by Charlie Sosnick
“All living beings, things that move, are equally important, whether they are human beings, dogs, birds, fish, trees, ants, weeds, rivers, wind or rain.” - John Africa
The 1985 MOVE bombing has increasingly become a subject of retrospection, criticism, and scholarship. The MOVE organization and their history have been defined by that one moment in collective memory. However, the myopic focus on the 1985 raid obscures the rest of MOVE’s fascinating story and their many experiences of state violence from the City of Philadelphia. There is a startling dearth of work on other incidents, such as the 1978 police raid. Though the bombing is almost unanimously regarded as an excessive use of force, the focus on the 1985 conflict implicitly reinforces the authority of the state. By engaging solely with the actions of the government instead of the context, the public centers the narrative around the state. Without more detailed and holistic attention to MOVE itself and the 1978 shootout, history will only remember the most dramatic actions of the state instead of the ideas and confrontations that led to it. Consider how little public attention is still paid to the MOVE 9, imprisoned after the 1978 shootout, though the organization devotes much of their energy to their release. Condemning the police bombing of an inner city is easy; critically engaging with radical Black politics and anti-normative lifestyles is hard. In this way, MOVE are becoming victims of state violence once again - a violence of memory, through forced forgetting and omission from history. Therefore, there must be more attention paid to the story of MOVE beyond the bombing.
This paper attempts to widen the scope of MOVE scholarship by analyzing how the August 8, 1978 police raid of the MOVE house in Powelton Village was portrayed in photojournalism. Using the techniques of visual culture and discourse analysis, I dissect how original news photographs present and structure power dynamics within the interaction. The images create a symbolic language that amplifies and criticizes MOVE’s non-normativity, while hierarchizing the police. These patterns of discourse are ones that plagued MOVE from their inception and continued after the 1978 shootout to justify the 1985 bombing. I argue that photojournalism of the 1978 MOVE shootout used a visual iconography of state power that legitimized violence against MOVE.
The analysis of the images marries three modes of interpretation. The first draws on the work of sociologist Robin Wagner-Pacifici, who used discourse analysis to study “the relationship(s) between violence and language” in the MOVE crisis. (Wagner-Pacifici 1) In order to cogently apply discourse analysis to images, the work of several scholars informs a simultaneous visual culture analysis. Susie Linfield and Arthur and Joan Kleinman have written on war and human rights photography, which help to analyze symbols of violence and depictions of suffering in MOVE photojournalism. Third, Leigh Raiford’s work on photography as a formative element of “critical black memory,” enables a discussion of how these images shape MOVE’s role in the public sphere and the effects of state violence on what is remembered. Raiford defines critical Black memory as “a mode of historical interpretation and political critique that has functioned as an important resource for framing and mobilizing African American social and political identities and movements.” (Raiford 112-113) Merging these three approaches, I attempt to understand how photojournalism depicts and justifies state violence in this instance. I begin with a summary of MOVE’s beliefs and history then analyze images from several mainstream newspapers using this methodology.
The MOVE organization was founded in 1972 by John Africa (formerly Vincent Leaphart). Africa, a Black handyman with little education, worked with Donald Glassey, a White UPenn social worker, to compile Africa’s teachings into a compendium varyingly called “The Guidelines,” or “The Book”. The document became the central treatise of the organization and Africa its “messiah.” (Washington 67; Wagner-Pacifici 13) MOVE straddles the lines between a religion, political advocacy group, and cult. MOVE’s resistance to neat labeling has long been a source of frustration for those who deal with the group. Wagner-Pacifici writes that “the whole endeavour to label the group was a dead end and actually a bar to resolution … Human beings press forward the process of identification and categorizing, and when a group like MOVE falls through the categorical cracks, a certain panic arises.” (25) Guided by Africa’s teachings, the organization advocates a total revolution against “the system” of “government, the military, industry and big business.” MOVE embraces a philosophy of “Natural Law,” which rejects man-made laws in favor of a self-evident sense of right and wrong. MOVE members wear their hair in long dreadlocks, eat raw food, and eschew modern medicine and technology. They all adopt the surname “Africa.” (“About MOVE”) Until the 1978 raid, MOVE occupied a commune at 309 N 33rd Street in Powelton Village, Philadelphia.
