40 years a prisoner cropped

A fair retelling of MOVE 1978

Philadelphia film maker Tommy Oliver has crafted a detailed and fair retelling of the 1978 MOVE confrontation in the Powelton Village neighborhood of West Philadelphia as a vehicle to examine the efforts of Michael Sims, Jr., in supporting his parents, jailed after the incident.

Sims was born in prison to Debbie Sims, one of the so-called MOVE 9 who were jailed following the death of policeman James Ramp during the showdown at MOVE’s headquarters. She and her husband, Michael Sr., were ultimately released in 2018 after serving more than 30-years. Much of the film celebrates the reuniting of the family while examining the system that put all the MOVE members in jail in the first place, a system many believe was flawed and unjust.

The story of Michael Sims’ quest to find evidence of his parents’ innocence is woven throughout the film. But Oliver’s use of archival film, video and news reports from the mid 1970’s provides a compelling story that pitted a self-styled group of revolutionaries against Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose sheer hatred of MOVE is evident throughout. These were two immovable forces destined for a showdown, and it happened on August 8, 1978. Interviews with MOVE members then and now, police officers, journalists (including myself and former colleague Frank Goldstein) and neighbors shine a light on the fraught relationship MOVE had with its neighbors. The inevitability of the final, violent encounter  is foreshadowed by community leaders and lawyers who tried to de-escalate tensions but ultimately gave up.  The death of police officer James Ramp further inflamed Rizzo, Police Commissioner Joseph O’Neill and police officers across the city, many of whom applauded the brutal beating suffered by MOVE member Delbert Orr Africa by police after he surrendered. The murder trial of the nine MOVE adults degenerated into a daily ritual of screaming and cursing by the defendants who were then ejected from the courtroom. The judge pronounced all the defendants guilty.

Photo of Frank Goldstein and Tom Kranz
Frank Goldstein and Tom Kranz, both interviewed for the film

There are plenty of questions to ask and director Oliver asks and answers most through research and interviews with those who were involved before, during and after the incident.  The film ends with poignant moments among the Sims family, reunited after 40 years of imprisonment and separation, and a brief interview with Delbert Orr Africa who was released in 2020 and died of cancer  later the same year

For students of Philadelphia history, 40 Years A Prisoner, shown on HBO and streamed on HBO MAX, is a faithful and informative piece of storytelling. But it’s also a reminder that injustice isn’t a modern day phenomenon. At the same time, so much has changed, and so much has stayed the same.

Fred Rossi holds his book

Jersey Stories

I moved to New Jersey in 1994, a reluctant Philadelphia expatriate who considered anything north of Trenton a foreign land. My New Jersey points of reference were Mack and Manco’s pizza on the Ocean City boardwalk, The Pub in Pennsauken and Canals’ Liquor Store where 38 and 70 meet.  The Sopranos came along five years later and reinforced all the mob clichés.

Fine, it’s fun to mock New Jersey and the dark parts of its legacy–high taxes, too many cars and a history of well-publicized malfeasance. But Fred Rossi, a journalist with the Westfield Leader/SPF Times, has made it his business to bring some color to the 8,722 square miles of gray area that is the Garden State with his new book, Jersey Stories.

An obvious student of New Jersey history, Fred’s depth of knowledge, backed by scrupulous research and a ten-page list of cited sources, brings some pivotal moments in history to life with a clear and tidy narrative laced with touches of humor. He includes some of New Jersey’s greatest hits–the fake invasion of Earth by Martians perpetrated by Orson Welles, the first drive-in movie theater, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison–but laces them with little-known anecdotes that spark new appreciation.

We learn that New Jersey’s place in American history is consequential, with the first African-American to cast a vote under the 15th Amendment (Thomas Mundy Peterson), the death of murdered president James Garfield in Long Branch and the ascension of banker and lawyer Garret Hobart to the office of Vice President. My favorite story is Hobart’s who, by every account was an honorable, honest, affable, humble, reluctant politician who treated the office of Vice President with respect and shunned the trappings of privilege. He is credited with elevating the office to more than just an afterthought of history. Rossi tells his story with detail and a certain amount of affection, an homage to an individual who, if not for his premature death due to illness, may well have been the 26th president of the United States instead of Teddy Roosevelt.

