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40 Years a Prisoner [Movie Review]

Summary

40 Years a Prisoner is a documentary about the events leading up to and following the 1978 Philadelphia police department’s raid of the MOVE organization’s home. There had been a period of increasing hostility between MOVE and the police which led to the raid and a stand-off that left one officer dead and another wounded. During the confrontation, police officers beat a then unarmed member of the organization and bombed the home leading to its destruction and the death of 11 people. Resulting trials would see allegations of police wrongdoing thrown out while several surviving MOVE members would be convicted and spend decades in prison.

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Show Notes

Regardless of the crimes or allegations, I always feel for kids who grow up without their parents because their parents are in prison. I feel for kids in general who grow up without their parents for any reason regardless of whether or not there are other adults or family members around to help take care of them. I’ve said it before that I feel like it’s a very unnatural thing for a parent to have to bury their child as it feels more natural the other way around. In the same vein, I feel it’s unfair or shortchanges a child for them to grow up without their parents. Granted, there are situations and circumstances where it can’t be helped as some people might have children but are unfit parents to the degree that their children are better off without them.

To hear about this young man, Mike Africa, Jr., meeting his father for the first time at the age of five gave me pause. Prison can be a very dark and depressing place and seems an unsettling location for such a meeting to take place. It’s not immediately clear what Mike’s home situation might have been at that time but he hadn’t been told much of anything about his parents. Not even the fact that they existed and were alive. He didn’t know that they were in prison and certainly nothing about how they ended up there.

That would be a lot for anyone to take in but with proper support, children can be surprisingly resilient. Mike took it in stride but it was likely in part because he didn’t initially understand what all of this meant. My heart broke for him as a kid when he explained not understanding why his father couldn’t come with them when they were leaving the prison. Just imagine the kids around you have parents but you don’t and when you finally meet your father you spend a few hours with him before being separated again. Meeting this person after all of this time and not knowing if or when you would see them again.

This opening sets the audience up to ask the question of why is his father Mike, Sr. in jail. And with that, we get some background on the MOVE organization and the events that led to Mike’s parents and other members being imprisoned.

MOVE was a group (though some might say a cult) founded by John Africa with a mission of Black liberation from racist oppression and a return to natural living. It’s sad but not surprising at this point when you look back to the Civil Rights Movement and other movements before and in the time since that there’s this constant, often repeated story about police harassment and brutality against Black people and other marginalized communities. It shows that history is not that far in the past and some of the issues that people were dealing with then are still plaguing us now.

You get a feel for what the environment was like in Philadelphia in the 1970-80s where police brutality was blatant and rampant. It’s one thing to hear about this brutality but something else to sit and watch clips of people, primarily non-Whites, being savagely attacked by the police. It’s mentioned that during a specific time frame over 100 people were killed by police and half of them were unarmed.

There’s a clip where the mayor is being interviewed and he’s asked about this troubling stat. He replied that he expects police officers to be aggressive and would hold the police commissioner accountable if they were not. Imagine a mayor openly cosigning the police force’s use of violence. But it’s not that surprising, people nowadays are just more subtle when expressing this kind of rhetoric.

Let me preface the rest of this discussion by stating that I watched 40 Years a Prisoner and understood the events that occurred but am still unclear as to how this escalated to the degree it did.

The MOVE members lived as a group in a house in a residential Philly neighborhood. There was a welcome home party which became a bit loud and somebody called the police. Fine, fair enough. But when the police arrived, they were allegedly aggressive with the attendees. And in trying to move or push a woman aside who was holding a baby the child was dislodged from her arms and died.

The incident further increased the animosity MOVE members felt towards the police. MOVE members responded by putting up boards as a barricade around the perimeter of their house as a fortification. They armed themselves with weapons though whether they were functioning or non-functioning is unclear. MOVE then began holding not quite rallies but more accurately speeches which they seemed to give over bullhorns.

When it comes down to it we’ve all had annoying neighbors and people do all kinds of crazy nonsense with their houses. Some people don’t mow their lawns while others have junk and all manners of eyesores strewn about their yard. But for the most part, the person is being inconsiderate, aggravating, or otherwise annoying. MOVE’s neighbors would have been well within their rights to complain about them speaking over a bullhorn. That loud noise would be disruptive and you have a right to peace and quiet within your home during the day or night.

