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For a Former Panther, Solidarity After the Storm

(Common Ground Collective)

Doctors from New York, San Francisco and Indonesia canvass the neighborhoods, some on bicycles, offering front-porch medicine for those who can't make it to the 24-hour clinic the group runs at a mosque. Labor crews hammer blue tarps onto the roofs, the post-Katrina emblem of survival. Volunteers live and work at food distribution centers in some of the poorest sections of New Orleans.

Jonathan Arend, 32, a medical resident at Montifiore Hospital in the Bronx, rushed back to his hometown two days before Hurricane Rita doled out even more punishment. Arend recalled that locals such as Swampwater Jack, who lives across the street from the clinic, stayed away from the medical centers with National Guardsmen stationed out front and instead preferred to have his asthma checked at home, where he could show off photos of the gators he had shot down in the bayou.

"There was so many bizarre sets of circumstances and unnatural and outlandish things that were going on," says Arend. "The fact that you see a white guy riding a bicycle in a white coat and stethoscope was just part of the mix."

Sam Zellman doesn't mention race as he pours lighter fluid into his Zippo and flips it shut inches away from his blond Mohawk. A burly man, Zellman ditched his job at a restaurant in Paw Paw, Mich., to haul refrigerators and trash from damaged houses.

"Sitting at work making food for yuppies and listening to it on NPR -- after a couple of days of this I'm like, I gotta come down," says Zellman, who spent a month at the collective after he gave up on being deployed by the Red Cross. "Some of us want a better world, and this is kinda pushing on the rock together. If it's us, or anarchists or the church folks, we have common goals, common short-term goals."

Inside the kitchen, Rahim traces this mobilization to an era of resistance and rebellion.

"I was trained for this," says Rahim, his eyes intent. "I'm not doing nothing but what we were doing in the party," he says. "The mold abatement I had done with the pest control program. Our feeding program. It was part of our breakfast program."

When Rahim was in his early twenties and still went by the name Donald Guyton, he returned from Vietnam and joined the Black Panthers, a national militant liberation movement dedicated to battling racism and not averse to using violence. The FBI deemed the Panthers a threat to domestic security and put the group under surveillance.

In New Orleans in 1970, the Panthers set up operations in a house next to the bleak, sprawling public housing complex named Desire. Throughout the Lower Ninth Ward, pocked with poverty, neglect and thugs, the young men and women in their berets earned the admiration of many by chasing away the drug dealers. They offered social services -- free breakfasts and tutoring programs.

"They really started doing what the establishment was not," says Bob Tucker, then a young aide to Mayor Moon Landrieu who now owns an engineering firm. "When you look at what the Ninth Ward was, you have urban renewal, which was really urban removal, and Hurricane Betsy," a Category 4 storm that had ravaged the area five years before.

But there were tensions and suspicions. Local police eyed the militants warily.

On Sept. 14, 1970, the Panthers unmasked two undercover cops. The police claimed they were beaten. The next day, when police descended on the Panthers' headquarters, a 30-minute gun battle broke out. One bystander, shot by police, died.

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