Thomas Peele on his new book, Your Black Muslim Bakery and Chauncey Bailey’s murder
on March 7, 2012
When journalist Chauncey Bailey was gunned down in front of a downtown Oakland parking lot in August 2007 by a 19-year-old named Devaughdre Broussard, the shock of his murder made international headlines, and drew a spotlight to the reporter’s last, unpublished story. Shortly before his death, Bailey was asked to expose the internal workings of a politically connected and well-known, but not always well understood, group in North Oakland called Your Black Muslim Bakery and its then-leader, Yusuf Bey IV.
The story was never published, but to honor his work, a group of journalists calling themselves the Chauncey Bailey Project came together and vowed to finish the work Bailey had started.
The result of that effort is now available in a 366-page book titled “Killing the Messenger: a Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist” by the project’s lead reporter, Bay Area News Group investigative reporter Thomas Peele. (Peele teaches public records reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where Oakland North is based. The Journalism School is also affiliated with the Chauncey Bailey Project.)
In his book, Peele traces the roots of the Black Muslims from their inception in 1930s Detroit by W.D. Fard, through the founding of the Nation of Islam and the rise of its leader, Elijah Muhammad, to the formation in the late sixties of an independent splinter group in Oakland—Your Black Muslim Bakery—whose self-destruction was sealed with Bailey’s daylight shooting.
Under the leadership of its founder, the elder Yusuf Bey, Your Black Muslim Bakery grew to a small empire in North Oakland. At its height, the group claimed a compound on San Pablo Avenue where Bey lived with a multitude of wives and biological or “spiritually adopted” children. The group also ran a show on a local cable channel on which Bey preached hatred of white people and Jews. It also ran a mismanaged healthcare company which squandered a $1 million loan from the city of Oakland and a network of bakeries which sold packaged goods throughout the Bay Area.
To outsiders unfamiliar with the bakery’s inner workings, the bakery was an Oakland institution, standing up for the self-sufficiency of the African American community while providing jobs and spiritual counsel to ex-convicts. But the façade was shattered in 2003, when the elder Bey was charged with 27 counts for allegedly raping four girls, all under the age of 14 at the time of the alleged incidents. Ultimately, charges relating to three of the victims were dropped after a California statute allowing for the prosecution of decades-old sex crimes was overturned by the US Supreme Court.
Bey died as he was about to go to trial, facing 27 felony counts of lewd conduct with the last remaining victim, leading to a succession struggle, which eventually left his son, Yusuf Bey IV, or “(Bey IV),” in charge—a man in his early twenties with no business experience who led the bakery into turmoil and Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2006. (A federal judge ordered the bakery to be liquidated in 2007 after the case was converted to Chapter 7.)
It was that story—the tale of the bakery’s internal dispute and bankruptcy—that Chauncey Bailey had been asked to write by a member of the bakery shortly before Bailey was killed. It was the first time a journalist was killed inside theUnited Statesin more than thirty years.
Bailey’s story was never published, but vowing to send a message to anyone who would dare murder another journalist, a group of reporters from the Bay Area took on the task of finishing the work he had started. Partly through their efforts, evidence was brought to light which demonstrated that the Bailey’s killer, Devaughndre Broussard, had not acted alone, that he had been ordered to kill Bailey by Yusuf Bey IV himself. Bey IV was convicted for ordering Bailey’s murder in June, 2011. Sentenced just six months ago, Bey IV went to prison for life. (He’s currently appealing his conviction.)
Broussard took a plea bargain, agreeing to testify against Bey IV. In exchange for a 25-year sentence he pled guilty to two counts of voluntary manslaughter for the murder of Bailey and another man, Odell Roberson, Jr.
On the day of the book’s release, Peele sat down with Oakland North to discuss the group, its ties to Oakland’s political elite, and Bailey’s legacy today.
One of the things that I got out of this book is that one can see why someone in Broussard’s circumstances might have fallen in with the Beys.
You’re absolutely right. Look at the lack of help that someone like Devaughndre Broussard received in life. Look what the system did to him. … The kid got bounced around from institution to institution, foster home to foster home. A good man in Richmond named Marcus Callaway gave Broussard some hope, and it slipped away when he went back to San Francisco and ended up on the streets, ended up in jail, then got out of jail with no prospects, not a lot of help. He tried a GED program, but there is just very little in the way of programs to help the Devaughndre Broussard’s of the world: young African American men becoming adults, bouncing back and forth between maybe becoming productive members of society versus slipping into criminal elements, and there’s just not enough lifelines in society to pull them into being productive members of society. I think that’s part of what the Broussard story shows.
And as your book shows, that’s really the history of the Black Muslims going all the way back to its origins in Detroit in the thirties—giving meaning to people’s lives who until then have been told that they are less than human.
