Merle Africa: Fighter for the People
Revolutionary Worker #950, March 29, 1998
On Friday, March 13, Merle Austin Africa died in her prison cell at the state prison in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. Merle was one of the MOVE 9, political prisoners who were framed for a murder they did not commit. She had been in prison for almost 20 years and stood firm in her revolutionary beliefs despite repeated attempts by the authorities to break her.
The exact circumstances of Merle's death are not yet known. When she fainted in her cell on March 13 her cellmate, Debbie Africa, was ordered out. A medical team did something with Merle, and it was 40 minutes before they called an ambulance. The authorities claim Merle died of complications from ovarian cancer. Then the coroner ruled that at the age of 47, she had died of "natural causes."
In an interview with Marpessa Kupendua of the Afrikan Frontline Network, Ramona Africa said, "This system killed Merle, even if people want to believe the autopsy. They are saying she died of natural causes. What the hell are natural causes, what is natural about being in their prison for 20 years? How can anything happen naturally under those circumstances? Merle was a strong, healthy woman on August 8, 1978, with no cancer, with no blood clots, with no sickness at all--when they forcibly removed her from her home, took custody of her, took responsibility for her, for her life."
Merle Austin Africa grew up in Philadelphia. She wrote in a recent autobiographical piece in the MOVE newspaper First Day: "Before joining MOVE, I had relatively the same type of existence as everybody else in the system; I went to schools in Philadelphia, graduated, got a secretarial job at Temple University, but I had plenty of problems with no hope of finding solutions for them."
Merle wrote about the extremely difficult time she had growing up--how her father was a heavy drinker and beat her, how she became an alcoholic and drug addict and suffered from bulimia, suicidal depression, hallucinations and paranoia. When she was a teenager her mother took her to a number of psychiatrists. When they couldn't solve Merle's problem, they suggested she be institutionalized, which her mother refused to do.
Merle has said when she met MOVE, she finally found a purpose in life. She wrote: "The turning point in my life came when I met MOVE people and started hearing the powerful teaching of JOHN AFRICA. I felt drawn to the true love, sensitivity and family unity I saw in the MOVE people I met...."
Merle joined MOVE in 1973. Frank Rizzo was the Mayor of Philadelphia then--known nationwide for his vicious brutality against Black people. And MOVE was very active in demonstrating against the injustices of the system, particularly police brutality. In response, the police launched a systematic campaign to harass, beat and jail MOVE members.
On May 20, 1977 MOVE held a demonstration at their Powelton Village house to demand the release of their political prisoners and an end to the city's reign of violence and terror. To keep an increasingly brutal police force at bay, some MOVE members had firearms at the demonstration. During the demonstration MOVE members issued this statement:. "We told the cops there wasn't gonna be any more undercover deaths. This time they better be prepared to murder us in full public view, cause if they came at us with fists, we were gonna come back with fists. If they came with clubs, we'd come back with clubs, and if they came with guns, we'd use guns too..."
The authorities were enraged at this bold challenge. Warrants were issued for the arrest of 11 MOVE members on riot charges and "possession of an instrument of crime." But the warrants couldn't be served because people wouldn't come out of the house. For months, Rizzo tried to force them out. Almost a year later, the city threw up a police blockade around the house and shut off the water. For five months the city unsuccessfully tried to starve MOVE members out of the house.
There were 12 adults, including Merle Africa, and a number of children in the MOVE headquarters on August 8, 1978. The police surrounded the house and pumped hundreds of gallons of water into the house and opened fire with high-powered weapons and tear gas. When the shooting stopped, a cop named James Ramp lay dead. MOVE adults came out of the house carrying their children through clouds of tear gas and were immediately taken into custody. MOVE never fired any shots and no MOVE members had any weapons when they were arrested.
