“Birth of a rebel.”
May 1st, 1989. What brought Ramona Johnson, a shy, introverted but strong-willed woman, to courtroom 253 of Philadelphia’s decaying city hall. A law student at Temple University, she seemed drawn to the legal drama unfolding around nine men and women of the MOVE organization.
The trial Commonwealth v. Africa was an aftermath to the spectacular police assault of August 8th, 1978, a siege of the MOVE house and headquarters that took on all the trimmings of urban war. Few were untouched by the widely televised raid, and many were split into angry polarized camps.
Ramona did support work for the tenant action group and was jailed once briefly while demonstrating on behalf of then-state senator T. Milton Street for housing rights for the poor. She began showing up regularly at MOVE trials and became a legal runner on their behalf, getting cases and doing research for the imprisoned Africas at the MOVE Nine trial.
As a matter of principle and religious belief, the Africas elected to represent themselves. This decision evoked public comments of derision in the press, many citing the old axiom, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” The Africas defended themselves acutely and aggressively, making a number of points in their defense as they examined and crossed examined witnesses.
While nine court-appointed lawyers sat idly and, for the most part silently, by, there was no jury, so a squadron of regional press sat in the jury box. On the bench sat Edwin S. Malnud, an old white grandfatherly looking jurist who was approaching retirement. By trials end, that image, like the illusion of American justice itself, would be shattered.
Central to the state’s objective, convicting MOVE, was the issue of representation. The media clamor grew in protest of the unorthodox style of self-representation reflected by the Africas, and in mid trial, judge Malud made his move. The Africas, Merl, Delbert, Debbie, Mike, Janine, Phil, Janet, Chucky, and Eddie were, by his order, removed from representation over their strenuous objections. It appeared the Africas were defending themselves too well.
Nearly a century before the United States came into being, back in 1682, the Pennsylvania Charter of Liberties of William Penn provided, in article six, that “In courts, all persons of all persuasions may freely appear in their own manner and there personally plead their own cause themselves.”
In 1789, the new nation’s first Congress enacted a law signed by president Washington protecting the right of self-representation. In the 1975 Faretta case, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that right in a state criminal trial and held that the state may not force a lawyer upon a defendant who wanted to defend himself.
In 1980, in the Africa case, nearly 300 years of common law, as well as Pennsylvania and U.S. precedent was trashed when Malnud forced lawyers upon the unwilling nine defendants. The dramatic communal defense sputtered to a chaotic halt as nine lawyers each tried to outshine the other. Lost in the shuffle of legalese were nine lives, the defendants, denied the fundamental right to represent themselves.
They spent much of the trial in protest absentia and were convicted of all charges despite significant evidence of their innocence. Shortly after the trial, the judge would publicly admit he had “No idea” who slew the cop on August 8th, 1978, but such a critical question didn’t stop him from sending all nine men and women to jail with sentences of 100 years each.
Ramona Johnson sat throughout the long, hard-fought trial, and what she saw bore little resemblance to what she had been taught in law school. The trial both enraged and enlightened her as she saw the law of the system perverted for political ends, and she learned of the teachings of John Africa, MOVE law, which denounced the system’s law as the way of the outlaw.
She was radicalized by repression and emerged from the painful trial determined to resist the system that could casually consign nine of her innocent people to a century in jail—and with such determination came solid commitment to a cause. You know her as Ramona Africa, survivor of May 13th, 1985, but that is another story to tell.
Birth of a Rebel was written May 1st, 1989. This is Mumia Abu-Jamal.