That’s exactly right. W.D. Fard concocted this fictive version of Islam, but he was very good at two things which won him followers, and the first was appealing to slave descendants’ lack of identity and ancestry. He attempted to answer the question “Where did they come from?” Now, he answered it with fictive material, but the question attracted people. He also asked a fundamental religious question, which is “How can you worship the god that your oppressors worship and whose teachings they use to oppress you?” … If you’re an oppressed person, living in horrible, ghettoized conditions, and someone comes along and says, “What you believe is wrong, and what you believe is in large part why you’re here,” you can see how that would have some appeal to people.
Is that why Yusuf Bey the elder first joined the Nation of Islam?
I think his motivation was pretty much the motivation that spurred on a lot of people to join the Nation. I think it answered questions for him that he couldn’t get, or couldn’t accept anywhere else. He got in just as Malcolm [X] was getting out, just as [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Muhammad’s fathering of a bunch of [illegitimate] children was becoming known. He grabbed that original, fundamental dogma … and he ran with it, and he never let it go.
When he split with the Nation, do you think Bey the elder believed that dogma, or that he just derived power by preaching it to others?
I think he believed some of it. He derived power, and he derived gobs of money from it, and I think what he derived most was justification in his mind—rationalization, in his mind—to do anything he wanted: rape people, rape children, kill people when he was crossed … I don’t think he had any trouble with bloodletting, none at all. He got rich from it. And remember, this was a guy whose father was a cotton picker, a shipyard worker. Money very much appealed to Yusuf Bey. He also used all his rationalizations to bleed the government out of—at the height of it—$10,000 a month or more out of various public assistance fraud schemes that he used to prop up the bakery and make his business empire appear more prosperous and legitimate than it was. So he had no problem doing what he wanted and finding his own justification for it.
One of the big surprises of this book was how much of a who’s who of Oakland it reads like at times. Some of the city’s top political elite line up to kiss up to the Beys and their entourage.
That’s true. Jerry Brown decided to put himself on the path to return to the governorship, and his first step was to run for mayor of Oakland, and among the people whose favor he sought was Yusuf Beys, who of course had run for mayor himself four years earlier. Brown went to Bey, Brown had the sit-down. Bey, despite his preaching about “white devils” and calling Caucasians “the scientists of evil,” was pragmatic enough to take the meeting with the former governor, soon-to-be mayor ofOakland.
… Remember at the time of that meeting, Bey was on the hook for a million dollars to Oakland. He had masterfully manipulated the political system to siphon off a million dollars for a home health care company called EM Health—money that his minions then systematically pocketed … They paid themselves large salaries, bonuses, fees. They hired their own security company; they rented property from themselves.
… [Then-State Senate President Pro Tem Don] Perata helped Bey get contracts to sell food at public venues—the Coliseum and the airport. Dellums? When [Ron] Dellums was [Oakland] mayor, he was pretty quick to have his staff get [Bey IV] a letter to try to stave off the bankruptcy proceeding because the bakery—despite all that was known about it—could claim publicly to help people. Barbara Lee was in the same position.
[Editor’s note: In a statement issued on August 9, 2007, Lee expressed regret for her office’s letter in support of the bakery and promised to review the process for handling similar requests in the future.]
Why this willingness on part of the city to give them so much money and, along with it, the benefit of the doubt about any of the nefarious deeds that were going on behind closed doors there?
That’s a good question. I think people believed, or wanted to believe, that the bakery, as an institution, did help people. I also think that after Bey ran for mayor [in 1994] and received about 5 percent of the vote, politicians pragmatically looked at him and thought he was someone with a political constituency. He could deliver poor people in North Oakland.
After Bey the elder dies, there’s a succession struggle from 2004 until Bey IV, his biological son, takes over in 2007. But soon after, the bakery goes into bankruptcy. This is when Chauncey Bailey gets involved.
He’s approached by a man in the summer of 2007 named Saleem Bey, who is a spiritually adopted son of the late Yusuf Bey. Saleem Bey was of the belief that [Bey IV] was not the legitimate owner of the bakery, and therefore the bankruptcy proceeding itself was illegitimate. … [Saleem Bey] never went to bankruptcy court; he never filed suit, but he went to Chauncey Bailey, who had recently been appointed editor of the Oakland Post, with a story.
Compared to Bey IV, Bey the elder seems like more of a realist.
[Bey the elder] was a bit of a realist, he was pragmatic. He was a master manipulator and exploiter, and a tremendously heinous sexual predator, but he knew how to keep some control over it, how to build walls around himself, and he knew how to make money … He also didn’t get into this until he was older. [Bey IV] was done-in in part by his immaturity, his lack of worldliness. He grew up in the culture that his father created behind the walls of that compound on San Pablo Avenue and, as a woman who for a long time he considered one of his plural wives said, he didn’t know anything but that culture. [Bey the elder], his father had been in the world; he wasn’t a Black Muslim all his life. He was a hairdresser; he had interaction with white customers inSanta Barbara; he’d been in the Air Force … [Bey IV] had never been any place but San Pablo Avenue… That’s why the minute that he was in control, everything collapsed. He was a kid. All this went on when he was the age of a college sophomore and junior.