In many ways, MOVE’s lifestyle challenged conventional sensibilities and created conflict with neighbors. Members embraced hard work and exercise as a means of “caring for life.” As such, members were known to perform 500 pushups and run ten miles per day, in addition to running dogs and chopping wood. Members eschewed modern medicine, which generated concern for the wellbeing of children in the house. Childbirth was performed at home, with women biting the umbilical cord and licking the infant clean. Members credited Africa’s teachings for miraculous health outcomes, claiming he had cured cancer, crippling injuries, and infertility. The group kept dozens of dogs on their property and put out raw meat for them to eat. Members composted their own waste or deposited it in holes in the ground. This led to frequent complaints to city officials about the horrid smell emanating from the compound. As Africa’s teachings taught the protection of all life, the extermination of rats and insects in the home was forbidden, much to the neighbors’ chagrin. (Washington 69) Sharon Sims Cox, John Africa’s niece, responded that “we were the cleanest people in Powelton Village. We constantly cleaned because we had so many dogs and children. … We just didn’t use soap or deodorant because it’s full of chemicals.” (Philadelphia Magazine, qtd. in Wagner-Pacifici 28) Wagner-Pacifici, in analyzing the discourse of neighborhood complaints on the later Osage Avenue house, summarizes MOVE’s fractious neighborhood relations as violations of “the topos of reasonability” in terms of “hygiene, generational relations, and public access.” (65) Though many supported MOVE and respected their desire to be left alone, the group built significant animosity with their neighbors and the city officials who received their complaints. These inquisitions varied along a spectrum from concern for the children to outright disgust. Nonetheless, for a Black household in 1970s Philadelphia, particularly people with radical self-presentation who freely used obscenity, these interactions with apparati of city government exposed MOVE to heightened risk of state violence.
Over time, tensions between MOVE and the city began to mount. In 1974, 33 members were arrested and 142 were arrested in 1975. (Washington 71) MOVE alleged a number of instances of police brutality during the 1970s, including an assault on Alberta Africa on April 29, 1975 which resulted in a miscarriage, an assault on March 28, 1976 which killed Janine Africa’s newborn child, Life, and the beating of three members by prison guards on February 24, 1978. (Garry and McKenna; Washington 70) MOVE made many attempts to hold officials accountable. The organization wrote a letter to the Human Relations Commissioner in response to the 1975 beating of Alberta Africa and attempted to file criminal charges against the guards involved in the 1978 incident. They were rebuffed in both cases. These allegations came amid a larger pattern of abuses by the Philadelphia Police Department under Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo. Throughout the 1970s, groups such as the ACLU and NAACP filed a number of complaints and suits for failing to prevent and punish police misconduct. These complaints culminated in a 1979 suit against the city from the United States Department of Justice. (Washington 71)
The city held that these actions were a product of MOVE’s offensive conduct and refusal to obey the law. MOVE protests were frequent and directed at a wide range of individuals and groups. The demonstrations often consisted of physical blockades and profanity-laced messages broadcasted through a bullhorn, which frequently led to arrests. Wagner-Pacifici notes that profanity became a central conflict between MOVE and others, writing “the content and form of the MOVE language are presented as a self-defense strategy. But the neighbors saw them differently.” Negative reactions from neighbors often prompted a police response, resulting in the organization’s ballooning arrest record. These arrests often involved resistance from MOVE members and displays of force from police. (Washington 71) MOVE members consistently acted disruptively in court. Contempt citations were issued against MOVE members in many trials for the use of profanity and refusal to follow instructions. (Washington 73) Neighbors repeatedly complained about the buildup of garbage, animals, and frequent noise at the Powelton Village house. In May 1977, MOVE refused to allow city housing and health inspectors to enter and brandished weapons. In response, the city began a 24 hour surveillance blockade of the house. In May 1978, MOVE agreed to leave the house within 90 days and allow it to be searched in exchange for the end of the blockade. (Durbin 5) After the city found only dummy firearms during the search, the terms of the 90 day agreement were disputed. (Garry and McKenna) The 90 days expired at the end of July, and Judge Fred Di Bona ordered the arrests of the MOVE members for violating the agreement. (Durbin 2)
