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Common Ground Collective Continues to Bring Thousands of Volunteers From Around the World to Gulf Coast For Post-Katrina Relief Efforts

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We speak with New Orleans community activist and co-founder of the Common Ground Collective, Malik Rahim, about his continued relief efforts in the Gulf Coast, the racism in the federal government’s response to the disaster and much more. [includes rush transcript]

New Orleans Community Organizer Malik Rahim is a veteran of the Black Panther Party there. For decades he worked as an organizer of public housing tenants both in New Orleans and in San Francisco. He also ran for New Orleans City Council on the Green Party ticket.

Malik visited our studio last month to talk about some of the ongoing issues facing New Orleans residents. He spoke about the Common Ground Collective–the community organization that he co-founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: New Orleans community organizer Malik Rahim is a veteran of the Black Panther Party. For decades, he worked as an organizer of public housing tenants, both in New Orleans and San Francisco. He also ran for the New Orleans City Council on the Green Party ticket. Malik Rahim visited our studio recently, here in New York, to talk about some of the ongoing issues facing New Orleans residents. I asked him to start by describing the Common Ground Collective that Democracy Now! visited in the aftermath of the hurricane, the community group that he co-founded.

MALIK RAHIM: In the aftermath of Katrina, what we found is that for about five days, it was basically a organized move to push as many Blacks out of Louisiana. Jefferson Parish, as you know, the home of David Duke, they literally closed their parish to African Americans who was fleeing or trying to find refuge and safety. Gretna literally ran or forced people back into New Orleans. And inside New Orleans, you had different white vigilante groups that was allowed carte blanche, you know, to roam the streets, to kill at will. And it was through this and my confrontation with them that caused Scott and Brandon to come down.

While we was together, we — every evening, we used to have these dialectical discussions, and one of our main discussions was on why progressive movements have always started with such a bang and then end in such a frizzle. And we kept coming up with that we allowed our petty differences to stop us from working together. Robert King Wilkerson, the only freed member of the Angola Three, three political prisoners that have — two of them have now been in solitary confinement for 34 years in Louisiana — he said that the thing that we need to find is the common ground, and so with that, we took that name. I added “collective,” because I’m a firm believer in a collective spirit, and Common Ground was founded. Sharon Johnson, my partner, she put up $30. I put up $20. And with that $50, we founded Common Ground.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are people doing? You now have hundreds of people.

MALIK RAHIM: No, we have thousands. We done had — since our conception, we done had over 8,000 volunteers.

AMY GOODMAN: Who have come from all over the country?

MALIK RAHIM: All over — no, all over the world. We even done had an Israeli soldier to come and volunteer with us, you know? You know, one of the things besides the alternative media and media such as yourself, you know, most people don’t even know that there’s a peace movement in Israel, you know? And so, you know, I mean, that’s just been some of the greatness of the things we have done, you know, I mean that I’ve seen. I wouldn’t say that — when I said “we have done,” I just mean by seeing people from all over the world coming and making a stand for peace and justice that have helped us, Secure Populaire coming from France, that helped us make the transition from a first aid station to a health clinic. We done had doctors from Africa, Asia, Europe, all over, to come over.

AMY GOODMAN: When we first went down, we saw your little health clinic.


AMY GOODMAN: In one small building, but it was astounding nonetheless in the midst of the devastation. When we went down again, you had taken over an entire — was it a school?


AMY GOODMAN: An entire school?


AMY GOODMAN: With people living there right now at —


AMY GOODMAN: In one moment you have, what, about 400 people?


AMY GOODMAN: And what do they do?

MALIK RAHIM: We do everything. We have about 15 different operations. To name a few, we have our Ninth Ward distribution center, our Lower Ninth Ward distribution center, our distribution center that we operate with Four Directions up in Dulac, which is in Houma, where we assist the Native American community there. We have our legal clinic. We have our — again, now we operate three health clinics. We operate two: our uptown — I mean, our West Bank health clinic and our East Bank health clinic. Then we have one that we assist the immigrant population, who is totally being enslaved in Louisiana, because we have avaricious businessmen that’s going around Central America enticing people to come to America, promising them all type of wages.

