Murder, He Wrote: The Bakery Did It

Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey took on a black nationalist splinter group—and paid for it with his life.

Chauncey Bailey, unlike most black men whose brains are blown out on the streets of Oakland, could not be ignored. The first targeted killing of a journalist on American soil in more than a decade demanded the obeisance of the mayor, the congresswoman, and the national press to his kente cloth-draped casket in a packed East Oakland chapel. It would have been an exciting story for Paul Cobb, publisher of the African American-owned Oakland Post, if it hadn't been so personal: Bailey was the Post's editor. Only the day before, the paper had received threats from men who may have been linked to Bailey's murder. Standing at the pulpit, Cobb fought back tears to proclaim, "I will continue to walk towards Chauncey and what he stood for. Even if I have to walk it alone."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bailey and Cobb had picked a fight that most people in Oakland wouldn't dare, one with a black nationalist splinter group and its commercial venture, Your Black Muslim Bakery. Bailey was reportedly investigating the bakery at the time of his death. There was plenty to investigate. Back in 2002, East Bay Express reporter Chris Thompson revealed that the group had tortured a man with knives and beaten residents of low-income apartments it controlled. The paper was bombarded with threatening calls, and Thompson noticed his car being followed; he was forced to flee the Bay Area for a while, and the Express backed off the story.

Around the same time, Black Muslim Bakery patriarch Yusuf Bey was accused of raping and beating at least four young girls. Bey escaped justice by dying. His 42 children squabbled over control of the organization; one of Bey's sons was killed, and the rotting body of the bakery's ceo was found in a shallow grave. Still, Mayor Ron Dellums and other top politicians continued to lavish Bey's clan with praise and patronage even as allegations of vandalism, fraud, and kidnapping continued.

Bailey was as much civic booster as journalist; Thompson criticized him for writing a "sycophantic" obituary of Bey. But at some point, Bailey's caution ended. He first approached bakery employee Saleem Bey in 2005; two years later, when Bey was ready to talk, the black nationalist naturally came to Bailey and the Post.

But the flip side of such trust is the perception of treachery. Oakland doesn't abide snitches—and events surrounding Bailey's murder proved no exception. On August 2, a bus rider saw a masked man with a shotgun trailing a man near Bailey's home, but didn't call police. That doesn't surprise Rick Hart, a 50-year-old ex-con who saw Bailey's bloodied corpse lying on the street. "The people are afraid," he says. Rappers preach against reporting crimes and the website whosarat.com outs informants; in Oakland, as elsewhere, thugs wear "Stop Snitching" T-shirts—it can all fuel a sense that bumping off whistleblowers is honorable. When a 19-year-old Black Muslim Bakery handyman admitted to Bailey's murder, he told police he'd wanted to be "a good soldier."

After Bailey's death, a local Nation of Islam leader distributed flyers urging witnesses to come forward. Mayor Dellums told mourners that "this madness must end." The Post ran an editorial to the same effect. Even so, 41 years after the Black Panthers formed here to overthrow the police state, a historic insularity lingers. "To actually call on people to cooperate with the police, to me, is traitorous," Uhuru Movement organizer Bakari Olatunji said at a recent meeting in a downtown storefront; he sat beneath a poster that said, "Complete the black revolution of the '60s."

Cobb inherits a weekly paper with a circulation of 50,000 and a rattled staff. At least one reporter has quit. As I spoke with him by phone not long after Bailey's murder, he was handed a note about another anonymous threat. "I have to go for right now; I'll call you later," he said, hanging up. By the next morning the locks had been changed and Cobb was back in the office. He wondered if he had the funds to hire new reporters and enough security, but threats weren't going to deter a man whose first assignment for the Post was to cover the 1965 march from Selma. "If you want to have credibility on racism stories," Cobb said, "you've got to have credibility across the board."

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.