On August 8, 1978, Mayor Frank Rizzo ordered police to enter the house, arrest the MOVE members inside, then raze the house with a bulldozer. Three hundred police arrived, supported by a variety of equipment, as well as deluge guns from the fire department. MOVE members shouted at the police through a bullhorn and refused to speak with negotiators. Then they barricaded themselves in the basement. Police attempted to force them out with tear gas and battering rams attached to cranes. A shootout ensued. When the gunfire stopped, Officer James Ramp lay dead and three other officers were seriously wounded. Eight guns, including semi-automatic rifles and handguns, were recovered from the basement. Mayor Rizzo ordered that the house be immediately destroyed, which precluded a thorough investigation of the house and paraffin tests for the presence of gunpowder. (Durbin 4)
On August 4, 1981, nine MOVE members were convicted of third degree murder and sentenced to prison terms of 30 to 100 years for the killing of Officer Ramp. These members came to be known as the ‘MOVE 9.’ The defendants chose to represent themselves, but were removed from the courtroom for disruptive behavior. (Washington 74). MOVE has raised concerns that Ramp could not have been shot by a MOVE member from the basement, which was below ground level, because he “died of a bullet that penetrated the left side of the base of his neck and traveled downward and toward the rear of the body.” (Caparella 18) They also hold that nine individuals can not be convicted for firing the one bullet that killed Officer Ramp. (“MOVE 9”) The destruction of their Powelton Village house and the incarceration of the MOVE 9 shifted MOVE’s focus towards radical political activism and made relations with the city and police even more fractious. Former MOVE member Louise James described the shift as one of attitude, not belief: “MOVE principle has never changed. MOVE’s mood--and I’m talking about bitterness now--did change.” (qtd. in Wagner-Pacifici 30) In the report summarizing their investigation of the 1985 bombing, The Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission found that “by the 1980s, MOVE had evolved into an authoritarian, violence-threatening cult” whose members “saw themselves as the targets of persistent harassment by regulatory agencies, unjust treatment by the courts, and periodic violent attempts to be suppressed by the police.” (United States 13) It is noteworthy that this official document indicts MOVE’s response to these actions more so than the harassment itself. Nonetheless, this tangible shift in attitude manifested in an increased willingness to brandish weapons and threaten violence on the part of MOVE and an overtly confrontational approach from police.
After the shootout, MOVE took up a new residence at 6221 Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek, West Philadelphia. The alienating conduct which took place in Powelton Village continued and increased in the new residence with a commensurate rise in neighborhood tension. In addition to the pests, dogs, and smell which had irritated neighbors in the past, MOVE began broadcasting political messages over a loudspeaker system for hours every day, peppering their speeches with profanity, slander of individuals, and direct threats of violence. They also began barricading and expanding their house, notably adding a fortified sniper nest on the roof. These actions drew a slew of complaints and increased scrutiny from the police. (Wagner-Pacifici 33) The conflict escalated and came to a horrifying head on May 13, 1985, when a massive police raid culminated in a bomb dropped on the roof of the house. Eleven were killed and 61 houses were destroyed. (Washington 67) This infamous moment has come to define MOVE in collective memory and remains a painful open wound in Philadelphia history. However, this paper challenges the dominance of that hyper-visible incident, affirming the historicity of the 1978 shootout as a means of amplifying the larger MOVE story. The earlier incident propelled state violence against MOVE into public consciousness and created a palpable shift in MOVE-Philadelphia relations. By analyzing the discourse and media coverage surrounding the 1978 shootout, we can begin to understand how it preceded and produced the 1985 bombing.
These photographs were taken by photographer Jim Domke. They were captured during the 1978 shootout and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 9, 1978, the day after the raid. The captions, read together, say: “Delbert Africa, surrendering to police, is about to get struck in the head with a helmet. After the blow, he is sprawled out ... until an officer grabs him by the hair … and drags him out onto the sidewalk, where another officer prepares to deliver a kick. The beating of Delbert Africa continues until finally he is hoisted to his feet and led toward a police wagon, where one officer restrains another from landing yet another blow.” (Domke) Delbert Africa was Minister of Confrontation and Security for MOVE and convicted for the murder of Officer James Ramp. (“Move 9”) The photo in the top-left corner has become one of the most iconic images of MOVE, used frequently in their publications and artwork.
The photographs are captured from above in a documentary style. The compositions are dominated by Delbert Africa, shirtless, and police officers moving dynamically about him. The movement of the officers and positioning of their bodies focus attention on Delbert Africa. For instance, in the top-left photo, the left cop’s fist and the right’s rifle form convergent lines toward Africa’s face.
