New Orleans activists tell of interconnected struggles

For many local activists, Common Ground Collective is a familiar cause, and one that is close to their hearts. Formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the organization is a community volunteer effort that provides long-term sustainable assistance to residents and neighborhoods of the New Orleans area. Over the past two-and-a-half years, a number of Mainers have volunteered with Common Ground; Maine-native Meg Perry was working with the CGC before her untimely death in 2005. If they weren’t already, that tragedy inextricably linked Maine with New Orleans.          

Indeed, the fight for peace and justice knows no regional boundaries, and thus two prominent and powerful New Orleaners, Malik Rahim and Robert King, traveled to Maine last week – to “link the struggles here with the struggle in New Orleans,” to remind us that the work in the Gulf Coast region is far from over, and to show how Common Ground’s mission has evolved from hurricane relief to broader social-justice concerns.

“I don’t believe there can be any progress until we analyze what happened,” Rahim said in a wide-ranging interview at the Phoenix office on Friday. Rahim, a Common Ground founder, worries that people have yet to learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina – whether they be economic, social, or logistical. He described an “adversarial relationship between the government and the activist community,” and said there is still a dearth of educators and social safety nets within “traditionally disenfranchised” communities – that is, the poorer parishes of Louisiana.

He also detailed the connection between Common Ground and the Angola 3, of which Robert King is one. The story of the Angola 3 is symbolic of the prejudice and disenfranchisement that existed in Louisiana long before Hurricane Katrina brought these problems to the surface. Long story very short: When three young black activists (all in prison for armed robbery) tried to expose prisoner maltreatment at the Louisiana State Penitentiary – a/k/a Angola Prison – in the late 1960s, they ‘mysteriously’ were accused of having murdered a young prison guard. All three of them spent more than 25 years in solitary confinement for a crime they did not commit. Robert King Wilkerson is the only prisoner to have been released thus far.

“There wouldn’t be the Angola 3 without Malik,” King said of his friend on Friday, describing Malik’s efforts to free these prisoners of conscience. Negotiations to free the remaining Angola 2 are ongoing, as is King’s quest to overhaul not just Angola, but America’s industrial-prison complex.

(Several aspects of King’s story – including prison officials using increased security as a punishment, insufficient money spent on rehabilitation, and less-than-adequate treatment of mentally ill prisoners – sound awfully familiar.)

Rahim and King spoke at the Meg Perry Center on Saturday evening, at what was apparently a well-attended, moving discussion. Rahim is scheduled to speak at Bowdoin on April 29.

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