What happened next clearly revealed the political nature of the attacks against MOVE. The nine adults who the authorities knew were committed MOVE members, including Merle Africa, were charged with the murder of James Ramp. Three others were given a choice--disavow MOVE or face charges. Two said they were not MOVE members and were allowed to go free. MOVE member Consuewella Africa refused to turn her back on MOVE. She was tried, convicted and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in a separate trial.
There was no evidence that anyone from MOVE shot Ramp, and there is evidence he could have been shot by police fire. An autopsy showed Ramp was shot from above and behind while MOVE members were in the basement. None of the weapons the police claimed to have "found" in the MOVE house had the fingerprints of any MOVE members on them. No ballistics match linked the weapon that killed Ramp with any weapon connected with MOVE.
When the MOVE 9 chose to defend themselves in court the judge decided he didn't like the way they were acting and kicked them out of the courtroom. Denied the right to counsel of their choice, their case was tried by court-appointed attorneys. Merle Africa and the other eight MOVE members on trial were each convicted of murdering James Ramp and sentenced to 30 to 100 years.
Seven years later, on May 13, 1985, the city of Philadelphia, in collusion with state and federal authorities, dropped a bomb on another MOVE house on Osage Avenue. Six adults and five children were murdered. Some were shot at by police as they tried to escape the blazing inferno. Only Ramona and Birdie Africa made it out alive. Sadistic guards gleefully told Merle Africa and the other MOVE members in prison that their sisters, brothers and children were dead. In response, Merle and the MOVE 9 continued to expose the crimes of this system. In 1986, MOVE women in prison filed murder complaints against officials responsible for the murders on Osage Avenue. And they continued to appeal their own unjust murder convictions.
Merle Africa never backed away from her beliefs, despite intense pressure and brutal treatment in prison. She and the other MOVE women prisoners were frequently singled out for severe punishment. The attacks began immediately, when Merle and other MOVE sisters were first brought in to Muncie State Prison. Based on their religious beliefs, the women refused to give blood and so they were thrown in solitary confinement. The women went on a hunger strike that lasted 48 days. Concerned about growing publicity of the strike, prison authorities sent hooded guards into the women's cells. They forcibly took blood from the women and then told them since they'd "given" they could get out of the hole.
Ramona Africa recently described the conditions prison authorities forced Merle and other MOVE women to live under: "The cells they were put in had Oak doors that went from the floor right up to the roof. These doors were sealed so tightly that you couldn't even slide a piece of paper under them. The windows there had four different sheets of glass that you could not see through, so there was no air coming into these cells at all."
While in prison, Merle actively participated in exposing and struggling against the system. She wrote about the case of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and like other MOVE prisoners, she paid attention to what was going on inside and outside the prison walls. She wrote on many topics for MOVE's publication First Day. In one of the last pieces she wrote before she died, "The Million Woman March," she said: "MOVE women have been in prison 20 years now and I've watched the prison population grow at a staggering rate and it's frightening. Frightening because so many young girls--16, 17, 18--are doing long prison sentences, including LIFE sentences. They're in prison for selling drugs, but a lot of them are in prison for defending themselves, their children, from abusive mates and that's not right. According to this system a woman doesn't have the right to defend herself, her children, from attack..."
And in another recent piece in First Day Merle spoke about the many injustices of the system: "He's [Clinton's] got military and civilian so-called law-and-order death squads at his disposal to stamp out opposition to legal oppression whether it's in the Middle East, the midwest or Osage Ave. He threatens poor people day in and day out with prison for not paying taxes, bullying people into getting a job but don't give money for child care, cutting off welfare leaving people with no money to care for their families. Sanctioning bills like NAFTA allowing american businesses to go to other countries for cheap labor, leaving american families jobless, homeless and living on heating vents..."
Merle Austin Africa stood together with others fighting this system. She was fearless and refused to let the brutalities of imprisonment break her revolutionary spirit. She will be greatly missed. But she will also be remembered for her commitment to struggle against injustice, her willingness to sacrifice everything if necessary to change the system. Her spirit will live on in those who step forward to take her place in the struggle for a better world.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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