What if the MOVE cofounders had attended Cambridge, or the Best Friends Animal Society cofounders had come from inner Philadelphia?
PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania; KANAB, Utah––The Philadelphia City Council on November 12, 2020 formally apologized for the May 13, 1985 bombing of a row house compound that killed 11 members of MOVE, an inner city cult whose beliefs combined vegetarianism and animal rights philosophy with Black Panther-inspired armed militancy.
Fatalities from the bombing, by Philadelphia police, included five children between the ages of seven and 13. The bombing started a fire that razed 61 homes in all.
“Day of observation, reflection, & recommitment”
The November 12, 2020 resolution by the Philadelphia City Council also establishes “an annual day of observation, reflection, and recommitment on May 13, in the spirit of moving forward, reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all people of the City of Philadelphia.”
The Philadelphia City Council apologized specifically for “recklessness in communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution management in crucial matters related to the MOVE Family, their neighbors, friends, and the first responders.”
The apology came three years after Charles Manson, the founder and leader of an altogether different cult, died on November 19, 2017 in Kern County, California, in custody of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation.
Manson, convicted of mass murder and serial killing, thereby completed nine concurrent life sentences.
These facts would be of little note, if any, to the humane community, but for an ancient and nasty rumor circulated chiefly by persons associated with animal use industries that Manson somehow had some sort of hazy association with the founders of the Best Friends Animal Society.
In truth, only one person associated with Best Friends appears to have ever met or communicated with Manson. That was Best Friends founding board member John Fripp, who visited Manson in prison once, circa 40 years before Manson’s death, while digging for a scoop as an interviewer for a short-lived counter-culture-oriented magazine.
Rising from privilege to $100 million in the bank
But the Best Friends Animal Society, now with annual revenues and assets each exceeding $100 million, is loosely descended from a cult of sorts, some of whom drifted to California during the 1960s, along with hundreds of thousands of other unfocused youth, trying to “find themselves” and figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up.
The success of Best Friends, in contrast with the near-annihilation of MOVE, might in retrospect demonstrate most the role of what is today known as “white privilege” in determining who succeeded in challenging “The Establishment,” as opposed to who failed and died in the attempt.
Best Friends Animal Society cofounder and president Gregory Castle “is a graduate of Cambridge University with a master’s degree in philosophy and psychology,” according to Best Friends media releases.
Most of the other Best Friends cofounders, seven still living and three deceased, had comparable backgrounds and educational opportunity, if not equivalent attainment.
Survived early scrapes
All could be considered scions of white privilege. That helped them to survive some of their earliest scrapes.
The earliest identifiable media notice of the Best Friends Animal Society founders was a brief article by Colin Frost of The Independent, published on November 21, 1966, headlined “British Cultists ‘Find Paradise’ But Went From Riches to Rags.”
Reported Frost, “Five English youths have returned home from the Mexican headquarters of a cult known as The Process. The attorney who brought them home said he found them living in rags in a disused and roofless salt factory in Xtul, a remote village [in Yucatan] on the Gulf of Mexico. The cult was founded in London,” Frost wrote, “by an English couple, Robert and Mary Ann de Grimston, as an amateur group practicing psychotherapy.
Lived on beans
“In June ,” Frost continued, “22 members — 15 men and seven women — left their six-story house in fashionable Mayfair and went first to the Bahamas, then on to Mexico, where after a hurricane hit they were left without gas, electricity, water or sanitation. The group lives on beans,” Frost said.
Some of the group, including Hugh Mountain, then a 20-year-old Oxford University dropout, now much better known as Best Friends Animal Society cofounder Michael Mountain, soon relocated again, this time to the United States.
Initially calling themselves “The Foundation Faith Church of the Millennium,” the group first formally incorporated in New Orleans in 1967 as The Process Church of the Final Judgement, claiming that their mission was to “conduct spiritual and occult research.”
During the next five years the Best Friends Animal Society cofounders drifted to Los Angeles; wrote bizarre statements on required public accountability documents, essentially mocking bureaucracy; and staged flamboyant publicity stunts to help promote their activities and proto-New Age philosophy.
Along the way the group gathered additional eventual Best Friends Animal Society cofounders.
“While traveling in the U.S. in 1968, I met Francis Battista in New York,” Mountain recalled in a 1995 interview. “I also first met Cyrus Mejia in New Orleans at about that time. Mejia was a shipyard welder. I met our computer person Steve Hirano then, too, in Los Angeles.”
