Malik Rahim is fierce, but he is equally hospitable and kind, and his home in Algiers Point is a place of refuge for New Orleanians of all different ages and persuasions. After taking the ferry over on a bright and brisk day, Malik greeted us with a pot of coffee, and we drank it in the warm light of his sitting room where the walls are covered from top to bottom with posters preaching power to the people.
From his days organizing with the Black Panther Party in the Desire Projects, to co-founding the Common Ground Collective, Malik’s brilliance as a community organizer lies in the simplicity of his model: gather any and all available resources, do the necessary work no matter how unglamorous it may be, and honor and protect one another like your life depends on it. Although he has faced segregation, NOPD gunfire, wrongful imprisonment, and bands of armed, racist vigilantes in the most desperate days after the storm, he still stands firmly in the notion that hard work and unity will surely bear good fruit. Though, as he likes to say, the revolution doesn’t come with a pension plan, Malik remains as politically engaged as ever. You may enter his home an acquaintance, but don’t be surprised if you leave a comrade, moved by a faith that has survived too many trials by fire to be disbelieved.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Malik Rahim. I’m a co-founder of the Louisiana Chapter of the Black Panther Party. I am also a founding member of the Louisiana Green Party. I am the co-founder of Common Ground Collective.
What is the common thread between all of those organizations?
The struggle for environmental peace and justice.
What is your sense of home in New Orleans? How do you see it?
My community—and this is a community where my ancestors could go back well over a 150 years—has a rich African culture, and over the last 50 years it has been diminished. Now, it’s basically, well, we’re going through what San Francisco went through.
How has housing played into that?
In any culture or environment, shelter is paramount. Housing is only shelter, and so again it is paramount. In the aftermath of Katrina—because we are in the post-Katrina chapter—in this chapter, housing and affordability has become one of the greatest issues facing my community.
Can you trace its origins?
Like I said, Katrina. Right after the storm, housing was at a premium. Safe and sanitary housing, well, you could just about put a figure on it and someone would get it. The value of housing probably increased about threefold. And since then it has continued to increase. My house the way it is now is probably worth $200,000. And this is a house we only paid $27,000 for, so that lets you know how things are.
How long have you worked with public housing?
Would you say it started with Desire and the Black Panthers?
That’s exactly where it started. New Orleans Housing Authority, at that time, was classified as the worst housing authority in the country, and Desire was classified as the largest and the worst project in the city. When we started, we were organizing in the St. Thomas area. The folks from Desire approached us because they weren’t allowed to start a tenants association. This was back when it was still segregated; the whites had a tenants association, but they didn’t want the black developments to have it. That’s when we moved to the Ninth Ward, to work with the residents there. It had the highest crime and was probably the largest population of poor people I know of in the state. It was inundated with heroin and alcohol. It had the highest dropout rate. It felt like Haiti. That’s how the Desire was.
What did the Panthers do to combat some of these issues?
Within two months, we turned it into the safest community, established a breakfast program, and were feeding between 200 to 400 kids a day. We established drug-free zones.
How did you do that?
We went into the community as black men. And we told folks that we wouldn’t tell them what to do, but we would tell them where to do it. They could no longer bring this foolishness around children and they could no longer prey upon or terrorize the community. Between that and our political education classes, crime started to go down. We told people that they could not allow their poverty to cause them to lose their humanity.
A civilized community is, above anything, a clean community, so we started a clean-up campaign. We let people know that you don’t have to be educated to have certain things, or to worry about your health. So we started working on a health clinic. Well, that didn’t happen, but only because of the shoot up. But we were moving toward that. We were doing sickle cell testing. Anyone could come to the office and get their blood pressure or sugar checked.
These were the basic things we were learning on the national level and bringing back to New Orleans. And then there was the pest control. There were so many rats, and the Housing Authority was doing nothing about it. So we taught people how to work together to get rid of pests, to work as a collective. We started our security program. If an elderly person was going to cash a check, we would send someone with them. If someone was worried about leaving their house and it being burglarized, we’d send someone to sit in it. We had a daycare center so if people had to go to work, we would watch your kids. And people knew we weren’t getting paid for this stuff, so they embraced it. I’d say within two months, we had transformed that development. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to be a part of something like that, to walk through a community and know that you were a part of that.
The shootout shut it down?
No, we had three major conflicts with the police. The first that I was in happened on September 15, 1970. That was really more of a shoot in than a shoot out. It was 11 of us in a house in our office and maybe 100 police shooting in. They shot in for about a half an hour, and then they stopped, because I guess they assumed they’d shot it up a enough. Everything from tear gas to 60 caliber machine gun to a hand revolver. I’m a spiritual person, and I know the night before they came and put a prayer cloth up on the wall and said anyone that prayed will be spared. And so I prayed. Not a single person was harmed in that room.
At a time when most people were leaving the party, we were just starting up. The FBI had already called the Panthers the greatest threat to national security. We knew all of this, and joined anyway. We didn’t think we were going to survive. I never thought I would see this age. If a black man picks up a gun against the system, he dies. We knew that we were either going to die or end up in prison. It wasn’t up for us to solve the problems, but to open up those most pressing problems for the community and show that you can’t rely on a politician to solve things; you have to do it yourself.
We taught our community members that collective way of life. I am a socialist, I know I’ll probably die a socialist. This is when that socialist way of thinking came to me. It brought more to me about how I was living, how I was a member of that community. It really opened my horizon and my thinking. That was the part of the experience that really pushed me to make the sacrifices I was willing to make. I had two kids, and I did not want them to grow up in the environment I grew up in. If I didn’t do anything else, I wanted them to know that I did not sit idly by and let them deal with such an environment in such a country. I made that sacrifice without really understanding that there is a very thin line between a revolutionary ideology and a gangster mentality. When I made it, I didn’t understand the difference. But that’s the part that comes with age. That’s why young men fight old men’s wars.
