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At the beginning of July, three former MOVE members who say they were raised within the Black liberation group renounced it, and released a public statement calling it “a cult.”
“They tell you anybody other than MOVE is out to get you,” Whit Sims, formerly known as Whit Africa, told Billy Penn about the leaders of the group. “[They’ll tell you] they’ll rape your kids, they’ll kill your kids … So you’re scared to do anything. So they stripped you of all your independence.”
Sims is part of a trio of former MOVE children who allege witnessing and experiencing widespread abusive behavior within the organization. They cite coercive sexual relationships, child marriages, death threats, financial crimes, and several forms of psychological control.
Their statement comes a few months after outcry erupted over desecration and mishandling of remains of MOVE members killed in the city-led 1985 bombing of the group’s West Philadelphia headquarters.
The former members’ allegations and stories are being documented on a new blog titled “Leaving MOVE,” and an associated podcast called “Murder At Ryan’s Run.”
Since the allegations were released, another four former MOVE members have come forward in support, according to an updated statement.
Sims said she is the daughter of Debbie Africa and Mike Africa Sr. Both parents were sent to prison in the 1970s as part of the MOVE 9, and were released on parole in 2018. Sims is also the brother of Mike Africa Jr., who has become one of the prominent voices of MOVE over the past couple of years.
Mike Africa Jr. posted on Twitter in early July that he was “in the fight of his life” and described his family as “a cluster of chaos.”
So far, MOVE leadership has not released an official statement regarding the podcast or blog, and has not returned Billy Penn’s requests for comment.
This spring, reporting revealed that different sets of remains from MOVE bombing victims were left sitting in boxes at Penn Museum, used as teaching props in an online course, and ordered destroyed by the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office without familial notification. The news sparked outcry around the nation, and led the city’s health commissioner to resign in disgrace.
A city review of Medical Examiner’s Office policies around victim remains is under way, and the University of Pennsylvania will soon receive results of an investigative report it commissioned about its handling of remains.
The scandals reopened old wounds related to race, policing, and biases in the media in Philadelphia, and led a lot of people to voice public support for MOVE, a big change from the decades of public criticism the group endured.
However, up to now it’s been very rare to hear anything negative from rank-and-file or bloodline members of the group.
“It’s a crazy thing, because it was pretty much [like] being born into slavery, not even knowing that you’re a slave,” said Josh Robbins, who identified himself in an interview as the son of MOVE members Mary and Mo Africa. “There’s a lot being revealed that’s true that people don’t want to be revealed.”
Here’s a look at what the former members are alleging, and what we know so far.
Who’s behind the blog and podcast?
Robbins, Sims, and June Stokes — who said she was formerly known as Pixie Africa, the daughter of current MOVE spokesperson Pam Africa — on July 2 released a group statement explaining their decision to leave the group and speak out.
“MOVE’s history is long and complex and it will take time to lay the groundwork for the realities of MOVE to be properly understood,” they wrote. “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.”
Also signing the group statement was Kevin Price, who is authoring the “Leaving MOVE” blog.
Price, who is white, said he spent 17 years as a dedicated MOVE supporter, and has known Robbins, Sims, and Stokes for the better part of two decades.
“[June Stokes] reached out to my wife a little over four and a half months ago,” Price said by phone. “She had left the group and wanted people to talk to and help work through the psychological process of understanding that she had been raised in a destructive cult.”
Stokes is currently in hiding with her kids, according to a press release announcing the podcast and blog. There’s also a GoFundMe set up in Stokes’ name.
She had been “trying to leave” for many years, per the release, but without public awareness of all the details of the situation, feared MOVE leadership would either “take her children from her or kill her (they have threatened to do so many times).”
The “Leaving MOVE” blog includes stories from former members and recounts Price’s own journey as an idealistic young man who devoted years of his life to an organization he later found to be hypocritical and exploitative.
“Understanding what I understand now, I don’t think MOVE has ever been a healthy organization,” Price said. “I think that the patterns that we’ve seen play out for nearly 50 years were baked in.”
What does current MOVE leadership say?
Pam Africa, the mother of Stokes and a leader within MOVE, did post on Facebook.
