For a Former Panther, Solidarity After the Storm

NEW ORLEANS – Malik Rahim, a granddaddy with a broad face and long gray dreadlocks, leans across his wooden kitchen table and with a low Nawlins growl lets you know what he thinks local pols did for racial harmony.

"I'm far from being a Republican, but I got to call it the way it is," he says. "They had a shoot-to-kill order on African Americans in this city with an African American mayor."

He catches himself.

"Let me rephrase that: A so-called African American mayor and a so-called African American police chief. They sat here and allowed this governor to declare martial law on African Americans ."

In the days after Katrina drowned the city, Rahim, 58, sat on his front porch in Algiers, a working-class district of bungalows, churches and smokestacks that lies across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, and watched mostly white militias patrol the streets with rifles and pistols. Then came the National Guard, carrying their M-16s, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco's order to "shoot and kill" the "hoodlums."

This is New Orleans, he says, where the fabric of history is woven with the likes of Jim Crow and the Dixiecrats. "Here's that plantation mentality," he roars. "New Orleans was a city that was ran by old money, old plantation money, so they never gave a damn about blacks."

But, a visitor across the table asks, what about the plans for rebuilding? The promises from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Blanco to help folks, poor folks, reclaim their lives?

"You can't [urinate] down my back and tell me it's rain," he says, a chuckle ripping through his thick chest. "That's what they're doing and they think that people won't understand what they're doing. No, you ain't [urinating] on me."

Some people might dismiss Rahim as another angry black man in New Orleans. Or conclude he's just another aging former Black Panther with an abundance of Southern gumption. You might even acknowledge some truth in the reasoning offered up by Blanco's spokesman, Denise Bottcher, who notes that although a lot of the reports of violence turned out to be overblown, "there was lawlessness," and "at the time and place you have to respond to protect people's lives." Race, she says, played no part in the governor's actions.

The stone-cold reality for Rahim is that his spare bedrooms and the parlor are now stuffed with about a dozen portable generators and trailer-size tents cover his back yard to house a slew of idealistic, mostly white, young people.

Common Ground Collective

Rahim, a Green Party candidate for City Council in 2002, is the nucleus of Common Ground Collective, a grass-roots recovery effort of volunteers parachuting into the city from points across the nation. Rahim's late mother's home, which survived the storms intact, has become the epicenter of the effort to deliver water, food, ice and medical care to the city's poorest.

Common Ground volunteers in search of a bare-knuckles approach and a movement to inspire them meet up with those who have lost patience waiting for officialdom to help them. More than 300 volunteers have cycled through the house. Before Thanksgiving, caravans with even more volunteers set out for the South to participate in a massive holiday rebuilding effort.

Doctors from New York, San Francisco and Indonesia canvass the neighborhoods, some on bicycles, offering front-porch medicine for those who can't make it to the 24-hour clinic the group runs at a mosque. Labor crews hammer blue tarps onto the roofs, the post-Katrina emblem of survival. Volunteers live and work at food distribution centers in some of the poorest sections of New Orleans.

Jonathan Arend, 32, a medical resident at Montifiore Hospital in the Bronx, rushed back to his hometown two days before Hurricane Rita doled out even more punishment. Arend recalled that locals such as Swampwater Jack, who lives across the street from the clinic, stayed away from the medical centers with National Guardsmen stationed out front and instead preferred to have his asthma checked at home, where he could show off photos of the gators he had shot down in the bayou.

"There was so many bizarre sets of circumstances and unnatural and outlandish things that were going on," says Arend. "The fact that you see a white guy riding a bicycle in a white coat and stethoscope was just part of the mix."

Sam Zellman doesn't mention race as he pours lighter fluid into his Zippo and flips it shut inches away from his blond Mohawk. A burly man, Zellman ditched his job at a restaurant in Paw Paw, Mich., to haul refrigerators and trash from damaged houses.

"Sitting at work making food for yuppies and listening to it on NPR -- after a c