Do you want to tell us about Common Ground?
Common Ground, basically, was the brainchild of Scott Crow. In the aftermath of Katrina, during the first three or four days, we were just going on rescues. See, over here in Algiers, we didn’t flood. When the hurricane was coming, we did like we always do. We decided who was gonna stay and who was gonna go, and we decided which blocks those of us who stayed would cover after the storm.
When the evacuation order was given, most people just left, and they left those that the city knows is most vulnerable. The year before, during a mock drill called Hurricane Pam, we found out that there was 150,000 people in this city that did not have the means to escape. And we knew that these people didn’t have the economic ability to shelter in place. When Katrina happened, it happened at the worst time of the year that something could happen for the poor. It happened at the beginning of school. Most people had spent all their money on school supplies, so when it happened, everyone was just waiting for the first of the month. Everyone was broke. So even if they had transportation, they didn’t have funds to go anywhere. So you had a lot people that had to shelter in place. As someone who has committed my life to community organizing, a good organizer does not abandon his community at a time of crisis. That’s the time you delve in. After the Danziger Bridge killing, we saw the vigilantes here, and we knew it was time to organize.
I had a confrontation with some vigilantes out in front of my house. They told me we had to leave our home. They didn’t want no blacks in Algiers Point. I told them I was going nowhere. The first confrontation I had with them, I was unarmed. But the second time, I was armed too. I knew I didn’t have the capacity to maintain a fire fight with them, but I refused to leave my house. I pulled up my furnace to make an escape route out of my house, and basically made my front and back porch into little bunkers. If I was going to have a fire fight, this is where I was going to have it.
Scott [Crow] came down to find out what was happening with Robert King. Him and another person, who I think is one of the most despicable persons in America, Brandon Darby. When they couldn’t get to King in the East Bank, they came over here and they found out the plight I was in. Scott left and came back with more guns. When he came back, he would stand guard on my front porch, and I would go out there and we would have conversations about different social movements: why they start with so much vigor and end in so much despair. Then when King came over, he heard us talking about this, and he said it’s because people don’t ever take into account their common ground. And so that’s how the name started.
I’m a socialist, and everything I do I like to do in a collective environment. With that, we started it together. We all put up a little money and a prayer, and that’s how we started. In the three years I was with Common Ground, before I got kicked out, we serviced half a million people. We opened four clinics, we planted almost 50 to 60,000 plants in the wetlands. We tarped so many roofs that all of the sudden they stopped us from tarping roofs for free so the government could start charging people.
After the first week, we had maybe 70 volunteers. That was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life. We had black doctors trying to get to us from Atlanta who couldn’t get into Jefferson County because of the Sheriff’s Department there. The governor had given a dusk to dawn shoot-to-kill order that only applied to blacks. I’ve seen so many black men get murdered and no one cared. But I also saw what other people did. Scott wasn’t no black man, but he stood guard on my porch. The volunteers that came down, of that first 70, maybe five were black. And those people did a remarkable thing.
It did more to unite this community than anything. It showed the African Americans here that not all whites were exploiters or racists. And it showed the white folks coming in that all the African Americans here weren’t like how the government said. We weren’t all criminals. We were just hard working people that didn’t have the means to escape. I had over 19,000 volunteers working some of the most dangerous parts of New Orleans, and we never had any incidents of anyone being robbed, or raped, or god forbid murdered. That’s because any person, I mean any person, can respect the hand that has reached in need.
What do you think about what’s going on now with people losing their homes not to disaster, but to the market?
I believe that all you have to do is look at what happened in San Francisco. The same thing is happening here. I was blessed, because I lived in San Francisco for 14 or 15 years, and I truly understand why Tony Bennett sang that song, because I left my heart there too. I watched a community that radiated activism turn into one that was all about the dot com industry. I watched a community where individuals that were born and raised in a place could no longer afford a room, let alone a house. I saw it coming here. But you know, I don’t speak the right English, I’m not educated, and I’m considered an old dog—I’m just being honest with you—so nobody wants to listen to me.
What does this community need to do in a post-Katrina era?
That’s a real hard question, because what’s at risk is far greater than housing, far greater than saving the city. What’s at risk is life as we know it on this planet. I’m a firm believer that so goes the Gulf, so goes America, so goes America, so goes the world. That’s what we need to come together on. There is nothing more important than for those that live on this coast to come together. If we love this coast, we need to figure out how we can come together to save it. In the next 30 years, will there still be a New Orleans? If a couple of major hurricanes hit this area, will it still be in existence?
We don’t need to be losing the wetlands like we do. This could easily be changed. If we would move from navigational dredging to restorational dredging. If we start talking about holding our oil and chemical companies accountable for what they have done to the wetlands instead of talking about how we are going to build these ugly edifices that can’t even withstand category 3 hurricanes, let alone category 5. We need to talk about getting out there and doing these plantings—not waiting on the government.
If we have all the rights in the world, and we can’t breath the air, none of this work matters. I am sorry to say that this is the legacy my generation is leaving yours. I believe that, even with candidates that claim they can make America great again, they don’t know what makes America great. What makes America great is its people and their ability to stand up for justice and those in need. We have to talk about changing, about how we can make America great again. We have done it before and we can do it again. But first we have to talk about doing it right here in our own communities, and then we can begin to think about how we can uplift all of mankind. We must begin to understand what is at risk and what we must do if we are going to save life as we know it.