Meet Malik Rahim: 62-year-old activist; member of the original Black Panther Party; founder of Common Ground Relief, one of the largest post-Katrina volunteer organizations in New Orleans; former Green Party candidate for U.S. Congress; and now a cyclist. Rahim is riding his bike from Louisiana to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness around the destruction of the Gulf Coast by the BP oil spill. The bike marathon is just the latest in Rahim's decades-long legacy of activism in New Orleans, particularly around housing and prison reform. The organization Common Ground has attracted thousands of volunteers from around the country to come help restore housing in the Lower Ninth Ward, and also built the first health and legal clinics in the city after the floods. His work has attracted an unlikely ally in none other than Brad Pitt, for whom Rahim professes an unconditional "love." The Root caught up with Rahim during one of his stops on the way to D.C. (He's scheduled to arrive in D.C. on Sept. 22.)
The Root: So what issue would you most like to shed light on with this bike tour?
Malik Rahim: Wetland restoration. It's all about the global crisis that we are in because right now we are at risk of losing life as we know it. I truly believe that so goes the Gulf Coast, then so goes America, and so goes America, then so goes life as we know it. So I'm here to raise awareness that we can't leave this to future generations to pay for our arrogance. We have to make sure that our children and grandchildren are able to enjoy life on this planet in the same way that we are enjoying it. That's why I'm biking. I know if I can do it at 62, then we can clean up this oil spill, and we can probably stop it. But we need not fall back into that drunken level of prosperity. We can no longer be 5 percent of the world's population and consuming 25 percent of the world's resources. We have to find alternatives to using fossil fuels. I'm not doing this to be against the petroleum industry because if there is anyone at fault, we are at fault.
TR: The petroleum industry had done a lot to destroy lives even before this disaster. Why wouldn't it be OK to be against them right now?
MR: You can go on with that blame game, but in the Amazon it's Chevron, and in Nigeria, it's Shell. It's the entire industry that we have allowed to go unchecked. We have allowed them to be a dominant factor in our economic existence in this region. This is the hottest time of the year, and this is also the time when we consume the most energy in this region. Why are we not talking about manufacturing solar panels? Why are we not talking about developing wave technology and other means of meeting our needs for energy? We have that ability, and we can clean this up naturally. Hair is a good product for cleaning up oil, we could be growing oyster mushrooms to use. We have got to understand that we are at too critical of a time to play a blame game.
TR: Given the record-breaking heat waves going on right now, and your age, are you concerned about your health for this ride?
MR: I'm always concerned, but I tell you this: I believe in the God of Abraham. I believe I am riding with the Holy Spirit with Christ as my guide. I have the prayers of the members of my church. This planet is the most precious gift, and we have destroyed it. As an African American raised under Jim Crow, who lived under segregation, who suffered the indignities of living under poverty, life has always been an arduous task for me. But I'm a firm believer that nothing comes without sacrifice, and this is a small sacrifice. I want future generations to know that yeah, it was an old, crazy, dreadlocked, black man on a bike who told us we have to change our lifestyles. Yes, it is an arduous task, but if we come together we can make it an easy task. I've been training for this for over three months. I know it will have a physical toll, but I'm prepared.
TR: If the original Black Panther was still at peak strength, would they be taking up environmental justice as a signature issue?
TR: You mention Brad Pitt, whom you've worked closely with in the Lower Ninth Ward …
MR: Yes, and the reason why I bring his name up is he is one of the greatest unsung heroes in America. I cannot say that the Lower Ninth Ward would be this far along if it wasn't for Brad Pitt. He has been that nucleus. Oh yes, I love him. I actually love him.
TR: You ran unsuccessfully for former U.S. Representative William Jefferson's historically black-held seat as a Green Party candidate. It ended up going to Anh "Joseph" Cao, a Vietnamese-American Republican. How do you feel about that?
MR: Well, one of the reasons why I ran was to bring awareness. I realized that our nation wasn't ready for the type of congressmen I would have been. The reason I'm not running this time is that with the crisis we are in, I feel I can better serve people from the outside. But I'm not just riding to D.C. just to turn around and head back to New Orleans. I want to go before Congress and lobby every representative and senator on why we must come together, and to tell them that if you are not making a stand about how can we address these environmental ills, then we won't vote for you. The Minerals Management Service is supposed to have been the entity that represented us, but they became a bed partner of the petroleum industry. So now we need to make sure that there are other safeguards in place to make sure this type of unholy marriage never happens again. One way is to make sure that whoever we elect to office represents us.
Brentin Mock, a regular contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.