Debbie Sims Africa, 61, walked free from Cambridge Springs prison in Pennsylvania on Saturday, having been granted parole. She was 22 when with her co-defendants she was arrested and sentenced to 30 to 100 years for the shooting death of officer James Ramp during a police siege of the group’s communal home on 8 August 1978.
She emerged from the correctional institution to be reunited with her son, Michael Davis Africa Jr, to whom she gave birth in a prison cell in September 1978, a month after her arrest.
The release of Debbie Sims Africa is a major breakthrough regarding the ongoing incarceration of large numbers of individuals involved in the black liberation movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s who are now growing old behind bars. At least 25 men and women belonging to Move or the former Black Panther party remain locked up, in some cases almost half a century after their arrests.
Davis Africa, 39, who was separated from his mother at less than a week old and has never spent time with her outside prison, said they were coming to terms with being reunited after almost four decades.
“Today I had breakfast with my mother for the first time,” he said. “There’s so much we haven’t done together.”
Sims Africa’s release also addresses one of the most hotly contested criminal justice cases in Philadelphia history. The nine were prosecuted together following a police siege of their headquarters in Powelton Village at the orders of Philadelphia’s notoriously hardline mayor and former police commissioner, Frank Rizzo.
Move, which exists today, regarded itself as a revolutionary movement committed to a healthy life free from oppression or pollution. In the 1970’s it was something of a cross between black liberationists and early environmental activists. Its members all take “Africa” as their last name, to signal that they see each other as family.
Hundreds of police officers, organised in Swat teams and armed with machine guns, water cannons, teargas and bulldozers, were involved in the siege, which came at the end of a long standoff with the group relating to complaints about conditions in its premises. Two water cannon and smoke bombs were unleashed. The Move residents took refuge in a basement.
Shooting broke out and Ramp was killed by a single bullet. Prosecutors alleged that Move members fired the fatal shot and charged Sims Africa and the other eight with collective responsibility for his death.
Eyewitnesses, however, gave accounts suggesting that the shot may have come from the opposite direction to the basement, raising the possibility that Ramp was accidentally felled, by police fire. After the raid was over, weapons were found within the property. None were in operative condition.
In 1985, Philadelphia authorities carried out an even more controversial and deadly action against the remaining members of Move. A police helicopter dropped an incendiary bomb on to the roof of its then HQ in west Philadelphia, killing six adults including the group’s leader, John Africa, and five of their children.
That incident continues to have the distinction of being the only aerial bombing by police carried out on US soil.
At Sims Africa’s trial, no evidence was presented that she or the three other women charged alongside her had brandished or handled firearms during the siege. Nor was there any attempt on the part of the prosecution to prove that they had had any role in firing the shot that killed Ramp.
Sims Africa has had an unblemished disciplinary record in prison for the past 25 years. The last claim of misconduct against her dates to 1992.
Her attorneys presented the parole board with a 13-page dossier outlining her work as a mentor to other prisoners and as a dog handler who trains puppies that assist people with physical and cognitive disabilities. The dossier includes testimony from the correctional expert Martin Horn, who reviewed her record and concluded it was “remarkable”.
Story from the Guardian US