovered that the defendants, as is alleged in the indictment, were back in business. We partnered with our federal counterparts to examine the full scope of the alleged illegal gambling operation. Today’s indictment reflects the work of many law enforcement agents across multiple agencies. These defendants tried to ‘game’ the system. Today they crapped out.”
Darrell Clarke presumes post as next council president
The changing of the guard at city hall has begun, with Councilman Darrell Clarke poised to assume the city council presidency as six council members and their staffs prepare to leave and six others prepare to take their seats.
Council will officially reorganize Jan. 2 at a ceremony at the Academy of Music, which will also include the inauguration of Mayor Michael Nutter for his second term.
At that meeting, members will officially choose a successor to retiring Council President Anna C. Verna. Unofficially, Clarke, the majority whip, who has represented the 5th District for three terms, has already assumed the role.
“All 17,” he replied, when asked how many council members were backing him for the presidency.
He needs just nine of council’s 17 members to win the chair.
Clarke was one of three veteran council members vying for the seat left vacant with Verna’s retirement. Majority Leader Marian Tasco, the 9th District representative, and at-large Councilman Jim Kenney both wanted the seat too.
Tasco, the most senior of the three, ran into problems because of her involvement in the city’s controversial DROP program. Her participation in the program made it politically unpalatable for veterans and newcomers alike to back her.
Kenney pitched himself as an alternative to both. Citing Tasco’s pending $478,057 DROP payment and Clarke’s close ties to former Mayor John F. Street – the political nemesis of Nutter – and to union boss John Dougherty, Kenney said he thought he had a decent chance to capture council’s top job.
But, Clarke lined up his supporters quietly - and in a relatively short period.
And so, council’s reorganization proceeds under both Verna and Clarke.
Verna has asked, in a routine procedure based on the fact that all council employees come under the president’s authority, that most of the employees on outgoing council members’ staff – approximately 40 people for the five outgoing members, not including Verna – resign by the end of the year.
She also asked for the resignations of the 45 staff members in her office. Clarke, in a move he called “unofficial - since I’m not council president yet,” has further asked that they delay their resignations until Jan. 15, anticipating that he may keep some of them.
“I needed time to analyze the individuals who currently work for the council president,” he said. “I thought it was prudent for me to give them the opportunity to submit their resume and job descriptions … because some of those people might stay.”
This year is the first major remake of council leadership since Verna won the presidency in 1999.
Five council members opted before the primary to retire and a sixth, Frank Rizzo, lost his bid for re-election. They were: Frank DiCicco, who has represented the 1st District for 16 years; Joan Krajewski, 6th District representative since 1979; Donna Reed Miller of the 8th District, who has held her seat since 1996; at-large council rep. Jack Kelly, who has served on council since 1988 and Rizzo, who has served as an at-large member since 1995.