19 Jun 2011

'"Activism is my rent for living on the planet."

Alice Walker once said "Activism is my rent for living on the planet."

I owe Alice a big thank you, when I was writing my anthology 'Green History', published in 1993, she let me use her piece 'Nobody was supposed to survive' about the MOVE organisation, radical ecologist murdered in Philadephia.

You can find it fairly easily on the net and its always worth reading:

'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
After the Inferno. Tears and Bewilderment - New York Times 15may85
Nobody was Supposed to Survive - Alice Walker from Living by the Word 1988
Philadelphia, city officials ordered to Pay $1.5 Million to MOVE Survivor - CNN 24jun96
6 Bodies in Ashes of Radicals' Home; Assault Defended - New York Times 15may85

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.



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