Debbie Sims Africa is a member of the black liberation group MOVE, mother of two and political prisoner who served over 39 years in prison after the house she was living in was attacked by Philadelphia police. During the raid an officer was killed in friendly fire and all nine MOVE members in the house were falsely charged with his murder. Debbie has been up for parole since 2008, and was released several times before being approved in May 2018 and released on June 16th. Find out more about the MOVE 9 and the fight for her fellow MOVE family member’s freedom at www.onamove.com and move9parole.blogspot.com.
Debbie was born August 4th, 1956. As a young adult she joined the MOVE organization. The group was driven by founder John Africa’s teachings strong beliefs which emphasized animal rights and sustainable living. They swore off drugs, some overcoming past addictions, and lived a life of hard physical work and self-discipline. MOVE members watched neighbors’ pets, helped the elderly with shoveling their sidewalks and with home repairs, worked with recently released imprisoned people to overcome addictions and meet parole requirements and other community activities. They also staged protests against the police, zoos and were active at public speaking events.
They bought a Victorian house which served as the groups headquarters and home. Debbie fell in love with fellow MOVE member Mike Africa. They soon married and had a daughter together. As Debbie was starting her family and continuing her work with MOVE the police had begun escalating their harassment and repression of MOVE members. People were routinely arrested and beaten. The city began to pressure MOVE to leave their house, which they refused to do.
Philadelphia police lay seige on MOVE headquarters.
Tensions reached a boiling point on August 8th, 1978. Months prior the police had turned off the water to the house and set up a blockade preventing any food or aid to be sent in to the family. After the MOVE family still refused to leave their home the city finally raided the house. Police began firing on the house and in the flurry of bullets an officer went down.
Debbie, there in the house with her 23 month old and 8 1/2 weeks pregnant with her second child, recounted that day in writing. They were all huddled in the basement for protection and then,
“Before we knew it, water was comin through the hole where the window used to be. The wave of water sprayed thru the fire hose took up the entire width of the window and the length of the window hole, throwing 2×4 oak beams across the room slamming our big dogs up against the wall, and literally tearing the house apart from the inside, then a second wave of water came through another would be window and we were caught in a cross fire of water.
All I could do was scream. I was scared. Dogs and beams were flying everywhere and I cried when I saw our dogs being hurt and killed. I held tight to my baby and stayed low while the men hovered around us to protect us.
When the cops started shooting I closed my eyes and just held tight to my stomach and protectively shielded them the best that I could from flying debris and planks. It was the most frightening situation I’ve ever been in.
At one point, I couldn’t even see the baby’s face because of the smoke bombs and tear gas thrown in the basement by the cops that was also choking me, all the while the water level was rising (we found out later during our trial from one of the lawyers appointed to represent us, that when a mixture of smoke an water are thrown together it acts as a deadly weapon and could have suffocated all of us).
I personally thought we were gonna die. It was only a miracle that we didn’t die, with the way those cops were shootin at us (some shootin point blank in our faces close range), the way the firemen had water getting into the basement windows and the way they gassed us.”
Consuewella and Janet Africa carry children out of the flooded basement.
All five men were brutally beaten. Delbert’s beating was caught, unbeknownst to police, on camera. Police threw tear gas into the basement and MOVE adults began bringing the children out. Debbie’s baby was snatched from her arms by Philadelphia cops in front of the house and Debbie was arrested, along with eight others for the murder of a police officer during the stand-off.
The police immediately razed the entire property, destroying any potential evidence that would help prove that none of the MOVE 9 could have possibly killed the officer (especially all nine of them!). No efforts were made to preserve the crime scene, inscribe chalk marks or measure ballistic angles.
The Murder Trial
All nine co-defendants elected to represent themselves, bringing their politics, wit and tireless cross-examinations into the courtroom process. The judges frequently grew impatient with MOVE members and would throw them out of the courtroom.
Move 9 Removed from Their Own Trial
In the middle of the trial, police raided a Richmond MOVE home where two MOVE women and many children of the MOVE 9 were living while their parents were on trial. MOVE demanded the trial be recessed until they could establish the location and welfare of their children, but the judge refused. Some of the parents within MOVE 9 were removed after they repeatedly objected to the continuation of the trial. Eventually, all nine were removed from the courtroom. The trial then proceeded with public-appointed back up lawyers. All nine defendants were barred from participating in the last 47 days of their own trial.
The judge went on to declare all nine of the MOVE members guilty of third degree murder, conspiracy, and multiple counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault. They were all sentenced to between 30 and 100 years.
Life in Prison
Debbie visiting with her son and granddaughter.
Debbie Gives Birth to Mike Jr.
On September 15, 1978 Debbie had her son, Mike Jr., in her prison cell naturally without the aid of doctors, nurses, or prison staff. For several hours afterwards, Debbie held her son, anguished over the inevitable time she would have to give him up. She eventually told the prison staff of the delivery and then she lost her second child.
Both her son and daughter are now parents themselves.
Debbie with her son Michael, Jr.
Writings of Debbie Africa
- MOVE Documentary
- Debbie’s son, Mike Jr., Interview