After Bailey is killed, he’s dressed up as this hard-hitting investigative reporter, but in fact, he wasn’t that kind of reporter at all.
He was dressed up in some aspects of the media to be a much more significant journalist than he was. I mean, none of it matters—he was a newspaper reporter working on a story, trying to get a story in the newspaper, and he got killed over it … The [UK] Guardian called him one of America’s most prominent black journalists. That’s a vast overstatement. Chauncey was a community reporter. He’s the guy who showed up Sunday morning at eight o’clock for an elementary school track meet, to put a picture of kids doing something positive in the newspaper. He was a prolific reporter; he wasn’t a gifted writer … He wasn’t a digger. He was who he was, and I think to lionize him as a great investigative reporter does him a disservice, and does a disservice to community journalism.
What was your process of researching this book like?
It was three years ago last month—so 37 months—since I started dealing with my agent who took the book proposal. I wouldn’t wish the workload on anybody. It’s been a tremendous amount of work because I’m working as a newspaper reporter and a part-time college professor. I even took occasional freelance pieces, even in the middle of this, to keep up my income. I never took a book leave. The Chauncey Bailey Project is still going on and I started this before indictments were issued; I started this well before the trial because the trial was delayed. I got up—pretty much got up at five o’clock each morning to work on it before going to work—every day for three years to get this finished. It drove my wife more than a little bit crazy. I had twins right in the middle of it all, moved, dealt with doing almost gavel-to-gavel coverage of a big, two-defendant triple murder trial, and I just kind of turned this stuff out. Got it done. I took a couple research trips, worked pretty much full-time every weekend for a couple years, worked every morning, sometimes worked late into the night.
This is largely a historical book, but even for the contemporary parts rely heavily, if not entirely, on documents over people.
This is a story about people who don’t want to be written about. If there’s three primary characters in the book they’re Bailey, who’s dead, Yusuf Bey the elder, who’s dead, and Bey IV who was more than happy to have people who wrote about him killed. And he’s also a very unreliable narrator, if you will, of his own story.
I guess you didn’t reach out to Bey IV?
I interviewed him in jail on a news story, but I honestly didn’t see a lot of value in trying to talk to him because he seemed largely intellectually incapable of an honest answer. … I had access to hundreds and hundreds of hours of his phone calls from jail which were very, very revelatory about his nature, his beliefs, his personality, his delusions. They’re much more valuable, when he’s on the phone with his common law wife for hours on end, and other members of his family for hours on end and kind of forgets that he’s being recorded. Those documents, those recordings, were much more valuable than anything I could have garnered in an interview with him. And he did tell me the one time I interviewed him in jail, “Don’t come back; I won’t talk to you again.”
There’s a lot of documentation on this case. The two primary victims of Yusuf Bey the elder’s sexual abuse whom I give pseudonyms to in the book didn’t want to be interviewed. I approached them with letters; I approached the lawyer who handled their civil litigation. They gave very, very compelling depositions in their civil case which are backed up by the police investigation of their rapes. So there is an exercise there in creating a compelling narrative out of a paper trail.
What’s left of Your Black Muslim Bakery?
Yusuf Bey IV has three children. A few of his father’s 40-50 children are dead; the rest are around. Some of the people who consider themselves to be his father’s spiritual sons are running a mosque down on 27th Street near San Pablo with pictures of Elijah Muhammad propped up outside saying they’re back on track. Sort of that original Black Muslim dogma—Fard is God, Elijah Muhammad is the messenger of Fard—is still alive in a small group of people in Oakland.
What’s the legacy of Your Black Muslim Bakery?
Murder, blood, rape, hate.
And even for that, we can still see how people joined them?
You can understand why people were susceptible to the exploitation. Look at Devaughndre Broussard. He went there when he got out of jail, when he had zero prospects, under pressure from a probation officer to get a job, and Broussard—certainly not an educated guy, but a lot of street smarts—he knew he was getting exploited, he knew he was getting screwed over. He left twice, and he went back, because he couldn’t find anything else. Until there’s some way to help people like that, like him, then there will always be those people out there who are willing to exploit them to their own ends. I mean, [Bey IV] didn’t pay him, and he sometimes got him to commit murders for him. Broussard says he’s sorry, says he was brainwashed. He’s got a long time in prison to think about it. He’s going to get out when he’s a relatively young guy—he’s going to get out in his forties, so, we’ll see.
And what’s Chauncey Bailey’s legacy?
Chauncey Bailey’s legacy is that he is a committed and un-flashy community journalist who understood the value of reporting on a traditionally under-covered community. He was a straight-ahead reporter. He was 12 inches and out, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Oakland Post survives because it has a niche. African American newspapers flourished in this country for a period of time because they covered communities that large city newspapers ignored and often demeaned. It’s a testament to people’s want of information.
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