The walls of Malik Rahim’s living room are decorated with photographs, posters and drawings collected during his 50-year involvement in the Black Panther Party.
Rahim, 76, is a community activist, who dedicated his life to reforming housing and prison policies across America.
Born Donald Guyton in 1947, Rahim is a New Orleans native raised in Algiers. After graduating from L.B. Landry High School, Rahim joined the U.S. Navy in 1965, serving during the Vietnam War.
When he returned, Rahim, like many other Black soldiers, got involved with the budding civil rights movement, as a way to respond to Jim Crow-era mistreatment. After serving this country, they believed they deserved to be treated as equals.
Soon after his return from Vietnam, Rahim joined the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party.
By 1970, Rahim had risen to leadership within the chapter. The same year, the New Orleans Panthers were confronted in a shootout and standoff against the New Orleans Police Department in the Desire housing development. The New Orleans Panthers were found not guilty on all charges related to the incidents.
Rahim has co-founded numerous organizations, including the National Coalition to Free the Angola 3, an alliance that advocated for the release of three Black Panthers, two of whom served more than 40 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rahim co-founded one of the first on-the-ground relief organizations, Common Ground, which helped thousands of people with housing advocacy, medical care, legal services and basic supplies. A few years later, Common Ground established a health clinic in Algiers for low-income patients.
Rahim sat down with Verite on Saturday (Feb. 4) to reflect on his experience during his time in the Black Panther Party and how he believes awareness is a form of resistance. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Verite: What inspired you to get involved in the movement?
Rahim: It was something real new to see individuals that wasn’t scared to openly say, “You ain’t gonna f*** over me.” Excuse my expression, but you know what I mean? That wasn’t a norm, especially not here in the Deep South.
I chose the party because there was nothing else made available at that time here in Algiers in New Orleans that wasn’t faith-based. I would’ve probably gone straight into the Nation of Islam, but I chose the party.
Verite: How did you balance your home life with your leadership in the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party?
Rahim: I was different from a lot of people who were involved. The average age of a party member at that time was 18 or 19 years old and they came in as individuals. Most of them were kids with no military experience.
I was 22 years old. I was a Vietnam veteran. I was married. I had children. But it came to a point that my first marriage was doomed.
I was full of rage, just like I see a lot of these young men out here today. I was seeing and experiencing the impacts of renegade police, feeling like there wasn’t any justice.
The party was going to the colleges educating some of the kids on the importance of coming on back to the community. You know: “Bring some of this knowledge you have back here. Help us form a cooperative, help us uplift ourselves.” The party was doing it.
Verite: Why did the Black Panthers go to the Desire projects?
Rahim: Some residents came and they met with us about the living conditions of the Desire projects. They asked us if we would come and help them form a resident council.
One of the first things we did was start a free breakfast program and then we started a cleanup and pest-control program. We also established the first drug-free zone and offered drug treatment. We worked with children and the elderly.
Verite: What were the events that led up to the standoff between New Orleans Panthers and NOPD?
Rahim: Our chapter was infiltrated by two guys everybody knew as being former football players at St. Augustine High School. Kids selling Louisiana Weekly papers spotted them going into the police station right next to the courthouse.
We put them out of the office and as they came out, they got beat up by people in the community.
We came to find out that the police had made a satellite station on top of the store. The informants ran there; the police opened fire and one unarmed Panther was killed. That’s when the shootout actually started.
That night, a lady who lived across the street from us came over and put a prayer cloth on the wall and said a prayer. She then told us, said, “If y’all pray, nothing is going to happen to y’all.”
That morning, I woke up and saw over a hundred police officers. I prayed that my death be a quick one and that I be forgiven for my sins.
They brought in an armored car that had a 50- or 60-caliber machine gun. They would ride by the office and just let loose (with bullets). We had five kids living there, but they were steadily throwing in tear gas. That went on for 20 minutes.
At the end of that 20 minutes, when they stopped firing, I crawled to each room and I asked that person, “How many are injured? How many are dead?” I kept getting the same response. “Nobody was injured. Nobody’s dead.”
One Panther named Charles asked me about putting a white flag on the shotgun I had. He said, “Brother, we are going to leave here as members of the Black Panther party. We’re going to tell the people ‘all power’ and then we’re gonna walk on and out.” That’s what we did.
The standoff came less than the month after the first shootout. Panther sisters by the name Althea Francois and Betty Toussaint had reopened the office in an abandoned building in the Desire projects. The residents supported us moving in there. But the Housing Authority tried to serve us another eviction, saying we were illegally occupying an abandoned building.
The NOPD came riding up there in a tank (to evict us). But the community surrounded the office and wouldn’t move. The police had to withdraw. But they got us on Thanksgiving morning. They came dressed as priests promising to donate turkeys that we needed for a feast.
The police came in and raided us. Sister Betty Toussaint was shot. She was the only member of the chapter here to actually be shot. They just sprayed the place and hit her.
We were arrested, charged, and all found not guilty again. I tell anyone, I believe the reason why we were all found not guilty and allowed back on the street is because of the prayers of our elders.
It was also the seventh anniversary of the Birmingham (church) bombing. So I believe that we had four angels watching over us and they helped us through it.
Verite: The theme of Black History Month this year is resistance. You mentioned viewing resistance as awareness. When you think about the word awareness, what does it make you think about your own identity?
Rahim: Listen, my whole life has been spent in this struggle. I don’t have a college education. I finished high school in prison, but the principles of the party have always been there for me.
This is my identity. The teachings that I’ve received from Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale have transformed my life. They taught me how to apply these teachings to life. That led me to help over a half a million people in the aftermath of Katrina and to also never abandon a comrade or friend.
Verite: What are some of the ways the seeds planted by you and the Black Panther Party have grown in the present day?
Rahim: Every day, when I walk around, I see the consciousness of young people, challenging the world we live in.
There’s a saying that I live under, that goes, “When an elder makes his transition without passing down life lessons to the next generation, a library has just been burned down.”
I ain’t gonna let this library be burned down.
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