In the middle-right photo, the officers’ legs and arms point inward, drawing attention away from the edges and toward Delbert Africa in the center of the frame. Domke uses dramatic chiaroscuro lighting in these photos. The stark contrast between light and dark creates visual tension, like a Renaissance painting. It also lends a certain heroism to the images. In the top-left photo, the sunlight spotlights Africa’s face, concentrating the viewer’s attention there. In the next image, the bright lighting on Africa’s supine body against the shadowy background gives a sacrificial, epic air to him.This combination of lighting and angles renders Africa’s face the focal point of the photograph and imbues the images with a great deal of pathos. However, the later images depict Africa as passive and faceless, eroding that sense of empathy. Between the first and last image, Africa appears to transform from a tragic hero to a helpless victim.
Scholars of war and human rights photography have noted this connection between temporality and the body. Linfield writes that “The very thing that critics have assailed photographs for not doing—explaining causation, process, relationships—is connected to the very thing they do so well: present us, to ourselves and each other, as bodily creatures.” (52). In the final frames of this sequence, Delbert Africa has been subdued and beaten down; the obscuring of his face symbolizes his submission and reduction to just a body. Michel Foucault noted the gap between the soul and the body as the locus of punishment. He describes the evolution of modern discipline as one where if “it is still necessary for the law to reach and manipulate the body of the convict, it will be at a distance, in the proper way, according to strict rules, and with a much ‘higher aim.’” (Foucault 11) In essence, state violence might be understood as the reversion of punishment back to the body in pain. Assuming an evolved and modern society where punishment is wrought through discipline instead of torture, the most obvious instances of state violence will be those where punishment is meted directly to the body. The sequential submission of Delbert Africa in the photo series symbolize state violence’s regression to torture.
Returning to the Linfield quote, one must address how this photo sequence rebuts criticism of photography’s failures. This unique photo spread actually explains “causation, process, relationships” rather well. The presentation of many photos expands the temporal range of this event. The images undergo a narrativization with characters and plot. Motion, and its photographic portrayal as blurring, organize the characters and structure the plot within each frame. In the top-left photo, Delbert Africa stands still with his feet planted and arms outstretched, Christ-like. His expression is startlingly quiet given the commotion of the scene. These features render Africa static, as though his body were fixed in place as the officers orbit around him. The officers’ extremities are blurred, evoking movement in a still frame. This passive-active relationship colors the violence with a sense of abuse, overreach, or injustice. While Africa stands still, the officers move rapidly about him, applying punishment to the body. The blurring of the motion in each frame suggests the limitations of photography as a narrative tool, but the sum of the photo sequence clarifies its possibilities. Though the shutter can only capture one instant, later photos continue the story like a film with a low frame rate. Blurred objects in each image indicate action beyond the specific moment and stitch the frames together. For instance, the blurring of the helmet in the first image foreshadows its impact with Africa’s body, which is realized in the next shot of him collapsed on the ground.
A photograph of a Black man being attacked by a group of White men as extrajudicial punishment necessarily recalls the tortured history of lynching photography. Raiford writes that “repetition of the lynching narrative over the course of the twentieth century has both compounded the violence of lynching and has served to anesthetize audiences to Black pain and suffering.” (124) The lynching connotations of this photo position it within a historical continuum of Black crime. It also invokes the iconicity of the Black male body as lynching victim. Altogether, this has the effect of amplifying suppositions of criminality around Delbert Africa and legitimizing the beating as a form of punishment. The viewer comes to see this incident not as an isolated and objectionable one, but just another in a series of just White responses to Black crimes. The image engages that “anesthesia” to lessen the emotional impact of its subject matter. The “lynching narrative” thus justifies this instance of state violence against historical context.
The bird’s-eye-view positioning of the camera and blurred motion are typical for journalistic action photography. This observational view is natural for an unstaged photograph. But it also increases the viewer’s detachment from the subject matter. Such a simplistic composition follows a trend of photojournalism which “confuses moral weight with aesthetic clumsiness, and it is more concerned with the clear conscience of the viewer than with the plight of the injured subject.” (Linfield 59) In other words, a less attractive composition enables a less empathetic reaction from the viewer, separating them from the suffering the photo portrays. This mode of viewing such violent subject matter creates a sense of voyeurism or surveillance in the image. Through the photographer’s lens, the viewer becomes an additional witness to this instance of police brutality. However, the trademark look of photojournalism might make the viewer a consumer, rather than an objecting observer, of this instance of state violence.
