Malik Speaks, Part 1
Malik Rahim, founder of Common Ground, spoke today about its past, present and future at the Community Breakfast in the Unitarian Church in New Orleans.
New Orleans, January 12-“The name Common Ground came from Robert King Wilkerson,” said Malik Rahim, one of the founders of the Common Ground Collective. Rahim, like Wilkerson, is a former Black Panther. “The concept of how to organize came from Scott Crow at a meeting in my back yard.”
Malik Rahim was living in Algiers, a part of New Orleans across the Mississippi River from the rest of the city. It was one of the few parts of New Orleans that did not flood from Hurricane Katrina.
“The day before Katrina,” Malik continued, “as I rode around the city, stopping people to ask them what they were going to do, I came to the shocking realization that most who could leave had left. They’d locked up their second cars before they’d let another family use it. Before they’d let another family use their food, they locked it up too.”
“I realized the city wasn’t going to provide nuthin. I spoke to Oliver Thomas and other officials, and they told me it would take two to three days to put together aid.
“I saw we had to organize for those left behind, to give them the capacity to survive two or three days. They were pubic housing residents, the elderly, and, mostly, the working poor.
“In 2004 the city had a mock drill for what to do if a hurricane category 4 or 5 hit the city. They estimated 150,000 wouldn’t be able to evacuate, and 60,000 of them would perish.
“Then come Katrina. After Katrina came I couldn’t say the horrors that existed.
“A segment of America would not help those fleeing because of the color of their skin. They demonized all African Americans. I saw this happening to babies that they refused to rescue. We’re no longer talking about racism, we’re talking about fascism.
“We documented that 19 were killed by white vigilantes in Algiers simply because they were black males not allowed in the neighborhood. Every evening they gave a celebration for how many they’d killed that day. They equated killing African American men with shooting pheasants.
“For three nights, Scott Crow and Brandon Darby stood guard at my home after I had a confrontation with the vigilantes.” Crow and Darby, white activists from Austin, had come to New Orleans at Malik’s request and later rescued Robert King Wilkerson in Mid City, “There were death calls,” Rahim continued, “and they [the vigilantes] made themselves known every day by driving by my home.
“At my request, two black activist lawyers came to help after I saw people who had fainted, and who had infected wounds because of the toxic floodwaters, refused medical treatment. They got as far as Jefferson Parish. Then they got turned around.
“When you tell me you’re denying people not only sanctuary, but, in one of the few places that were not damaged, you’ll deny medical assistance-this is fascism. Scott and Brandon came with weapons, and were allowed in because of the color of their skin.
“Why am I telling you this? Because we need to come together to take the next step.
“So under these horrific conditions we founded Common Ground. Scott, Brandon, Sharon [Johnson, Malik’s partner] and myself. With $50, that’s all we had. And then we prayed. After that we moved on faith. We’ve been moving on faith ever since.
“From the day we founded Common Ground we were monitored by Homeland Security. Anyone who criticized FEMA was. We assumed from the first the police would come.
“We started the health clinic in a mosque I was once a member of. We set up in the mosque after those doctors were denied access, with street medics who were white.
“It was already overwhelming-we were feeding 2-250 people a day in my backyard.
Those who first helped start the clinic were Jamie “Bork” Laughner from DC, Roger Benham from CT, Noah Morris from RI, and Scott Mechanic from Philly. Bork was also active in the recent actions to save NO public housing. She was tasered during the police attacks at City Hall on December 20. The day before she had occupied a building slated for demolition. Police charged her with two felonies, Terrorizing and Carrying a False Bomb. The latter charge was because she locked herself to the building with an empty pipe and a chain.
“We used the mosque until October until we moved across the street [where the clinic still is].
“Why had it exploded into a race war? A certain part of the population wanted no African Americans allowed back in the city. There was a process of demonization and dehumanization, so that the majority of the American population didn’t see us as human beings.
“So one of the first things we knew we had to do was bring back that humanity.
“We had to break the stereotypes. The stereotype held by African Americans that all whites are oppressors and exploiters. Because in Louisiana that’s all we’ve seen, except during Reconstruction. And we had to create a chance for whites to come in and see that we’re not all rapists, looters, criminals and murderers.
“Second, we had to take advantage of white privilege. In America there are some things a black man can’t do. When the governor [Blanco] declared a dusk to dawn curfew and a shoot to kill policy, that only applied to blacks.
“When I couldn’t get to to Gretna [just west of Algiers], where I used to live, and where my family owns property, I realized we had to learn how to use white privilege to serve those in need.” Rahim reported that white Common Ground members could get into Gretna, and go to other places where African Americans were banned, especially during the curfew.
“I’m proud to say, “Malik Rahim continued, “we’ve served over 180,000 people. Even one of the white vigilantes came to the health clinic, to get help for his mother. He looked down the whole time.”
To Be Continued.