“I have read Pixie, Whit, Josh, and Maria’s statement and I have chosen not to sign it. This is not at all a reflection of my support for any of them,” Pam wrote. “Instead, I do not feel comfortable signing a document that includes things I did not personally experience or witness.”
She expressed skepticism toward the people who are producing the blog and podcast, calling them out as sensationalists.
“Further, I do not trust the individuals who are steering this revealing, and taking the story of my family into a world of people who do not care about us or are even hostile toward us, and sensationalizing it,” Pam wrote.
Why is ‘Ryan’s Run’ in the podcast title?
Former MOVE members and supporters have been recording “dozens of hours of testimony” for an investigative podcast Murder at Ryan’s Run, according to their press release.
The program is being hosted and reported by a television producer from Los Angeles, Beth McNamara, whose credits include the Peabody-winning documentary “Inventing Tomorrow” and reality television series American Idol.
McNamara declined to comment about the trajectory of the series.
Its title refers to the unsolved murder of John Gilbride, an ex-MOVE supporter who was shot and killed “execution style” in Maple Shade, N.J., in 2002. So far, it remains unclear what connection or information the ex-members of the group have to the unsolved crime.
The first full-length episode was released on July 12, and it centers on the story of 24-year-old Maria Hardy, formerly known as Maria Africa, who said she was pressured by leadership of MOVE to get married and pregnant by the age of 14, along with other pre-adolescent girls in the group, she says.
“A lot of the things that will be coming out that you see with children being denied education, around sex and sexuality, and a number of other things, were intentional and not accidental,” said Price, who’s writing the blog. “There’s a lot of MOVE’s history that I believe is a fabrication.”
How have MOVE supporters reacted?
Several activists who had expressed support for MOVE over the past few months, as news broke about the mishandled remains, have voiced solidarity with the former members coming forward with the new allegations.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a Black feminist lesbian writer and director of “NO! The Rape Documentary,” said in a Twitter thread it’s possible to do both.
“We must hold the tension of addressing the external violence against MOVE and the internal violence within MOVE,” Simmons wrote. “The survivors, born in MOVE, who’ve courageously come forward about the harm they experienced and witnessed, need support.”
West Philly community leader and school teacher Anthony Smith expressed the importance of not dismissing the allegations because they don’t fit a certain narrative.
“I have worked with some of the younger folks in MOVE, I’ve had members of MOVE as alumni and even in my very own social studies classes,” Smith posted on Facebook.
“I have a billion questions, and I’m sure many others do too. but for now our main concern is the safety of our folks. We cannot water down the violations in order to salvage MOVE as a name,” he continued. “I hope that the community supporting MOVE begins to demand some level of transparency from the people named in causing the harm.”
Why are the former members coming forward now?
Even before this spring’s revelations about mishandling victim remains at Penn and the Philly health department, the atrocity of the 1985 MOVE bombing garnered national attention in recent years.
Several related documentaries have been released, including 2013’s “Let The Fire Burn”; 2016’s “In Prison My Whole Life”; and last year’s “40 Years A Prisoner.” Some MOVE members have died, including Birdie Africa, the only child who survived the fire-engulfed house on Osage Avenue. On the 30th anniversary of the bombing, the city decided to erect a historical marker, which was installed two years later. On the 35th anniversary, City Council issued a formal apology.
And over the past year, concepts that seemed radical when first espoused by MOVE founder John Africa — like the idea that systemic racism is woven through American policing and society at large — have entered mainstream consciousness.
What occurred on Osage Avenue in 1985 remains a potent symbol of police misuse of force. There’s no forgetting that the city’s own government dropped a military-grade explosive on a residential block, killing 11 people, including five children, and burning down dozens of homes.
But the individuals speaking out on the blog and podcast say that especially with so much attention being paid to the remains of other children who were part of MOVE, their own story is important to reveal.
“They took my rights away from me. They violated me. I was manipulated. I was betrayed. And if I can stop this from happening to anybody, that’s what my goal is,” said Sims, daughter of Debbie and Mike Africa Sr.
Robbins, son of Mary and Mo Africa, said he and his compatriots hope people listen to their stories.
“I want people to pay attention to everything that’s going on. We’re telling the truth about our experiences,” said Robbins. “Without help, we’re as good as dead. MOVE has been lying for 50 years. We really need people’s love and support.”