“Trouble gaining traction”
But the growing band initially struggled to find a focal purpose.
Some were transiently involved in animal issues. Mountain had hawked anti-vivisection literature on the streets in Germany, and had written an anti-vivisection tract himself. Francis Battista had been an animal rescue volunteer for a time in Miami. Most––perhaps all––were vegetarians. But neither animal advocacy nor animal rescue were among their primary activities until 1986.
As Lou Klizer of the Rocky Mountain News summarized in 2004, “The group had trouble gaining traction, no matter how outrageous they acted. Mountain chalks this up to their philosophy of abstinence from sex and drugs–not overly popular notions in the 1960s. In 1971, a book [by Fugs band member Ed Sanders] speculated on Manson’s possible connection to the Process Church. They sued. The publisher apologized, recalled the books, and issued subsequent editions without the offending chapter. But with the birth of the Internet, the legend has only grown.”
The original Process Church broke up when the deGrimstons split. Mary Ann deGrimston remained in close contact with the Best Friends cofounders, and eventually remarried to Gabriel de Peyer, one of the group who originally met in England.
The de Peyers too became Best Friends Animal Sanctuary cofounders. Mary Ann de Peyer died at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in 2005.
Robert deGrimston went his own way, making sporadic efforts to start a new church, having nothing further to do with the group who became Best Friends.
Scattered, then re-united
The Best Friends cofounders continued as close friends, often widely separated by geography, pursuing their jobs and lives. Several worked in the social services.
Ernst Paul Eckhoff, who died at 72 in a single-car accident, was an architect. Chris dePeyer, brother of Gabriel, was a civil engineer. Francis Battista sold real estate. Nathania Gartman, who died in 2003, entertained severely burned children at a Denver hospital. Sharon St. Joan was an itinerant faith healer. Faith Maloney was a Pennsylvania housewife. Cyrus Mejia built his reputation as an artist.
Time, circumstance, and a common interest in helping animals reunited them, as recounted by Samantha Glen in Best Friends: The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary (2001).
From movie set to sanctuary
Their first sanctuary site, near Prescott, Arizona, proved inaccessible to visitors.
Best Friends arrived in Kanab after a two-year search for somewhere better. The only local tourist attraction of note then was an abandoned collection of prop buildings used in filming some of the 92 Hollywood westerns that were made at Angel Canyon between 1924, when Tom Mix starred in Deadwood Coach, and 1976, when Clint Eastwood starred in The Outlaw Josie Wales, the last Kanab production.
Best Friends bought the site and gradually turned it into the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary of today.
Initially, to save money, the founders worked under the dormant Process Church nonprofit incorporation instead of reincorporating. They reincorporated as the secular Best Friends Animal Society in 1995.
Grew like a business empire
Even by then, vanishingly little remained to recall Best Friends’ haphazard beginnings. The Best Friends story since then has increasingly resembled the growth trajectory of any other successful corporation, increasing revenue, adding professional staff, and expanding to serve an ever-wider clientele.
The focal activity of the Best Friends enterprise happened to be rescuing and rehoming dogs and cats, pursuing a no-kill philosophy that includes aggressive promotion of pit bulls in a manner that ANIMALS 24-7 considers ill-advised, reckless, and ultimately doomed to become self-defeating, no matter how much money is raised to fund ever more pit bull rescue and advocacy, instead of birth prevention and prohibition of sale.
Structurally, though, Best Friends could as easily have been selling computers and software, organically grown vegetables, or life insurance, among other commodities and services, and the same advertising and management strategies would have worked. Once the Best Friends cofounders decided what they really wanted to do together, they had inherited a head start, at least, toward having the skills and opportunities they needed to succeed.
MOVE founder was reputed illiterate
MOVE––exactly what the initials originally stood for is unclear––began in 1972 as the Christian Movement for Life. Founder John Africa, born Vincent Leaphart, was reportedly functionally illiterate, but dictated a 300-page document called The Guideline to social worker Donald Glassey, which became the MOVE creed.
Initially an all-black organization, reputedly inspired at least in part by the Black Panther Party headquartered in Oakland, California, MOVE “advocated a radical form of green politics and a return to a hunter-gatherer society, while stating their opposition to science, medicine, and technology,” summarizes Wikipedia.
According to John Africa’s MOVE Organization: The Story of a Shattered Movement, by Amy Nicole, “They were raw vegans protesting zoos and pet shops, taking in stray animals, composting, home schooling and preaching about the sacredness of life in the middle of a city that had no time to listen. All MOVE members adopted the Africa surname, wore their hair in natural dreadlocks, and eschewed modern conveniences, drugs, alcohol and any chemicals, including birth control.”
