New Orleans activist reflects on a life in social justice

Rae Walberg

Lifetime activist Malik Rahim has made his Algiers home a personal museum of his life in social justice.

The living room walls are covered with posters of his past campaigns, ranging from the Louisiana Black Panther Party to his work in environmental justice. On the ground are various decor pieces, including the kitchen table where he co-founded Common Ground Collective and African tribal sculptures.

The home’s foundation is deteriorating, but Rahim said the lack of upkeep symbolizes the way he feels he’s been unappreciated by society despite years of service.

“I’m a 72-year-old man that has to renovate his house after serving over a half a million people,” he said.

But Rahim is more than a struggling house owner. He was named a ‘Living Legend’ by various city leaders after a life as an intersectional activist.

Rahim’s social justice experiences have run the gamut as an active member of Louisiana’s first Black Panther Party chapter, an advocate against the death penalty and an activist in environmental justice.

His motivation, he said, was not monetary compensation; it was the fear that his children would ask him, “How did you allow this to happen.”

“I want them to be raised in a society that is much better than the one I was raised in, so that’s what keeps me going,” Rahim said.”So I got into it and this is something I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”

Growing up during the time of civil rights and anti-war activism led to his political involvement, he said.

It was these movements along with what Rahim called the era’s “exploitation and lack of hope” that motivated him to join the Black Panthers.

“Some people might say the ’60s and the ’70s was a good time, I don’t agree,” he said. “I got involved in the struggle for social justice because as a black man, I was impacted by racism.”

When Rahim was a member of the Panthers in 1970, he helped provide free breakfast for children and transformed the Desire housing projects from what he believed was one of the most dangerous to one of the safest in New Orleans.

But his time with the Panthers did not last long.

On Sept. 14, 1970, Rahim and the Panthers encountered a life-changing shootout when local police raided their Desire home.

“That morning, I woke up and I was in the Desire housing projects,” he said. “That night when I went to sleep, I was on death row.”

The police charged Rahim and the Panthers with attempted murder; however, they were gradually acquitted shortly thereafter. Following his acquittal, he said, the experience inspired him to dedicate his life to prison reform.

In the late 1990s, Rahim co-founded the anti-death penalty group Pilgrimage for Life, and he lobbied for the release of the Angola three, a group of men held in solitary confinement for one the longest periods in prison history at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Days after Angola three member Herman Wallace was released after 40 years in solitary confinement, he died.

“It’s just being in solitary confinement, Rahim said. “It’s just taking a person and putting them in some of the most inhumane conditions.”

In addition to prison reform, Rahim advocated for affordable housing across the country. Following his acquittal, he spent time living in San Francisco.

Seeing San Francisco transform from “a city that was affordable to most people, to a city that is now only affordable to a few,” Rahim said, prompted him to become a founding member of the San Francisco non-profit Housing is a Human Right.

Upon returning home to Algiers, he noticed locals were displaced as a result of rising property value.

“Look at this city, this one of the fastest growing and richest growing small cities on this planet to whites. To creoles. Look at the African community; we can longer even afford to stay here,” Rahim said.

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina largely shifted Rahim’s focus to environmental justice.

While Rahim himself was forced to take shelter in his home, he was stunned by the widespread impact the storm had on New Orleanians, he said. In response, he co-founded disaster relief non-profit Common Ground Collective at his kitchen table.

In four years, he said, the organization served about half a million people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and, Rahim emphasized, it was without government assistance.

“We opened up five clinics. We did almost a hundred thousand plantings per year, replanting indigenous plants and trees up in our wetlands,” he said. “And as for those who was displaced we worked with the residents in almost the whole state, that were displaced residents from Louisiana.”

According to Rahim, the government dissolved the organization because of what he perceived as its threat to the politics of disaster capitalism.

“We wasn’t trying to overthrow the government,” Rahim said. “We was trying to help people in time of need but the government didn’t want that help, coming from us.”

The incident didn’t stop him from pursuing environmental justice, he said. In 2008, he ran as the Green Party candidate in Louisiana’s second district but only received 3% of the vote.

In the following years, Rahim was named a ‘Living Legend’ by the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, the New Orleans City Council and U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond. And now, at 72 years old, he persists in social justice involvement through supporting organizations like global environmental movement, Extinction Rebellion, but mainly focuses on inspiring others with his story.

“I’m far from being a physician. I finished high school in prison. I’m far from being a doctor, but it didn’t stop me from starting four health clinics,” Rahim said.

Rahim said, if anything, he hopes to inspire others in taking initiative for environmental justice.

“You have that responsibility that this year to do something that most of the world wish they had the opportunity,” Rahim said.

While he said it may seem hard to make environmental justice a collective cause, working with Common Ground gave him faith in the future.

“I’ve seen the worst but I’ve also seen the best,” he said. “I’ve seen what this nation could do when we do put all these differences on the side and find a common ground that we can work onto.”