NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) Oct 14, 2005
As chaos reigned and racial tensions brewed in hurricane-slammed New Orleans, militant activists rallied to the side of a former Black Panthers' member standing his ground in the storm.
The house that Malik Rahim thought might become his grave in the aftermaths of hurricanes Katrina and Rita became, instead, a commune-style base camp for aid volunteers in the racially-divided neighborhood of Algiers.
"My experience as a Panther, that's what trained me for this," the 57-year-old Rahim said outside a mosque transformed into a free medical clinic by a spontaneously formed group dubbed "Common Ground."
The Panthers rose to prominence in the 1960s as a militant black nationalist group.
"There is no doubt about it. My entire life has been in preparation for this," he said.
About 30 social, and admittedly anti-establishment, activists from various parts of the United States were camped out at Rahim's house on a recent night.
A young man used an outdoor gas grill to cook a vegan dinner for the group, each member of which cleaned their own dishes.
A tarp canopy covered a driveway lined with stacks of food, clothing, water, and other supplies for storm survivors who might need them.
A wooden garage in the backyard housed computers linked to the Internet and a pirate radio station.
"We breathed life into an entity that became Common Ground," Rahim told AFP.
"Our guiding principle is that nothing comes before the need. I don't care about your ideology, your religion, your color: just your need."
Rahim marveled at the activists who responded after he hunkered down in his home with a female friend and put out a call for help that made it onto the Internet.
"I was just hoping for a first aid clinic," Rahim said. "It went beyond our dreams."
Rahim had fortified his kitchen, made all the ice he could fit in a deep freezer, and kept a sledge hammer on hand in case he had to break through the floor to escape.
"I was trapped here with 50 dollars, a black and white television, a hand full of batteries and a candle," he said. "I just dug-in, in my house."
White vigilante groups roamed the streets, Rahim said. The curfew was imposed for African-Americans, but not for whites, according to the former Panther.
"There were times I had confrontations with individuals who had a gun; but then I had a gun too," Rahim said. "I wasn't going to sit idly by and let someone shoot me."
"It got real ugly, but we never lost faith."
Scott Crow, a self-described militant, raced to Rahim's house the third day after Katrina struck, in response to a telephone distress call from his friend.
"We brought boats and food and water and guns and went on a search and rescue mission," Crow recounted. "It was horrible. I saw dead stuff everywhere."
"When I was in the boat, it was like that movie Apocalypse Now. Nothing but military helicopters flying overhead with gunners pointed at you. Nobody was giving relief. All I saw was guns, guns, guns."
Rahim recalled that third day after the storm hit as his darkest hours.
New Orleans was flooded with hostility and desperation along with water, according to Crow.
"It was a disaster zone that became a war zone that became a militarized zone," Crow said.
It wasn't until soldiers moved in that a semblance of order returned, Rahim said.
Rahim shared his plight with a journalist friend in San Francisco who wrote a story that spread via the Internet. The tale was a clarion call to grassroots activists that wanted to help.
"I saw an e-mail copy of Malik's call for help, and that just sewed it up for me," said 22-year-old Noah Morris, an emergency medical technician from Massachusetts. "I knew I had to be down here."
Morris recounted helping set up the clinic in Rahim's mosque after New Orleans two main hospitals were destroyed in the storms.
The clinic had reportedly cared for more than 2,000 patients as of Wednesday and was being viewed as a model by storm survivors in other city neighborhoods.
"We are more than a stop gap measure now," Morris said. "We are filling too much of a gap in health care that was here before the hurricanes and is ever bigger now."
The social activists said they have been providing aid in the area without the benefit of government funding or military protection.
"What keeps me calm is seeing prayers answered," Rahim adds.All rights reserved. © 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.