"40 Years a Prisoner" confronts the police we're supposed to trust "telling bold-faced lies"

Mike Africa, Jr., who was born in prison, appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss MOVE and freeing his parents

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published December 10, 2020 5:24PM (EST)

MOVE members depicted in the HBO documentary film "40 Years a Prisoner." (HBO)
MOVE members depicted in the HBO documentary film "40 Years a Prisoner." (HBO)

Eight-year-old me couldn't imagine not seeing my dad's smiling face on Christmas morning, or drawing my mom a cartoon-filled card covered in thank yous for Mother's Day, or the thousands of other memories small kids get to share with their parents. These types of memories make up the foundation of our traditions and are the things that we pass down to our kids. Mike Africa Jr., who was born in prison, was robbed of the chance of creating those in-person memories with his parents. The Philadelphia police department forced him to figure out life on his own. 

Africa Jr.'s journey is brilliantly related in the new HBO documentary film, "40 Years a Prisoner," directed by Tommy Oliver and available now on HBO Max. Featuring an all-star ensemble of producers including The Roots, Common and John Legend, "40 Years A Prisoner" is a compelling film about the horrors of America's criminal justice system. The story begins in 1978 when Philadelphia police raided MOVE, a back to nature organization based on love, among other peaceful principles. Africa's parents, two MOVE members, were arrested during that raid on trumped up charges and convicted before he was born. In the film, Oliver documents Africa Jr.'s life pursuit of freeing his parents, along with other MOVE members, and a decades-long battle with the Philadelphia police department. I recently got a chance to talk with Africa Jr. and Oliver about the film on an episode of "Salon Talks." 

Watch or read our conversation below to hear more about the never-before-seen archival materials that Oliver dug up about MOVE, what life is like for Africa Jr.'s parents now, and how the original MOVE members are responding to seeing their 40-year story on-screen.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tommy, in the film you document Mike's parents' long journey toward freedom with Mike at the center of it. A lot of people have heard of MOVE, but don't really know about some of the core principles and values. Can you give our readers and our viewers a brief history?

Mike Africa Jr.: The MOVE organization's belief is life, and our mission is to encourage people to protect life. There are companies that barter life for money, enslave animals like the zoo, and we protested against it. And that's really what started it because the industries that make the money off of enslaving life, they make money for themselves and they don't want anybody interrupting those establishments. They came at MOVE the way they came at us to try to stop us from speaking the truth about them.

It's crazy. And Tommy, you are a Philly native and a lot of this stuff was happening when you were growing up. When MOVE was in the news was it something people your age was connecting to?

Tommy Oliver: No, it wasn't. There were people who talked about MOVE, but they never really talked about it in a way that made a whole lot of sense or with a lot of clarity. And so there was always this group MOVE. I didn't really know what that meant or who that meant. And there was some bomb or something that happened and there was some incident and that was about it. I really didn't understand who they were or what happened until I got older and started doing my own research.

How'd you get involved?

Oliver: I am a research junkie, so I just started going through as much as I could. I read maybe seven books, probably 60-plus articles. And then I went to the Temple Urban Archive and I went through 72 boxes of stuff there, but I realized there were still things that were missing from what was there. I had a buddy who was working for the mayor, Maxwell Brown, introduce me to MOVE. He then introduced me to Ramona Africa. Ramona and I were set to meet and she brought along Mike, and I was like, "Who's this dude?" I wanted to meet Mona. But Mike and I, we hit it off very well in the beginning.

There were a couple of things that really stuck out to me at that point, which was almost four years ago at a cafe in West Philly. I remember it vividly. There was the idea that he was born in prison, which I had no idea about. That was just a strange thing. The fact that his parents and the rest of the MOVE nine, well, seven at that point – because two of them had passed away – were still in prison. And on top of that, he was fighting to get them out. Those were all very big things. He was somebody who had went through a ton of stuff yet, despite all of it, there was not a shred of bitterness about him. He had such a positivity that was clear even in that first meeting. I knew there was something to it.

