Malik Rahim and medics from SF to DC set up health clinic in New Orleans

San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper
Date Published: 
September 18, 2005

Malik Rahim and medics from SF to DC set up health clinic in New Orleans

Dispatches from volunteer medics in Algiers, New Orleans

Sept. 15 – Mayor Ray Nagin announced Thursday that Algiers will be the first of the communities in New Orleans to reopen to residents. While FEMA and the Red Cross will surely trumpet their efforts, the real success of Algiers belongs to those courageous community members who stayed through the storm and activist Malik Rahim who helped to catalyze the bustling Common Ground Relief effort.

Common Ground was the first on the ground relief effort of any kind in Algiers and one of the first along the Gulf Coast. The multiple success stories of Common Ground mutual aid has resulted in donations from Army personnel who wanted to see relief actually get to the community. The FEMA-Red Cross effort, bounded by razor wire, has played a poor second fiddle to the local efforts.

We anticipate an even greater need for relief support when residents begin moving back to the area. To support Common Ground, send donations to Common Ground, PO Box 3216, Gretna, LA 70054. Please pace your donations. Please no clothes or food. More information and online monetary donations are available at the new action website at

A model for getting it together

Sept. 14 – The locally-led, mutually based community relief effort in Algiers is now being called Common Ground Algiers. Currently, more than 40 volunteer medics, doctors, cooks, communications technicians, community organizers and concerned people are directly involved in the Common Ground collective effort.

Emergency services that have been created include a community garbage pick-up program; mobile kitchens to provide free hot meals to anyone in the area; a first aid clinic in a local mosque and a mobile first aid station staffed by doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians; and bicycles for volunteers and residents to transport aid around the area; and the development of a free school for children.

These efforts could serve as a community-based model for creating both emergency response and long-term infrastructure for people affected by the hurricane and who are in need of these kinds of vital services.

Cracker squads

Cracker squads are groups of white supremacists who are using the slanderous media coverage and storm chaos to terrorize communities of color in Louisiana and Mississippi. One young woman in a Mississippi town relayed to us that a cracker squad had shot Black men in the woods and threatened retaliation for those going public with the story. Similar stories have come in from Algiers, downtown New Orleans and the outlying parishes of Louisiana.

A related threat are the armed mercenaries of Blackwater and other contractors who are patrolling downtown New Orleans. Internet reports indicate they have been particularly brutal in the handling of storm survivors.

They said it: Common Ground Wellness Center

You can't start a clinic here (in the Ninth Ward). That would give people hope. My job is to make their lives as hopeless as possible so they will leave.
– New Orleans Police Department officer
berating relief workers in the Ninth Ward

The administration of this country needs to be put on trial for human rights violations and treason against the people of the Gulf Coast region, as well as negligent homicide for every person left in this region to die.
– Noah, Emergency Medical Technician-B
with the Common Ground Wellness Center

Our number one national priority right now should be to clean up New Orleans and rebuild vulnerable areas in a safe and environmentally sound way. Then, every single evacuee must be offered the opportunity and the resources to return to rebuild their neighborhoods in exactly the same way. We cannot allow evacuees to be forced into becoming refugees.
– Roger Benham,
Emergency Medical Technician-B
with the Common Ground Wellness Center

It's not so much that the government is not responding (with storm relief); they are obstructing the response. They are telling us we can't bring people the basic necessities of life because that would give them hope. It is a question of oppression vs. mutual aid. That is the revolution.
– Jesse, an organizer from D.C.
volunteering in the Common Ground Wellness Center

Report from the Bay Area Radical Health Collective

Sept. 13 - The medics on the ground report that the situation in New Orleans is surreal and extremely militarized, with armed soldiers and police everywhere. Some areas are still underwater or smoldering, and travel after dark is prohibited.

Algiers, a New Orleans neighborhood on the dry side of the Mississippi River, remains largely intact. The neighborhood has running water, and electricity was recently restored. While there is little working infrastructure in New Orleans itself, it is possible to drive to stores in surrounding parishes for medicine, food, and other supplies.