While the barricade was ugly as long as it wasn’t at risk of falling on anyone or their property so be it. And with regards to the guns as long as they weren’t pointing them at anyone or otherwise being making threats, what can you do? Granted, I don’t know what the rules and regulations were for owning or carrying firearms in Philadelphia and 40 Years a Prisoner doesn’t clarify that point. But I would guess that as long as it’s within the legal parameters it is what it is. And I say this as someone from the North who doesn’t like guns but currently lives in the South. When it comes to neighbors, as long as whatever you’re doing doesn’t disturb me or put my life in danger, I don’t care. Let your freak flag fly as long as it doesn’t harm or infringe on the rights of anyone else.

I consider myself to be very pro-Black but MOVE doesn’t look like anything I would want to be a part of from a lifestyle perspective. I would describe them as dirty backpackers, which is fine as we don’t all have to be the same or live our lives according to the same beliefs. For the most part or at least on a basic level they seemed to be very concerned with natural living. They have locs and support both animal and human rights as well as equal rights for people who are imprisoned. Nothing wrong with that.

As one of the ladies states in 40 Years a Prisoner while discussing police violence, people get tired of that kind of stuff. Most people want to live in peace and just go about their day with the least amount of drama. But being brutalized and harassed is a lot to endure and some reach their breaking point. It’s a very human reaction when threatened or feeling under attack.

This is one of the issues that I have with guns and that’s not just with regards to private citizens but police officers as well. I imagine that how a person reacts to stressful incidents when they have or can easily obtain a gun is different from how they might react without one. With that being said police officers are human beings who carry weapons in their line of work but at the same time, regular citizens are also human beings and have as much of a right to defend their lives.

If a bunch of people want to live in a three-bedroom house, who am I to tell them that they can’t as long as the kids are safe? But if it’s 50 people and 30 dogs where you’re now in a hoarder situation that’s different. Maybe I’m missing something but aside from telling them to keep the noise down, the attention that the complaints received from law enforcement seemed to be a bit much.

I understand small children were running around half-naked but that’s not the end of the world. Fine, encourage them to at least put a diaper and some shoes on the kids. When it comes to urinating or defecating all about that’s more pressing as it’s unsanitary and might lead to the spread of disease which can affect the health of others. But those issues should be addressed by the health department rather than the police. And it seems that the health department was involved at one point. Why then did it escalate to the police being involved?

The police officers were likely being truthful when they stated that the MOVE members talked trash and cursed at them. But I also fully believe the MOVE members who said that police officers did the same. Society functions more efficiently if we all opt to not be jerks and instead try to be courteous. But they were all adults and someone calling you a not-so-nice name isn’t grounds for threats or violence on either side. As a civilian, you should be civil towards others but as a police officer, you’re not above anyone else and shouldn’t have the right to assault or arrest someone simply because they said something that you didn’t like.

In response to MOVE’s fortifications, the police effectively blockaded them into the community. They created a perimeter around the MOVE perimeter intending to starve them out. And utilities such as water and electricity were cut off.

As I watched 40 Years a Prisoner and the situation was continuously escalating, I was completely lost as to how this was happening. How could sane adults think this response was a good idea? MOVE sounded like they were simply weird neighbors but otherwise harmless. And it seems like that’s how most of the neighbors regarded them as when interviewed most didn’t have a problem and were sympathetic. Sure, their ideology probably made sense to them but wasn’t feasible in that environment at that time. But that isn’t a crime.

Beyond the MOVE members having rude exchanges with the police, what exactly was the problem? It doesn’t seem as though the police were bothered by them having guns as when the police explained the rationale behind the increased aggression they didn’t mention the guns. People constantly assert the 2nd Amendment as giving them the right to own firearms to defend their homes.

Someone compared the MOVE members being penned-in to a concentration camp or living in apartheid South Africa. Without knowing anything about the situation, that might sound like the person is being overly dramatic. It doesn’t sound like something that could happen in America, the land of the free but rather a conflict area in another country. How could people in America be treated like this by the police and local government and everyone just sits back and watches like it’s normal?

I’m not into cults and hope to never join one but others should be free to believe in what they choose. It’s different if it’s a cult like the Mansons or some other groups where they aim to harm others. Or one of these other groups where grown men are “marrying” underage girls. At that point, they are a danger to society and should be arrested and prosecuted. But that’s not the case here.