The Kleinmans note how “the cultural capital of trauma victims--their wounds, their scars, their tragedy--is appropriated by the same popular codes through which physical and sexual violence are commodified, sold in the cinema, marketed as pornography, and used by tabloids and novelists to attract readers.” (10) Therefore, the distance created by these images between Delbert Africa’s suffering and the viewer allows for interpretation which does not engage the civic conscience. Concerns about how these photos legitimize violence are especially salient given the long history of police violence against Black people. Leigh Raiford notes that “because we are forced to look both at the photograph and within it, as both document and social practice, we are confronted with photography's own silent indifference.” (129) The sale of these photos and their consumption by the public demand a choice from the viewer. Will they consume these images as the status quo? Or will they engage with them as documentation of overreach and abuse? The composition, narrativization, and stylized publication of these images make that decision difficult. The photos use these techniques to leave enough emotional distance between subject and viewer that they can experience state violence with disengaged passivity. In this way, they tacitly justify state violence.
This AP editorial photo was taken during the shootout. The caption reads: “Philadelphia stakeout officer points high powered rifle at crying young MOVE child after MOVE members pushed her out the basement window to prevent more gunfire, August 8, 1978. Police beckoned to her, as she sobbed, ‘Don't shoot, don't shoot’. The shootout that preceded her words killed one police officer, wounded five others, hurt five firemen and wounded two ‘MOVE’ members.’” (“MOVE Shootout With Police”) The square-format image shows a distressed child standing against the house in the background. The foreground is filled by two kneeling officers aiming guns at the girl. The girl is captured clearly while the officers are blurry, rendering her the focal point of the image. The scene is cluttered with wooden debris and the house appears decrepit. The girl has long dreadlocks, iconic of MOVE members, and wears a ragged nightgown. The police wear tactical gear.
This image is particularly charged for its depiction of a child in peril. Though the site of guns aimed at a child is universally disturbing, children were a uniquely prominent subject of discourse surrounding MOVE. Children “came to symbolize the sentimental and the sacred” and functioned as the moral center of the argument. (Wagner-Pacifici, 53) Debates about MOVE’s right to exist and the necessity of intervention often returned to the wellbeing of their children. But, in a less generous light, they also became rhetorical symbols of MOVE’s otherness and nonconformity. Debates about the MOVE children were in fact debates about MOVE itself: “Were they kids, plain and simple, similar in all respects (except appearance and diet) to the other neighborhood kids? Were they feral children, growing up wild in the middle of civilization? Were they guerillas-in-training, similar to children caught in wars and resistance movements in places such as Afghanistan? Answers varied.” (Wagner-Pacifici 57). These questions are less concerned with the children themselves, as much as they are with MOVE’s resistance to categorization. Concern for the “sacred” child is in fact skepticism of the caregiver. In an opinion published in the Inquirer, Pete Dexter justified the beating of Delbert Africa as natural for someone “who has been hiding behind kids.” (Dexter) This narrative is reinforced in the caption: “MOVE members pushed her out.” The portrayal of the child in this image invokes all of the public tropes and fears of MOVE. The girl’s dirty gown, uncut hair, and debris-littered surroundings imply the “feral” child. The guns pointed at her and the severity of the police response imply the “guerilla” child. And her pained expression implies the “similar” child. Therefore, this image reinforces public distrust of MOVE, amplifying fears by projecting them onto a child.
The supposed purity of children is exploited by the suggestion of a colonialistic power dynamic, which justifies the actions of the police. In her distressed and unkempt appearance, the girl is presented as subaltern. In photography, “the image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability.” (Kleinman 15) This photograph is drenched in neocolonialist imagery. The sight of armed officers of the state aiming guns at a person of color draws heavily on hegemonic symbolism. The “failure, inadequacy … and fatalism” suggested by that dynamic reiterate the unsuitably of MOVE as caregivers. The caption attempts to frame this image as one of benevolence by describing the officer as “beckon[ing] to her.” But who are the officers helping? The girl would probably be in less distress were there not firearms aimed at her. Here, we can see the truth of the “similar” child. This notion of violence as assistance recalls painful, Kipling-esque colonialism. By invoking these themes, this photo discredits MOVE’s ability to raise children properly and justifies state violence as intervention.