The more that we talked and the more I understood the things that they were fighting against some 40 years ago — police brutality, wrongful incarceration, systemic racism, abuse of power — the same stuff we're fighting against today. It just became something that I had to be a part of. In general, MOVE had been pretty resistant to any type of media or journalist or anyone because they had been mistreated and misrepresented by the media for so long. But for one reason or another, he allowed me in in a very real open and honest way.

It's funny that you touched on bitterness because there are so many reasons for you to be frustrated, Mike. Instead, you give urgency and knowledge and power, but never bitterness. How are you able to tap into that and still be so driven around this case?

Africa, Jr.: A deep sense of clarity, right? I've had several meetings with the man that dropped the bomb on our house. He was the mayor of Philadelphia at the time. It was a really scary and hard thing to do. Wilson Goode was the boogeyman for me. When my cousins and my sister would come to my house and we would be talking about things, we'd try to scare each other. One of the ways that we'd try to scare each other is by saying, "Wilson Goode's going to get you."

If we don't recognize the mistakes that we made and move forward and grow from it, then we're going to be stuck in the same vicious cycle that we're in right now. It's really disheartening to see the police still say things like we "should have been killed." Eleven of my family members were killed by the police, and I'm not calling for the death of those police officers. I'm not even calling for their imprisonment. All I want is for us to be able to move forward and progress because that's the only way that we can actually make any kind of real change that could lead to any kind of peace.

What was the experience like to sitting down with the man responsible for the bombing?

Africa Jr.: It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. I left the meeting vomiting. There's so many emotions that went through my body. Members of my family that had spent 40 years in prison, their kids were in the house that the bomb was dropped on. I'm getting nervous just thinking about it right now. There's this extreme feeling of dishonoring them. There was this horrible feeling of nervousness and fear, but I did it because those people were still in prison and this man was saying that he was willing to help them get out. I would do anything for my family, and going through what I went through with meeting the mayor and speaking to him over a dozen times, that is something that I would do a hundred times if it meant getting my people out of prison so they don't die in prison.

With all of the meetings that we've had, the results were positive. All of the MOVE non-members came home. Even though two of the members died in prison before that, one of the big benefits to me was that Delbert Africa, who people remember for being beat by four cops on August 8th, he was kicked so hard he was lifted up off the ground by the police and he was beaten. He was the Rodney King before Rodney King. He got out of prison and he died just six months later. But I really feel confident that the work that I did and the meetings that I had that were so hard to do was a big part of him coming home. Even though he only saw freedom for six months, at least he saw freedom.

We're living in a time and a space right now where people are finally starting to acknowledge that there's a whole lot of racist cops with the power to offset people's lives for generations. What we're not talking about enough is the system that promotes and honors and nurtures and cherishes that racism.

Oliver: People talk about the idea of the system and the police department being problematic and corrupt and a justice system that can convict nine people for the murder of one officer. They forget that these are instances of the system doing exactly and specifically what it was designed to do. Those aren't accidents. Those aren't outliers. Those are within the bounds of how our system is and was designed to function.

You have to remember where police departments came from. They grew out of slave catching. None of these things are mistakes or accidents. It requires a real understanding of that in order to fix the problem and not just a bunch of surface-level things to make us feel good or sleep better at night.

That's what we've done for the longest time. It's been a lot of "Hey, let me do this thing because things are bubbling up and we have to make a statement." One of the things that really bothers me is the idea that people have been talking about how alarmingly relevant this film is, how topical this film is. That breaks my f**king heart. We're talking about stuff that happened 40 years ago. 40 years ago and, case in point, the film screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival and it was a drive-in screening on a Monday. That same Monday, that very same day, was the day that Walter Wallace Jr. was killed in Philly across the street. Literally the same street as somebody in the film, a MOVE member, she lives on that block around the corner from what happened to MOVE.

We have a lot of work to do. I love Philly. I really do. And in many ways, this film is a love letter to Philly, but Philly needs to do better. Not that long after George Floyd was murdered, there was a video that I saw of Philadelphia police who were arresting a Black man and he yelled out, "I can't breathe." And the police officers screamed back, "That sh*t don't work here." And kept on with their knee on his neck.