Not to mention the situation was dealt with as though it’s out in the country on some vast expanse of land with no neighbors nearby. MOVE’s barricade was around their house. The police erecting barricades around the block made it difficult for people to get to their homes. I remember dealing with that kind of stuff as a kid when I lived off of Flatbush and was trying to return home after the Labor Day Parade. Trying to enter my block from the opposite end, the police made my mom show ID to prove her address. But then you have the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan where people are passed out or stumbling around drunk but excluding non-parade vehicles, everyone is free to move about as they please.

The police are described as harassing the MOVE members by throwing things at them but because of the barricade, the full scope of the police presence is unclear. There was a newspaper article about the standoff that touched on the number of police officers and money being spent to maintain this huge police presence in this one area of the city. But as someone points out, the police force is expensive but not surprising. Where did the officers get all of these high-powered weapons and who asked for this?

At one point, negotiators were able to reach an agreement and the two sides called a ceasefire of sorts while MOVE made preparations to relocate somewhere outside the city. But as the situation began to de-escalate, the Mayor amped things up again. If the goal was to calm the situation, why rush in making inflammatory statements that would only serve to get people riled up again?

During the community meetings, you got the sense that residents were not fans of the barricade or show of force. But the police and other government organizations took it upon themselves to see this thing out to the end as it was no longer and might not have ever been about the other residents of the community. As part of the agreement, the police were allowed to come in and search the house during which time they found mostly inoperable weapons. It was nowhere near the amount or type of weapons that they were rumored to have.

The mayor seemed less interested in peacefully resolving the issue and more focused on people being deferential to his authority. He provided an example of growing up in his father’s house and his father having the last say as there was no opportunity for conversation or two-way communication. But that completely ignores the reality that despite being the mayor, he’s one adult dealing with a group of other adults. These are not his children in his house. A lot of the escalation of this incident is a result of the police, mayor, and other government officials feeling as though their job gives them the authority to run roughshod over people. What other reason would you have for threatening to go in and drag the MOVE members out?

That relates to the examples that people provide throughout 40 Years a Prisoner about the police brutalizing them. There are multiple examples where it seems the police felt they had unlimited authority to do as they pleased to whomever they pleased. You’re there to protect and serve the citizens of your jurisdiction not to brutalize and oppress them. Some might think this is a sign of those times but you still have some of these lingering beliefs in the present.

There’s a criminal defense attorney that speaks at one point and it’s an example of the mentality that some people have. He refers to “the Blacks”, not “Black people” but “the Blacks” as though we’re a monolith. And as always in these situations when a White person has said or done something racist, they conveniently have a Black friend or recall once upon a time when one Black person came to their house. In this case, he knew “the Blacks” having gone to school with Black people, and the ones he associates with didn’t want anything to do with MOVE and were not supporters. I’m sure a lot of Black people were not at all interested in the MOVE lifestyle. But I don’t think that this guy took a sampling of Black Philadelphia to gauge their opinion.

By that point, I think it had become politically incorrect to say blatantly racist things in public. Yet the things that some of these interviewees say and the attitudes they have towards dealing with Black people had a racist undertone. I don’t think everyone loved the hippies. But I get the sense that if this was a house full of White hippies living in a filthy mess the situation would have been handled differently.

Imagine what seems like hundreds of police officers descending on a house in an urban area and when you look closely they’re carrying uzis and other high-powered weapons. I don’t take issue with MOVE standing up to the police but rather with the way they chose to fight back against the police. Though looking at the situation, it seems that it was a lost cause from the outset. To retreat is sometimes a smart strategic move rather than an act of cowardice. Also, it’s one thing to decide as an individual that you’re willing to sacrifice yourself for something you believe in. But with children in the house who didn’t have a say in the matter, I feel like that wasn’t the call to make.

Yet, what should they have done? I don’t have an answer. With the full force of the government attempting to come down on MOVE, you could argue that they would have been better off moving somewhere else outside the city, even temporarily as had been discussed during negotiations. They could have then tried to fight things out in legal court as well as the court of public opinion. But if the police were willing to attack in a city what might happen in a less populated area? And where in America can Black people move to truly be safe and free from harassment?