"It's not until you approach New Orleans that your realize there's been a major disaster," reports Michael Kozart, a doctor with the Bay Area Radical Health Collective. "The people who are suffering are actually cut off from the rest of the region."

Medics have established a clinic and relief effort - named Common Ground ­near the Masjid Bilal Mosque in Algiers and are working with long-time community activist Malik Rahim. Food Not Bombs has set up a kitchen to feed people, and activists are distributing non-medical supplies such as diapers. Those with vehicles have been driving residents to pharmacies in nearby parishes to refill their prescriptions. Communications are described as sporadic, but they've been able to get messages out via cell phone and wireless e-mail.

Days after the initial crew from MayDay-DC set up the clinic, FEMA finally arrived on the scene. Government officials are now providing medical aid, have set up a relief center near the local public hospital, and are supplying some medications - but many residents find their heavily armed presence intimidating.

"The military is running around in humvees with loudspeakers blaring instructions," Kozart says, in an apparent attempt to direct residents away from the grassroots effort. "It feels like they are competing with us for patients."

"The contrast between the ugliness of the militarized government response and the grassroots effort couldn't be more clear," he adds. "Would you rather be escorted by guys with M-16s at the official medical station, Of get help from people you know and recognize? It's a totally different paradigm of care."

At the same time, the situation is not without its surprises. One activist in Algiers reports that a renegade National Guard group procured supplies from FEMA to give to the anarchists.

The real need now is for more volunteers, especially those with medical training. There are about nine medics currently working at the clinic and doing house visits. The BARHC team plans to leave at the end of the week, and by then the MayDay-DC team will have been on the ground for nearly two weeks, so there's a need for new workers to rotate in as these teams rotate out. Incoming activists should expect to be self-sufficient in terms of tents, sleeping bags, and food (though water and food can be purchased in nearby parishes).

Everyone emphasizes the importance of approaching things in a spirit of "solidarity not charity." Community organizers and visiting activists are working together to establish a long-term, locally controlled operation. Food Not

Bombs is setting up a permanent kitchen that residents can use after they leave.

With electricity restored, activists are also working to establish a local independent media center, stressing the importance of bringing in journalists of color to cover the grassroots efforts of the local Black community as they resist government attempts to take over the city.

"This is going to be a long-term thing," says Block. "The people here may be used to living under martial law, since that's what it's always like for them, but it's really disgusting what's going on."

A crossroads of conscience

Sept. 14 - Where is the progressive left during this crisis? In particular, where are the hundreds of groups and individuals that make up the peace and justice movement?

Shocking news continues to flow out of Algiers and other communities that have endured military martial rule, corrupt police, racist "cracker squads" and ethnic cleansing. It was only yesterday that dead bodies were removed from the streets of Algiers. Just today, Food Not Bombs visited communities that have received no assistance at all.

Community activists continue to send out calls-to-action and emergency aid requests. If the progressive left doesn't understand what is happening in the aftermath of Katrina, it can only be from willfully ignoring the disturbing news coming out of the area.

There is both sadness and irony in the lack of mass relief action by the progressive arm of the left. It is sad because thousands of people have courageously faced a powerful storm and years of government negligence only to face a tide of inaction by the very same lefties that preach the end of racism and poverty.

It is ironic that a whirlwind of direct progressive action in the relief area would do more to demonstrate the values and principals of the left than any protest. What could be more embarrassing to Bush than thousands of progressives in the relief area, uniting with local communities and being visible witness to the criminal actions of the government and their corporate profiteers?

More importantly, it is precisely this sort of conscious action that challenges stereotypes and builds solidarity across historic divides. Ultimately, it is the moral and just thing to do.

Though it's been two weeks since Katrina hit this area, a federal relief effort that has been both criminal and racist continues to leave people without food, clean water, medical care or respect. The fluffy media stunts of Bush, FEMA and the military hide the truth on the ground that there are not enough medical personnel, food distribution or will to meet the immense need.

If the massive network of peace and justice organizations, individuals and activists won't meet the need of those who suffer, then who will? And meeting the need involves more than simply writing a check or giving away a box of old clothing. The failure of the government's relief infrastructure means that groups and individuals will have to fill that void by providing mutual aid hand-to-hand, face-to-face, in the relief area.