This photo also creates a dramatic visual dichotomy between the officers and the girl. The appearance of each form a distinctive iconography that privileges the authority of the state over MOVE. MOVE’s troubled history has been attributed to a “dichotomization of the world” which positions the organization as counter to normative society at large. (Wagner-Pacifici 50) Such a distinction manifests in the subjects’ appearance. The police wear uniforms, handcuffs, and guns. The police “constantly reveal the violence of the state in their uniformed appearance and their methods.” (Wagner-Pacifici, 125) These vestiges of the state are synecdochal, simultaneously symbols and instruments of power. (A gun not only suggests violence, but enacts it.) The police enjoy anonymity in the photo, just as their faces and names will not appear in a courtroom later. Meanwhile, the girl’s dreadlocks and simple clothes contribute to a visual othering against the uniformity of the officers. This radical self-presentation reflects a radical othering of lifestyle. If the officers’ appearances represent the power of the state, the girl’s represents a revolutionary non-conformity. Against the sterility and uniformity of the officers, she appears to be a product of another life, another world. Once again, colonialist notions of appearance are engaged.The photo uses the subjects’ disparate appearances as imagery to enforce a power dynamic of the state over MOVE.
These visual differences encode an iconography of power and violence. Each side’s distinct cues can be distilled to a dictionary of signs. For the police, these signs are badges, guns, uniforms, boots, and helmets. For MOVE, they are dreadlocks, simple clothing, and Blackness. Studying lynching photography, Raiford noted that “victims imprisoned within the photographs' frames are reified and reinvented as the embodiment of racial ideology. Icons, by their very nature, mask differences and conflict.” (124) MOVE is further disadvantaged through icons of Blackness In photography, MOVE members might automatically associated be with negative tropes of Black visuality, such as Delbert Africa and the lynched Black rapist. Through icons, the relationship between the police and the girl is made into discrete, unambiguous terms. White and Black, normative and othered, powerful and powerless. In this image, all of these icons are employed to privilege the police. Combining sentimental notions of childhood, colonialist ideas of charity, and symbolic dictionaries of power, the image dramatically justifies the actions of the state.Similar issues of child-rearing are raised by this photo, shot by Norman Lono for the Philadelphia Daily News. The caption read: “Women MOVE members and children wade through water from deluge gun directed at group’s cellar.” Two MOVE women, escort five nude children of various ages through several inches of water and wooden debris after their surrender to police. The image is shot from above and has a sense of horizontal movement from left to right. These women are defined by an iconography of motherhood. Through their bodies, expressions, and the children that surround them, the viewer understands that these women bear the responsibility of child-bearing and its associated stresses. But a more careful, intersectional reading of the image reveals how notions of Black womanhood, iconicity, and othered mothering suggest their subjugation.
Compared to the previous two photos, this image is peaceful. The movement is slower, no police are visible, and the gunshots have subsided. Yet, in its implied comparison to violence, the image indicates a great deal about how MOVE women are subjugated by tropes of Black women’s visuality. In this case, the press’s focus on Delbert Africa is an instance of how “resituating political discourse within or on the Black male body ... threatens to preclude difficult conversations about violence against Black women.” (Raiford 124) Delbert Africa’s beating is visceral and violent, but the attention paid to it obscures the other types of state violence suffered by MOVE women as a result of this shootout: imprisonment, forced single motherhood, residential eviction, as well as physical violence. Photography is a rich tool for capturing instances of bodily harm. It is less aptly suited toward more nebulous, intangible types of violence, which are just as real. In this instance, photography “does not necessarily translate into believing, caring, or acting.” (Linfield 47) These women and children are in this predicament with little context for how they came to be there and who is responsible. The caption elucidates the cause, but it does not translate into an emotional understanding of their situation. The subjects are simply in this situation, not put there as a result of violence. Therefore, the photo protects the state from blame instead of documenting its violence.