I understand why you would get frustrated by people talking about why the film is timely, but this film has been timely since our existence in this country. People ask me all the time, "What has changed?" And I'm like, "The names of the victims." That's the only thing that changes.

Oliver: Exactly.

Mike, I want you to speak to this. We always hear about a few bad apples within departments and that most officers are here to protect us and make sure we're safe. But that's just not the case. It's not a few bad apples. I personally feel like it's a system that constantly grows all bad apples. Every time something like Walter Wallace happens, like Ahmaud Arbery happens, like Breonna Taylor happens, like George Floyd happens, I come back to this point.

Africa Jr.: The thing about the police department is that their emblem is a shield. What is a shield for? A shield is not something that a person who is offering a service carries. It's something that is in defense of something. It's like they're defending themselves against the public because they're protecting something that the public should destroy. The police don't exist to protect the people from each other. The police exist to protect industry from the people because the system that exists is destroying life. It's destroying us. It puts money between us and the things we need.

There's a system that exists that if you don't have money, you can't eat. If you don't have credentials from the system, you cannot get money. Why do we live in this society, in a system that would rather have people have billions of dollars and some people have no dollars? That's not because those people just work harder to get those things. Those things were stolen and protected by the police so that those people maintain it. But when the people rebel, they call us terrorists and violent. They call a person that breaks a glass window a rioter and a looter, but the man that kneels on George Floyd's neck is at home and being held like he's some kind of hero.

In Philadelphia, one of my friends, Ant Smith, was arrested because they said he was aiding and abetting a person that threw a Molotov cocktail at a police car and burned it up. The person that burned up the police car, allegedly, is facing 10 to 80 years in prison. She's been in jail since this whole year started. And he, according to them, aided and abetted her, he's facing 10 to 30 years in jail. But the people that actually did the murders throughout the country, they're all home. Kyle Rittenhouse is home. This is a system that is so bad, three Black people every day are killed by the police.

When people start talking about defunding the police and the police start coming back like they're so appalled by the fact that people are saying these things, they should understand that people are not saying these things because they just don't like police. They're saying these things because they are negatively affected by the actions of the police. People would not be saying those things if the police were doing the service that they claim to do. Calling for the abolishment of the police, is much more so about building community unity and providing the necessary resources so that the violent crime and the things that the police claim they're there for don't even exist. If f they're honest, they know that they would not want to be treated the way that they treat Black people.

Oliver: If you think about the film and you think about what happened to Delbert Africa, there are a couple of points to really dig into. One, what happened to Delbert was clear as day. It was recorded on film. There were witnesses. There were photographs. It was clear as day. It took a year to charge those officers who beat him and those officers all got off. Not only did they get off, it was a jury trial and the judge decided to unilaterally take the case away from them and issue a direct verdict of not guilty. Then those three officers went on air and said that they would do the exact same thing again.

I don't know how to reconcile that. It's such a hard thing because these are people that we are inclined to trust, people who are supposed to protect and serve. We want to believe them. We want to trust them. In addition to that, you think about what happened with the police commissioner. The commissioner, right after all of that happened, he went on air, and this is where most people got their information about MOVE. He goes up there and he says that he had a knife in one hand and a clip in the other. And that's one of the reasons why I showed you in the film when he said that versus what actually happened.

All you have to go off of is what the police commissioner said, who's up there with the mayor and the DA and these people who we are, again, inclined to trust. These are elected officials. These are community officials. These are people who are these giants and they are sitting there telling bold-faced lies. In a place like Philly this happened year in and year out for a long time. When you have a system that does those sorts of things, it makes it really hard to trust them. It makes it really hard to think that when I call these people, things will get better.

Watching the archival footage in the film and the reporting you captured, it made me feel like I was living through these experiences or going through these experiences with the Africa family. What type of emotions came out of both of you guys when you actually saw the finished product?

Africa, Jr.: There was a lot of emotions. On the one hand, I was so happy that Tommy put it together the way he did because I trusted him but there was still a level of reservation because we had been done so wrong in the media in the past. No matter how kind or polite people seemed, there was always some kind of negative spin on it that just made it feel like you can never trust anybody in any type of media. There was a part of me that was relieved because I've worked with Tommy and I didn't want to take a film to my family that I felt they wouldn't approve of. So that was a big part of it.