MOVE was certainly under attack and might have been acting out of desperation as I don’t understand what their endgame was and can’t begin to suggest what it should have been. Up until the last day of the standoff, I wouldn’t have sided with MOVE or the police as there seemed to be vitriol on both sides. We see examples of the police being incredibly rude and disrespectful to the MOVE members and other residents. But the MOVE compound also looked filthy and they were probably being rude to the police in turn. There was wrong done on both sides. But as the police were there to serve the public interest, their focus should have been on de-escalating and resolving the situation rather than being aggressive to soothe their bruised egos.

I knew where things were headed the moment there was mention of shots being fired and one police officer being killed and another injured. Whether MOVE fired the shot or not it was pretty much guaranteed that the police were going to beat the hell out of the MOVE members if they survived and managed to get out of the house. For a moment, I was surprised that the police seemed civil when they let Delbert Africa climb out of the basement window and walk towards them.

That is until the camera angle changed and you saw them beating this man while he was unarmed on the ground. They were punching, stomping, and hitting him with what appears to be billy clubs. It was bad enough when there were two or three police officers but was completely overboard when others joined in on stomping him while he remained on the ground.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched that police beat people like that but I was surprised that they were doing it out in the middle of the street. Though when their plan to flush MOVE out began that morning, they cleared the street and most of the area of other civilians and media telling them it was for their safety. It’s suspected that the real intention was to have no witnesses and thus they assumed nobody could see. But fortunately, a journalist had the forethought to gain access to a nearby second-floor apartment where he observed and recorded the events as they unfolded.

A top official tried to downplay what took place during the inquiry that followed. But there was a former police officer who was interviewed throughout 40 Years a Prisoner. He spoke quite snottily about the MOVE organization and their way of living and then with a wink and nudge explained that the officers were not beating Delbert but simply helping him out of the window and into the paddywagon. He then goes on to comment that Delbert was taken to the hospital afterward but should have gone to the morgue. And this is someone who was associated with the police department.

Some of the people interviewed tried to clean things up but based on the clips from back then and some of the statements made during 40 Years a Prisoner you get some insight into the mentality of some police officers. When people speak about police brutality and how some of these officers act like complete savages when dealing with members of the public you have others who deny it. That faction of the population tries to make it seem as though anyone that wears a badge is perfect and will never do anything wrong.

There’s mention that because there were children, including infants, within the house that the police consulted medical advisors about the possible effects of tear gas on the children. The medical advisors warned against its use as it would be especially harmful and uncomfortable for these young children and they were innocent regardless of the situation with their parents. One set of officials stated during the inquiry that they complied with the recommendation and didn’t use tear gas. Yet some of the women who were present in the house state feeling as though their clothes and skin were on fire. And then you had a police officer who states that when they went down into the basement to clear everything out and to get the weapons it was overwhelming because of the tear gas.

There’s blatant lying going on but the government officials don’t care enough to keep their stories straight. Along the same lines as the defense attorney, members of the media state that they’ve spoken to plenty of Black people that disagree with MOVE and support taking action against them but they’re afraid to speak on camera. But then when cameras go into the neighborhood and speak directly with Black people it’s the opposite. They feel this wasn’t the way to handle the situation as it should have been de-escalated early on.

When the video of the beating surfaces it results in the police officers being brought under investigation. As the mayor looks on you have a lawyer yelling about the media giving coverage to the other side rather than just going along with their story. Everyone is on a power trip.

Playing devil’s advocate, let’s say that by refusing to leave the basement the inhabitants of the MOVE home were resisting arrest. And there is no dispute that a police officer was killed which is unfortunate. But to turn around and not launch an investigation to figure out exactly what happened as far as who fired the shot and what was going on in the house? The officers claimed that they removed weapons from the basement and with a shooting that resulted in someone’s death, the house and basement should now be considered a crime scene.

Even if for whatever reason you chose not to gather evidence right at that moment, why would you choose to immediately demolish the house? Who would choose to set the stage for a potential trial with limited information about the environment? How thoroughly can you gather evidence in that short space of time? Shouldn’t the defense also have an opportunity to visit the crime scene?

But the hate and vitriol that MOVE and others had stated was present but bubbling just below the surface became apparent. There were claims of police officers attacking other residents who were out on the street after the incident at the MOVE house. People and it should be noted Black people, standing on their stoops or the street as innocent bystanders. And the police in turn climbed the steps of their homes to intimidate and attack them for simply looking on.