The technical quality of the image also subjects the women to harmful visual tropes. Photography as a medium is historically biased against Black bodies. The use of poorly-calibrated color cards made Black skin appear darker on film, perhaps explaining the monochromatic darkness of this photo. (del Barco) The subjects are exposed to the biases of colorism on the Black female body. Nicole Fleetwood writes that “the terror of colorism as a visual regime is rooted in the history of White rape and torture of Black bodies and a larger racial structure of subjugating Blacks.” (Fleetwood 75) By exaggerating the darkness of their skin, this photo fixes a legacy of sexual subjugation to its subjects. Darkening the skin deepens MOVEs otherness and empowers a colonialistic viewing of this photo. It accordingly erodes the viewer’s empathy, reducing their compassion for women as unseen victims of state violence. Viewer attention is concentrated on the body, widening the distance between viewer and subject and lessening their compassion. Once again, visual tropes of Black bodies are invoked with the effect of iconizing them and insulating the state from blame.
These visual tropes are made more salient through the photo’s implication of motherhood. As discussed earlier, sensitivities about MOVE’s otherness flared up when children were involved. Such is the case with this image, with dramatic consequences for the supposed mothers. As a revolutionary, collectivist organization, MOVE members filled non-normative domestic roles. Motherhood, too, must have been revolutionary, embedded in “a politics of necessity and responsibility, a politics that enhances our encumbrance upon each other while rejecting the extension of our dependence on state and capital.” (Oka 53) The iconography of this image suggests “bad” motherhood in a normative sense: unclothed children walking through debris, tired mothers struggling to manage them.But the myth of good motherhood ignores the ways in which MOVE collectivizes and revolutionizes child-rearing. (It also does not consider that this was a moment of crisis.) This photo and caption do not clarify who the women are or whose children they are. The non-normativity of MOVE was already a subject of public scorn, particularly with regard to childcare. But how could MOVE depend on “state and capital?” The only option for positive mothering was a revolutionary mothering based on encumbrance, necessity, and responsibility. This photo exposes its female subjects to the brunt of the negative reaction against such non-normativity and encodes “bad motherhood” in its iconography. Once again, MOVE is subjugated in the public arena through photographic depictions.
Perhaps the most obvious evidence of the mainstream press’s bias against MOVE from the 1978 shootout is this Daily News cover. In giant, bold letters along the top reads “‘Oh My God -- They Shot a Cop!’” Such a headline is incendiary, charged, and confusing. MOVE has argued that the angle of entry for the bullet that killed Ramp could not have come from their position in the basement. Yet, they are implicitly convicted on the cover of a major paper. The use of “they” pluralizes the action of shooting. However, only one bullet entered a cop. If discourse analysis concerns the gap between language and violence, then little needs to be done to connect this pluralization of the verb to the imprisonment of the MOVE 9 for firing one bullet. Below the headline, three officers tend to the fatally wounded Ramp. Nowhere on the cover is the beaten Delbert Africa, the razed house, the imprisoned adults, and parentless children. Instead, the cover is dominated by the lionized officers. This reinforces the subjugation of MOVE and celebration of the officers, as pure an endorsement of state violence as one could find.
The sum total of these visual and textual elements is an iconography of power which privileges the police and subjugates MOVE. Exploiting tropes of photography’s explanatory weaknesses, Black iconicity and visuality, otherness, the sentimentality of children, and existing skepticism of MOVE, these images succeed in further discrediting MOVE to the advantage of the state. This reproduces the power dynamic between the two in the press. Its reproduction in the press leads to its continued manifestation in reality, preserving the state’s unchallenged power over MOVE. That power enables state violence in all its forms. In this way, the photojournalistic discourse surrounding the 1978 shootout legitimized state violence. It is then plausible that the continued discourse enabled the continuation of violence through the 1985 bombing.
The photojournalism surrounding the 1978 MOVE shootout creates an iconography of power by visually empowering the police and subjugating MOVE. In replicating this power dynamic in photography and in the press, the photography legitimized state violence against MOVE. Using a number of compositional methods, tropes of Black visuality, and methods of iconization, the images replicate existing power dynamics that enable and justify state violence. However, this analysis is incomplete. It considers a small number of photos without much consideration for the text they ran with. It only considers mainstream news outlets, ignoring radical and Black presses which would offer a substantially different take on MOVE and the actions of the state. It also ignores how these photos have been reworked and recontextualized into art and political materials. These areas are all ones which should be explored as the body of MOVE scholarship grows toward a more complete understanding of the organization, its history, and its relevance as a Black radical group and victim of state violence.