Much of this activity paralleled the early activities of the Best Friends Animal Society. One prominent difference, however, was that the Best Friends Animal Society always encouraged spay/neuter, whereas MOVE opposition to birth control apparently extended to opposing spay/neuter.
At the time, though, while encouraging spay/neuter had become the norm within animal advocacy, there were still enough prominent opponents that the MOVE position would not have been conspicuous.
The American Humane Association, for instance, formally opposed spay/neuter from 1923 to 1973, and several early leaders of the animal rights movement as it exists today maintained philosophical opposition to spay/neuter as recently as 1987.
Communicated by bullhorn
Though Amy Nicole’s description of MOVE appears to be idealized and highly selective, raw veganism, stray rescue, and self-styled animal advocacy and environmentalism were all part of the complex MOVE story.
Lack of formal education, criminal records, and deep suspicion of mass media, however, helped to prevent the early MOVE leadership from presenting an informed, coherent, articulate and persuasive self-description to outsiders.
Initially MOVE members shared a commune in the Powelton Village neighborhood of West Philadelphia. “They staged bullhorn-amplified, profanity-laced demonstration against institutions that they opposed, such as zoos,” Wikipedia recounts, attracting “close scrutiny from law enforcement.”
Cop killed in shootout
A failed eviction attempt in 1977 led to a 1978 shoot-out, in which Philadelphia police officer James J. Ramp was killed by a shot to the back of the neck. Seven other police officers, five firefighters, three MOVE members, and three bystanders were also injured.
The defense for nine MOVE members who were charged with killing Ramp contended that he was killed by “friendly fire,” but the nine were nonetheless convicted of third degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Two have died in prison; the remaining seven were released between June 2018 and February 2020.
Relocating after the shoot-out to a row house in the nearby Cobbs Creek district of West Philadelphia, MOVE continued to attract complaints from neighbors. Finally, on May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police arrived with arrest warrants charging four residents with alleged offenses including parole violations, contempt of court, illegal possession of firearms, and making terrorist threats.
A second shoot-out followed.
Eventually Philadelphia police commissioner Gregoire J. Sambor had two “entry devices” made from an FBI-supplied water gel explosive dropped by helicopter on what was described as “a fortified, bunker-like cubicle on the roof of the house.”
The “fortified, bunker-like cubicle” was actually a generator housing. The “entry devices,” more accurately described as small bombs, detonated the generator fuel supply, starting a fire that killed John Africa, five other adults, and the five child victims.
Rapidly spreading, the fire eventually destroyed 61 other homes in the neighborhood.
Firefighters already on the scene, who had earlier tried to hose the MOVE members out of the building, were ordered to stand back and let the fire burn, rather than brave gunfire to try to put it out.
MOVE still exists, but not active on AR
A federal court jury in June 1996 ordered the city of Philadelphia to pay MOVE member Ramona Africa and the estates of John Africa and MOVE member Frank James Africa a total $1.5 million in damages. Ramona Africa’s son Birdie Africa had earlier been awarded $1.7 million in a separate verdict.
MOVE still exists, but has not been prominently involved in animal or vegan advocacy in decades.
Yet Philadelphia police surveillance records and old Philadelphia Daily News clippings document that MOVE held at least nine demonstrations presaging the animal rights movement between July 1973 and September 1974.
Picketed the AVMA
The first documented MOVE action on behalf of animals came on July 18, 1973, when 15 MOVE members led by a “Mr. DeWitt” protested, for reasons unclear from the published description of the event, at the annual convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Six months later, on January 29-30, 1974, Gilbert Orr, apparently the same person later identified as Delbert Orr and Delbert Africa, led 15 MOVE members in two days of demonstrations outside Puppy Palace, a pet shop.
Protest signs carried at the Puppy Palace demonstrations also denounced the Philadelphia Zoo, Liberty Bell Race Track, and Devon Horse Show.
First to demonstrate against Ringling
On May 29 and June 1, 1974, MOVE assembled up to 25 demonstrators, their biggest animal-related turnout, outside performances by the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus.
According to 20 Years On The Move, a history of the organization distributed by Citizens In Support of MOVE, the first of these protests came 11 days after members “Leeing and Janet Africa, both pregnant at the time, were so brutally beaten by [Philadelphia] police that they both had miscarriages.”