Some news reporters placed blame for the attacks on residents and stated that they should understand that the police were on edge. That when the police tell them to move along they should just move. These people are citizens of the United States of America and they have rights. Just because you’re having a bad day or more likely feeling empowered by the events at the MOVE house doesn’t give you carte blanche to beat people up. I can guarantee that this was likely a lower to middle-income neighborhood and they targeted Black residents. There is no way they would have tried that nonsense with the residents of a wealthy or predominantly White neighborhood.

Despite the story that the media and police tried to push, residents of MOVE’s neighborhood held protests. They consigned MOVE’s claims of constant police harassment and brutality and spoke out about having similar experiences. In various ways, it becomes clear that the police and other branches of government instigated a problem where either there was none or it was considered minor by residents. What’s more likely is that they didn’t like MOVE’s activism and latched on to the first opportunity for a confrontation.

In old interview clips with White residents from other areas, they state the police should have just killed the MOVE members. This incident occurred in West Philadelphia where among the people that we see gathered around a healthy percentage if not the majority are Black. I’ve been to Philly, there are a lot of Black people. It seems questionable that you then end up with a jury of 12 White jurors when the case against the officers goes to trial. Not even one Black juror? And then to add insult to injury during a jury trial, the judge halts proceedings and throws out the case because he believes the officers should have never been charged.

Either way, whether by jury or judge you could tell the police officers were going to get off. In most cases when killing or otherwise harming a Black person it seems all a police officer or trouble maker has to utter is that they were in fear for their life or thought the person had a gun. Drop a few tears on the stand and you’re good to go. In this case, the police and their representatives rationalize the beating by implying that you have to be brutal and aggressive when dealing with “savages” such as Delbert Africa. Is the frequent occurrence of police brutality that surprising if the police who are supposed to be protecting your neighborhood regard residents in such a manner?

This incident took place in 1978 just about a decade after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. It just goes to show you that these racist attitudes didn’t just disappear overnight but rather went underground. Racists and white supremacists adopted the practice of expressing racist ideas in coded rather than blatant language. That is until you have incidents like this that make them feel comfortable expressing their true feelings without a filter.

I’d somehow missed 40 Years a Prisoner when it was released on HBO. Before watching 40 Years a Prisoner I had a basic understanding of the destruction of the house but knew almost nothing about the events that led up to that moment. 40 Years a Prisoner helped to clarify some points for me and provided a more thorough understanding.

Early in 40 Years a Prisoner when the issue was supposedly just the cleanliness and conditions of the MOVE home, I found myself going back and forth. But as the situation escalated I was firmly entrenched on the side of thinking the police were wrong and this was nothing more than an out-of-control power trip. By the time the film got to the point of discussing the police attempting to flush out the MOVE members and the resulting trials, I believed that the police were the ones who committed a crime.

The police officer dying was unfortunate because someone lost their life. But at the same time, given that law enforcement and other government representatives were blatantly lying about what took place I came to agree with the possibility that the officer might have more likely been killed by a stray or ricochet bullet that was fired by another officer.

When the MOVE members were put on trial and called it a sham and treated it as such, I understood them feeling as though they weren’t getting a fair trial. I didn’t agree with their methods but at the same time, I can’t blame them for regarding the trial as being just for show and openly rebelling against being railroaded into spending decades behind bars. There was some tit for tat taking place but once MOVE surrendered that should have been the end of it rather than nearly beating this man to death.

These events took place decades ago but still feel relevant in light of recent police shootings. Someone in 40 Years a Prisoner states that you could have video evidence and/or eyewitness testimony from someone standing mere feet away. But if the video or if the person says it happens and the police says that it didn’t a lot of people would just dismiss anything contrary to the police officer’s statement. People who have not been or don’t personally know others who have been harassed and assaulted by the police have the luxury of having blind and unwavering faith in the police.

This is one of those documentaries that can spark great conversations though you and other viewers might not all agree. Because I know that I went back and forth with myself at some points. I highly recommend 40 Years a Prisoner as it’s unfortunately very relevant to events that are still taking place now. While I only briefly touched on it here, there’s also the very human and heartbreaking story of this young man and his parents. Trying to reconnect and build a relationship with them despite the circumstances of them being imprisoned from before the time of his birth.

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