And with local community leaders making desperate pleas for actual volunteers, one wonders when this need will arrive. This is a historic crisis, and it can only be answered by historic action.

A whirlwind of change as life-altering as Hurricane Katrina must blow through the peace and justice movement in a short period of time. Choosing the right road will take courage and strength. The survivors of this disaster have shown these qualities time and time again. Those of us in the peace and justice movement will dishonor them, and ourselves, by displaying anything less.

Community efforts in Algiers, New Orleans

Sept. 10 - Efforts are continuing by grassroots organizers to preserve the still inhabited community of Algiers in New Orleans. Algiers is located on the west bank of the Mississippi across from downtown New Orleans. It was not flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and remains dry. The neighborhood has running water and electricity, and utility workers are working to get the gas on.

Roger Benham, an EMT from Connecticut who has made his way to Algiers to provide medical aid, reported on the latest developments.

"It's our first full day of operating our first aid station," he said. "We're trying to help people help themselves." Benham and four other heath care volunteers, including three other licensed EMTs, arrived at midday on Friday with a van full of medical supplies. At the behest of Algiers long time community activist Malik Rahim, they set up the first aid station in the Masjid Bilal mosque on Teche Street.

Benham reported that a number of visitors to the first aid station today were looking for prescription drugs they'd run out of. "Several of them were vets who depend on the VA for their blood pressure medications," he said. "We gave out the meds we're certified to administer. We also went to visit elders in their homes nearby today. On one house call met a 101-year-old woman. She's doing fine."

Benham had abruptly ended our phone interview Friday night. He explained that was because of the rapid approach of a military unit. "That was Civil Affairs," he explained. "They're going door to door doing a census. There's also paramedics with them, and FEMA paramedics as well. They don't quite know what to make of us. They're trying to treat us as community liaisons." The Civil Affairs personnel are Army Special Forces from Fort Bragg, N.C.

"The FEMA medics were upset that we're here, that we beat them to the scene," Benham reported. "They're fire department paramedics, one from San Diego and two from Idaho.

"FEMA's supposed to be setting up a medical aid station as well," he said. "So far they've just set up razor wire. It's next to a private charity that's been distributing water and food from a warehouse here."

Benham said the electricity had gone on the day before. "Utility workers are trying to get the gas on now," he said. "Some people already have gas. The city water never went off. So some people can boil it already I but the authorities are saying to use bottled water."

Benham said the neighborhood is continuing to be patrolled by the Army's First Cavalry. "The general vibe of the military is OK. Most of the soldiers I talked to are just back from Iraq. They wanted to know how we got (invited) in the mosque. We're using the masalluh (sanctuary), and they committed a no-no by coming in with their weapons. They realized they made a mistake though."

Benham reported that a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship anchored in the Mississippi River near downtown New Orleans was visible from Algiers.

At this point Benham informed me that FEMA was likely listening in on our call. "They called another of the EMTs I'm with," he said. "They asked him specific questions about a phone conversation he'd had here." Benham then said he had to pause because a loud Sea Stallion military helicopter was flying over.

When our interview resumed, Benham told me that he'd asked a soldier about how people who needed meds but don't have money to buy them could get help. "People who have money and can get a ride can go to drugstores that are operating now in some nearby towns," Benham explained.

"But if you don't have money, the soldier said that you'd be taken to the airport and issued the needed meds. Then though you'll be put on a plane and evacuated from the city. If you have family in a major city they'll take you there. If you don't they'll fly you wherever the plane is going.

"What we need here is an MD who can write prescriptions so people can get meds we're not registered to use."

Benham said he'd seen some Danish journalists in Algiers today, but other than that no media presence since his arrival Friday. "The Danish journalists had been around New Orleans before they came here," he reported. "But this was the only part they'd seen that was still inhabited."

Benham also said that Malik Rahim has organized more people to come to Algiers to provide relief supplies and other support.

Excerpts from dispatches written by Liz Highleyman, Naomi Archer, Michael Steinberg and other writers and posted to,, and were compiled for this report.