Rossi lays claim to his own footnote in history, weaving the tale of his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Nathanial Heard. A colonel in the rebel militia seeking independence from the British, it was Heard who in 1776 arrested Royal Governor of New Jersey William Franklin, the son of founding father Benjamin Franklin, for treason (Franklin never ditched the the British). 

Thanks to Fred Rossi, I admit there is nothing wrong with learning about New Jersey. Try it yourself. Jersey Stories is available through Fred’s Facebook page and soon on Amazon.

Road of Life Archer Graphic

Fate’s hand nudged by decency

Mike Archer’s collection of short stories, Road of Life, presents characters plunged into extraordinary situations by fate who then win second chances for themselves or others. They may be helped by their own innate decency, god or dumb luck, but the outcomes are all ultimately satisfying. I was reminded that there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, even one that’s a little contrived, because what the hell, don’t we all need a happy ending from time to time?

Mike is a veteran of the TV news business, retired after decades of covering all manner of manmade and natural disasters, often with tragic endings. So, it’s not surprising that his stories express values rooted in the good of people, stories that don’t often rise to the top of the rundown of the five o’clock news. In my years serving local affiliates at CBS News, the mainstay of my reporters were stories of death and disaster, often the result of poor or criminal choices by humans. The greatest gift of leaving the news business was the ability to turn off the news. While I’m not equating my own sensibilities with Mike’s, I feel a kinship with a fellow career journalist who is able to emerge from that world and still value basic humanity.

Mike’s stories each tell tale of an individual who takes an action, or has a revelation, that changes things. The stories Rescue and Redemption are nail-biters with life-or-death consequences. They’re my favorites. Brother in Black is a darkly familiar story of an abusive priest in an all-boys Catholic school and a whistle-blower’s uphill battle to have him removed. The title story, Road of Life, is an affectionate tribute to the grandpops of the world and their unique relationships with their grandchildren. All the stories in the collection are quick reads and are unambiguous in their narratives.

Give yourself a break and check out Road of Life

A Lightness with Adele graphic

Hometown Wordcraft

It took me a few years to get around to reading Adele Kenny’s collection of poems, A Lightness, A Thirst, Or Nothing At All (Welcome Rain Publishers), but better late than never. I apologize, Adele, since you and I live in the same town, serve the same public and and have crossed paths many times in the past couple decades. It’s not every town that has its own poet laureate, so we’re lucky here in Fanwood to have Adele.

If you spend some time at adelekenny.com, you’ll see she’s been writing poetry since childhood. She has been writing, teaching writing and publishing her work for decades. She’s been an English teacher and a poetry judge. Here in Fanwood she is best known for curating the Carriage House Poetry Series which, along with poetry partner Tom Plante, has brought regional poets to Fanwood’s Carriage House for more than twenty years, treating welcoming audiences to the beauty of written and spoken words.

The minute I  began reading this book of poetry, I realized I had to turn off the TV and move to a quiet place. These words need to hit you without distractions. When Jimi Hendrix asked “Are you experienced?” I doubt he had Adele’s poetry in mind, but if he had lived longer, he might have. These works aren’t about iambic pentameter and clever rhymes. They stab at stark truths and peel layers away from deeply-held core beliefs that masquerade as the bullshit of our lives. There are also blossoms of beauty coloring dark places and yes, splashes of joy. 

I wrote poetry in my youth, but traded it for journalism because it suited my pragmatic personality. Reading Adele’s work reminded me of what I learned in high school, then promptly forgot–that wielding words as art is powerful in the right hands and as moving as a painting or a song. As a writer, that’s inspiring. Thanks, Adele.