AMY GOODMAN: Malik Rahim is a community organizer, co-founder of Common Ground Collective. We’ll come back to his description of New Orleans today and the story that is still untold of the level of grassroots organizing that has gone on over the last year.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our conversation with New Orleans community activist and co-founder of the Common Ground Collective, Malik Rahim.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a report right now, “And Injustice for All.” It’s a new report. “Workers’ Lives and the Reconstruction of New Orleans,” put out by the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition and the Advancement Project. And it says: “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, several hundred thousand workers, mostly African American, lost their jobs. Since this storm, these workers have faced tremendous [structural] barriers to returning home and to finding the employment necessary to rebuild their lives. Without housing, they cannot work; without work they cannot afford housing. As these pre-Katrina New Orleanians fight to return, the city has experienced a huge influx of migrant workers — citizen and non-citizen — who have been wooed to the area with promises of steady, good paying jobs. Yet, these workers, like their local counterparts, are finding barriers to safe employment, fair pay, [and] affordable housing that are driving them further into poverty. In fact, many workers are finding themselves exploited, homeless and harassed by law enforcement. These workers and former residents, mostly people of color, recognize that New Orleans is being rebuilt by them but, not for them.”

MALIK RAHIM: That’s right. That’s right. And I believe you hit the nail right on the head.

AMY GOODMAN: Or they did, the report.

MALIK RAHIM: Or yes, because —- you know, the type of exploitation that I’ve seen, it just shows that that plantation syndicate that have always ran Louisiana is alive and well. And unless the American public stand up in outrage with the exploitation that is going on -—

AMY GOODMAN: The National Guard is back in New Orleans. What does that mean?

MALIK RAHIM: Yes. New Orleans is a city that even during pre-Katrina was gripped in a drug war. No one would speak out against it, because they felt like to say, “Well, hey, New Orleans is in a drug war,” would stop the tourism. Tourism is the engine that drives the city’s economy. So no one cared, because of the fact that, one, it was ex-offenders killing ex-offenders, Blacks killing Blacks.

With the high unemployment, the drugs in many community was the economic anchor. In most of your public housing, unemployment was roughly around 80%, 85%. The annual income was less than $7,000 — between $7,000 and $10,000 a year. There was no opportunities. So most people looked at drugs as the only way of economic upliftment. With this, it have caused a drug war, with when HUD came in and under Hope VI started closing down housing developments, you know, in a city that had an administration at that time that didn’t care about the social dynamics of these developments. That’s all they wanted to do, is see these developments torn down and that money brought in.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean the most recent, the — HUD saying they’re going to tear down 5,000 housing units?

MALIK RAHIM: Yeah — no, I talking about way before that.

AMY GOODMAN: — public housing units before? Before?

MALIK RAHIM: Yes, I’m talking about ever since in New Orleans when they closed down the St. Thomas housing project, it caused a drug war. And between the time they closed St. Thomas to Katrina, they had roughly about 600 murders in New Orleans that was directly a result of the fact that HANO, the New Orleans Housing Authority, and HUD, of their blatant neglect in understanding the social dynamics that exist in the city. I guess that happens when you have individuals to come in that, you know, don’t understand the history of a city, but then they put them in control of our agencies that directly have that type of impact upon a community life, because most of those — I won’t say all of them, but most of them — came and only looked at these developments as projects. But residents looked at them as a community, as a neighborhood. You know? And they just displaced them. They —- you know, they -—

AMY GOODMAN: And what about now?

MALIK RAHIM: Now is even worse, because now there is no longer a market, a drug market, in the Ninth Ward. There is no longer a drug market in some of these devastated areas. These projects are still closed. And then when you see people —

AMY GOODMAN: And now they say they’re tearing them down.

