An interview on the 30th anniversary of the Desire Shoot-out
by Brice White
Nearly 100 cops, armed with â €œeverything from a 60-caliber machine gun and armored cars down to their revolvers,â€ Malik recalls, moved in on the Panthers. Photo: New Orleans Times-Picayune Malik Rahim, born in New Orleans to a family whose roots go back to slavery there, was a founder of the Louisiana Chapter of the Black Panther Party. When this interview was broadcast on New Orleans station WTUL 91.5 FM, on March 13, 2000, he had brought his revolutionary organizing skills to San Francisco, where he lived for a decade. Since then, he has returned to New Orleans, where, immediately after Katrina, he founded Common Ground Collective, a grassroots organization serving thousands of survivors, rebuilding homes, livelihoods and lives.
Bruce: I wanted to get you, Malik, to talk about the 30th anniversary of the shoot-out in the Desire projects right here in New Orleans.
Malik: Well, it was in the first shoot-out, and at that time, at the time when we first came together to organize a Black Panther Party chapter in New Orleans, the governor of this state, McKidden, came on TV and swore he would never allow the Panthers to ever get established in Louisiana.
Malik Rahim travels far and wide raising funds and recruiting volunteers to work with New Orleanians to rebuild their lives and their city. Learn more at http://www.CommonGroundRelief.org. The National Committee to Combat Fascism was the first step in organizing a Black Panther Party chapter. On Sept. 15, 1970, there was the first shoot-out between members of the National Committee to Combat Fascism and the New Orleans Police Department, and the second one was the week prior to Thanksgiving in 1970.
Bruce: Were you from all over the city, or were you from one specific area?
Malik: No, thatâ€™s really it. A sister named Betty Toussaint and my first wife Barbara Thomas and I came out of Algiers, the Fischer area. Most of the Party members came out of the Calliope projects, and at that time the African American community in New Orleans was one that was very territorial. If you came from the Ninth Ward, you stayed in Ninth Ward. If you came from the 15th Ward, you stayed in the 15th Ward.
This was the first time where you had individuals from all over the city coming together. But most of the members came from the Calliope projects and then the Magnolia projects, so those two brought us the most members.
Bruce: The first house you had was in St. Thomas?
Malik: Yes, we started establishing programs in the St. Thomas projects â €“ our education program, our breakfast program â€“ and at that time we were also beginning to organize the crime prevention program. Now, we had only been in existence in New Orleans for about five or six months, so then we get our eviction notice. And at every place that we would rent, as soon as we would open up our office, weâ€™d get a notice.
Our location at the time was at the St. Thomas. Our group was having a meeting, and then some people from the Desire housing projects came and told us about their plight with crime and asked if weâ€™d come back and help them. With the eviction notice, we decided to move our office to Desire. Our new building was already being occupied by a community activist program called the Sons of Desire. The Sons of Desire was downstairs, and we was upstairs.
Bruce: This was the house on Piety Street?
Malik: Yes, this was the house on Piety. Shortly after we moved in, we received an eviction notice there too.
Bruce: Most people donâ€™t know anything about the shoot-out that yâ €™all went through in Desire.
Malik: Well, there was basically 11 of us in the party office at the time, and almost a hundred police with everything from a 60-caliber machine gun and armored cars down to their revolvers. We had about nine shotguns and a couple of handguns, .357 revolvers. But everything we had was legally purchased, and it was registered to our office.
Our position was that African Americans should no longer be lynched or beaten or attacked and have their rights taken away without any form of resistance. We believed that you had a right to defend yourself, you had a right to defend your community, you had a right to defend your family and you had the right to defend your honor as a human being.
The reason that we survived the shoot-out was because the community stood with us. They wouldnâ€™t leave and allow the police to do their dastardly deeds. During the short period weâ€™d been in the Desire, we reduced crime to just about zero percent. The Desire projects went from one of the highest crime areas in the city to one of the lowest. It was compatible to any middle class white community by the time of the shoot-out.
And so the community looked at what we did and they looked at what the police came in there telling them â€“ all these contradictions about what we were gonna do and what was gonna happen â€“ they didnâ€™t believe it. They were defiant. They not only didnâ€™t believe it, but they stood up for us in the second shoot-out.
Now when we opened our second office in the Desire, 600 police came the second time â€“600 police, National Guard and state troopers. And then almost 5,000 people came out of the Desire projects and stood between the police and our office and refused to move.
That was the reason we survived the second shoot-out. It took them to do a deed that is about the greatest betrayal of morality that I have ever witnessed to get us. They came and raided the office the second time dressed as priests.
They borrowed priestâ€™s uniforms from the priests here at Loyola who had been coming to our free breakfast program. Those priests had been telling us â€œWeâ€™re gonna bring you some more food so you can continue to feed the kidsâ€ and then they go and give their uniforms to the police. Betty Toussaint, the sister from Algiers, was shot through the door when they raided the house.
And here in New Orleans, like many places in the country, this was the first time that there was an act of armed defiance against the white power structure where the Blacks that participated in it had survived. And they were hell-bent on making sure that since we had survived that we would spend the rest of our lives in Angola.
This is our 30th year since then, and this is a part of history that our youth and the youth of this nation need to know about â€“ not only what we did and accomplished, but what caused the condition for the emergence of the Black Panther Party. It has to be known, it cannot be a part of history that is just kicked on the side.