There was another part that was just so emotional for me — seeing my family the way they were in 1978 and the way they are now. They were young. There's a scene where he has the kids in the yard and those kids were in the house, May 13th. They were among the kids that were killed. So to see them and remember them, it was really touching and emotional. It felt like a piece of my life that was taken from me had been given back to me. When I watched it again with my parents and other MOVE members, I didn't even really spend a lot of time watching the film, I spent more time watching them relive those days. I knew that they were going to feel what I felt when I saw it. It's a breath of fresh air.

How have your parents been adjusting since they got home?

Africa, Jr.: There's a roller coaster of emotions with them. Keep in mind, 40 years had passed. We went through cassette tapes, CDs, mini disks. They had never seen a VCR tape. Home Depot didn't exist when they went to prison. We didn't have cell phones. There's so many things that they're learning at such a fast pace because 40 years ago, when they wanted something, they had to put it together, assemble it and wait. Now if they want anything, it's almost like it's instant. When we first came home, my mom and I were in the restaurant and she was looking for the knobs on the sink to turn the water on and the water spit out the faucet and she was amazed. It felt like the Jetsons or something to her. When I gave her a phone and Siri said, "Hello, Debbie, what do you need?" She threw her phone on the floor.

You might assume that when they come home their life is complete and this is all they wanted and now they're just happy and they're probably going to be happy forever. But there's also a deep sense of depression that comes with being released from prison. When they first went to prison my parents had all of their brothers and sisters, both their parents and a lot of friends. And even though they know that their parents passed away while they were in prison and that many of their brothers and sisters are gone. The last time they were actually home, they were with those people. When they come home, they still expect to see them and when that doesn't happen, the gravity of how much time has passed and how much they've lost since they've been away, begins to set in. There's a level of deep depression that comes. Fortunately, they came home to my house, and we were able to work through all of those things and get them to smooth sailing. Right now they're really, really happy. They're really good right now.

Oliver: The first time I'd been on a plane was in September, which was seven months after not being on a plane, and it was to go to Philly because I didn't want MOVE to be blindsided. The film was about to premiere in Toronto and I wanted to make sure that they saw the film before it was released to the world. It was a 450-seat theater in downtown Philly, and there were 15 of us in there, 15 MOVE members or so. I'm not a particularly emotional person at all but I remember when it started watching Mike, in particular, talk about his journey it got to me because he's talking about why he was fighting and continuing to fight to get them out and having been there for what followed that for years of the struggle, the heartache, the disappointment. I knew how much he wanted his family home and I knew that he was just a kid who wanted his parents home and the rest of his family home. And that was it. That's all it was. That really got to me.

The film is going to be a call to action for a lot of people. It's going to ignite something inside of them. In your opinions, what should the conversation be centered around and what type of actions should directly follow those conversations?

Africa Jr.: We need to do everything. There's no one thing that is going to change things. We need to do everything possible. It doesn't matter if it's a political thing, if it's a street thing, any type of activity that we can get to make some changes is what people need to do. There's no right or wrong way to work to make a change, outside of just straight up violence, hurting somebody. This is not a MOVE fight. This is not a Tommy or Mike fight. This is a something that affects us all. Anything that people can do, they should do.

Oliver: I think people often get confused and they think that protesting is the work. Protesting is not the work, protesting is the sizzle. The real work happens away from those things. And that's not to diminish the importance of protesting because it matters, but we need real change. We need legislation change. We need different people in office. We need a ton of things that happen away from when people are out protesting because protesting will sometimes make you feel good for a bit and it's, "Hey, I did my part." Well, no, that's a part of it. That is a part of pushing the collective consciousness toward something that we need to be concerned with, but that's not enough. If we're going to have a place where our kids inherit a world that is better than the world that we are currently living in today, there's a lot that we have to do. There's a lot that we have to continue to push.

"40 Years a Prisoner" is streaming on HBO Max.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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