Janet Africa was confirmed by police surveillance reports to have been a participant in the May 29, 1974 demonstration. The three sign slogans recorded by the police observers all included ambiguous references to unspecified grievances going beyond the treatment of circus animals, but did not mention police beatings or a miscarriage. The one sign that explicitly mentioned either animals or a specific issue reportedly read, “This is not just a protest against Ringling Brothers Circus, but against the sadistic exploitive system mentality that permits and encourages this vicious mistreatment of life.”
Philadelphia Zoo & Devon Horse Show
On June 13, 1974, MOVE protested at the Philadelphia Zoo. A third demonstration against the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus came three days later.
Two weeks after that, on July 1, 1974, MOVE protested in the afternoon at the Philadelphia Zoo and in the evening at the Devon Horse Show.
On July 3, 1974 a police report mentioned that a protest was held, for reasons unclear, outside a Philadelphia bank. As at most of the other demonstrations, Delbert Africa was described as coordinator, and the participant count was 15. This was the only one of the demonstrations at which MOVE founder John Africa was identified as present.
Ramona Africa, the most prominent spokesperson for MOVE since 1985, instrumental in keeping alive recollections of early vegan and animal rights advocacy, was not identified as a participant in any of the demonstrations in 1973-1974.
Protest on behalf of chimpanzee
Under the headline “A Monkey’s Uncle,” Philadelphia Daily News TV columnist Tom Fox on September 19, 1974 described one more MOVE protest involving animals, occurring the preceding day, when six members led by Delbert Africa handcuffed variety show host Mike Douglas during a videotaping session, to protest the handcuffing and drugging of a chimpanzee who went berserk during a previous taping.
Fox hinted that producer Owen Simon knew in advance what was going to happen, or at least that something was going to happen.
Active early, but unable to build from there
Most, but not all, of the animal-related MOVE protests followed the January 1, 1974 publication of the book Man Kind?, by Cleveland Amory, a best-selling precursor to the rise of the animal rights movement, as distinguished from the ancestor humane, antivivisection, and animal welfare movements.
All of the MOVE protests predated the 1975 publication of Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, which is generally regarded as the founding manifesto of the animal rights movement.
Thus the MOVE activity fell into a short timespan within which a small but cohesive group of outgoing media-savvy people, like the Best Friends Animal Society cofounders, could have prepared and positioned themselves to emerge at the forefront of the mass movement that soon would follow––but no one at the time really had any idea how rapidly the animal rights movement would emerge and grow.
Even if the MOVE leadership had known, they lacked the backgrounds that would have equipped them to establish and lead the campus-based animal rights groups that soon grew into influential national organizations.
Philadelphia was the right place & time
The greater Philadelphia area was among the cradles of the modern animal rights movement. The Harrisburg-based former National Catholic Animal Welfare Society, founded by Helen Jones in 1959, became the International Society for Animal Rights in 1977, the first national organization to switch from advocating “animal welfare” to specifically advocating “animal rights.”
Founded in 1981, two Philadelphia-area organizations, Trans-Species Unlimited and Mobilization for Animals, for a decade rivaled People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as the most active, aggressive, and prominent voices for “animal rights,” centering their activities on exposure of a head injury laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania that performed gruesome experiments on live baboons, and on the annual Labor Day pigeon shoot held from 1935 to 1999 in Hegins, a small town north of Harrisburg.
Farm Sanctuary also began in the Philadelphia area, before relocating to upstate New York and later adding sanctuaries in both northern and southern California.
Even federal Report on Animal Rights Terrorism overlooked MOVE
But MOVE had moved on, and never shared in the momentum of the early growth phase of the animal rights movement. Indeed, that MOVE had ever been involved in animal advocacy had already become so obscure that MOVE was not even mentioned in a 1993 Report on Animal Rights Terrorism issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, even though––had MOVE remained involved in animal advocacy––the MOVE shootouts with police in 1978 and 1985 would remain to this day the two most violent incidents in the history of animal rights activism.
Why MOVE was not visibly involved in the rapid rise of the animal rights movement after 1974 is unclear. The simplest, most obvious explanation would appear to be that MOVE just became preoccupied with other activities, including increasingly frequent and violent clashes with police.
Delbert Africa, the MOVE member most often named in connection with animal advocacy activities, was among the nine MOVE members convicted in connection with the killing of police officer James Ramp. Released from prison in January 2020, Delbert Africa died at home of cancer in June 2020.
One can only guess at what might have happened had MOVE avoided violence and instead remained focused on animal rights and veganism.