MALIK RAHIM: Right. And this creates, especially when you’re not offering any hope, you know — you’re not saying that, I’m going to close your development and many of them, you know. And the saddest part about it is when you see people come in, like for the 4th of July, and just look at their house, look at their unit, but cannot go in it to try to salvage what is left into their home. I mean, you imagine, you have been displaced, you have been forced out, because they say it’s an emergency, a hurricane, flooding. But now the flooding has stopped. Everybody else is allowed to come in the city to rebuild, to put their lives back in order, except you. And the reason why they are denying it to you and they have fenced off your home is because there’s a cry to get your land.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to those who say that the rebuilding shouldn’t happen in these areas where the water rises, like in the Ninth Ward, that it should happen in other places, that the reason people were first — that area was first built up was also based on racism, put in the most vulnerable areas, and not that people shouldn’t return but they should make place in places that will remain high and dry?

MALIK RAHIM: I mean, I was at a church yesterday, House of — I believe it’s House of Our Lord, a church in Brooklyn, if I’m not mistaken.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Daughtry’s church?

MALIK RAHIM: Right. I was there yesterday, and there was a workshop on hurricane preparedness, which I advise everyone in New York or anyone in a flooded area, flooded zone, to start getting prepared. But part of it is in a flooded area. But they’re still there.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of what is in a flooded area?

MALIK RAHIM: Part of New York is in a flood zone, you know, but people are still there. So, the thing that we have to do, we have to learn to live within these areas, not trying to control it, not trying to control nature, but to learn to live within nature. The Ninth Ward is there. Regardless of what’s happened, it’s one of the oldest African American segments in this country. You know, they have one of the largest rate of homeownership, of African American homeownership, in the country. And I’m not saying home buyers. Homeowners. And these people have done this with nothing. And they should have a right —- I mean -—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, more than half the people have not returned. Is that right?

MALIK RAHIM: Right, that’s because no assistance have been offered to them. You don’t have any banking institutions that’s coming out to help them to recover the way they helped other segments of New Orleans to recover. You don’t have the agencies out. In New Orleans, right after the hurricane, you’ve seen a sea of blue tarps being put up everywhere, except for these areas where you have the poorest, who need it the most. It was the same as during the hurricane, where the Red Cross came and put up a food distribution center in the Garden District, the richest segment of New Orleans, while people were starving in the Superdome. So, you have that same type of thing that’s happening, where you’re seeing our people doing without, that’s — I mean, they’re just barely making it. You know, I mean, in our city, we’re a city that’s gripped in a mold infestation.


MALIK RAHIM: A mold, black mold that’s — everything that was flooded is now covered in this black mold. And no one is offering people Tyvek suits or respirators. So you start seeing people coming in there, cleaning up their homes with just a dust mask. You’re seeing immigrant workers going in there with just a bandana. You know?

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s hurricane season again.


AMY GOODMAN: What about the levees?

MALIK RAHIM: I’m going to tell you, anyone who put faith in the levees in New Orleans, they don’t live in New Orleans. You know, I don’t believe no one in New Orleans have faith in those levee systems. But you have communities that is getting prepared that in case this happens again, that in case one of these levees break, what can we do? To that end, like I was telling you earlier, we have just obtained 350 units, which is also some of the highest buildings in Algiers that we can house people.

And what we’re trying to tell everyone is to make the preparations now. The Red Cross do a fantastic job with their plans for families and individuals. But we must now move to another level. We must make preparations now for neighborhoods and communities. You know, where are safe places for our neighborhood? Where is a safe place that a community can find, that safety net that is needed to survive a hurricane? And what we’re saying is that a hurricane is survivable. I mean, you can survive it. You know, what happened in New Orleans didn’t have to happen. And now we have been blessed with a new city council that is working toward making sure that it never happen again. So, now we’re starting to have some of the elements that is needed to make sure that this time we’re going to be more prepared, that we’ll be better prepared.

But, the nation needs to understand exactly what is caused, because almost 70% of the American population live in a flood zone. So they need to come down and see what’s happening. They need to come down and learn from the experience that we have, to make sure that any national — any natural disaster doesn’t necessarily have to turn into a national tragedy. And so, if we can avoid the tragedy, you know, then we can live with the disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Longtime activist and community organizer, Malik Rahim, co-founder of the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans.

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