OAKLAND, Calif.—Until the sawed-off shotgun was raised and aimed at him, Chauncey Bailey, the tall, swashbuckling media celebrity who always walked and talked with a purpose, didn’t seem to worry that his reporting might put his life in danger.
He was the hard-charging and controversial advocate for the black community in this uncelebrated city by the bay. And that, Bailey’s friends say, led him to assume a cocoon of personal safety, if not immunity from the black-on-black violent crime afflicting Oakland. There had been death threats before, but nothing came of them.
“He was kind of oblivious. He never thought he could be in danger,” said Martin Reynolds, a longtime friend of Bailey’s, managing editor of The Oakland Tribune and competitor in pickup basketball games.
Bailey was the first American journalist killed on U.S. soil for doing his job in more than three decades. He was gunned down at a time when he was working on a story critical of a bakery operation run by a local black nationalist organization.
The 57-year-old journalist, who enjoyed being recognized and approached on the street, carried that confidence with him on a cool Thursday morning early this month. Wearing his trademark tie and suit jacket, Bailey finished a quick breakfast at a downtown McDonald’s and briskly proceeded, as he always did, down 14th Street to the Oakland Post, where he had recently been named editor.
One block later, at 7:25 a.m., police say a 19-year-old man who had been stalking Bailey stopped him across the street from a day-care center and next to the parking lot of the main public library. The masked man, dressed in black, fired one shot into Bailey’s chest and, after the journalist crumpled to the sidewalk, shot him in the head. A third shot missed, but it didn’t matter. Bailey was dead.
The murder of Chauncey Bailey would be the first of five killings in Oakland in the next 28 hours, but this one stood out for its brazenness—downtown in broad daylight—and because anyone in Oakland who paid even scant attention to local news knew or knew of Bailey, a throwback to an earlier journalistic era of activism and abrupt, in-your-face opinion.
Bailey was a workaholic and liked to describe himself, said Oakland Post Publisher Paul Cobb, as “the Barry Bonds of journalism—the best and the most disliked.” Now he is remembered for being killed in the line of duty.
The twice-divorced Bailey was the father of 13-year-old Chauncey III, a youngster raised partly in the Oakland Tribune newsroom, whose presence smoothed the sharp edges of his reporter father. Bailey was a complicated man who only recently had reconciled with his own father after a 25-year estrangement. He was a journeyman reporter who bounced around the country searching for purpose, an entrepreneur who worked on Oakland TV and radio and dabbled in screenwriting, and a reporter who had been fired from his previous job because of a conflict of interest.
In college, Bailey had said he faced a choice been joining the Black Panthers and going into journalism. He chose the latter, but there would be occasional “blurring of the lines,” Reynolds said, as Bailey always struggled with the competing roles of chronicler and activist.
His murder was all the more shocking because of the motive: Police said the alleged shooter, who later was caught, wanted to silence Bailey, who had been working on a story critical of a bakery operation, Your Black Muslim Bakery, which was in bankruptcy. Oakland is a city whose heritage includes such black activists as Huey Newton and Angela Davis. In that regard Bailey was part of the black empowerment movement. And he was killed, police say, by members of a black nationalist organization who espoused a radical, violent and lawless form of empowerment.
“He was an advocate, but he was willing to question his people and didn’t always try to romanticize the black community. Ultimately, that killed him,” Reynolds said.
“This is almost like a movie,” he added sadly.
An American reporter getting killed on American soil is the stuff of movies. In real life, poor people in the U.S. get murdered. Shop owners die in holdups. Unlike in other countries, American-born reporters rarely suffer anything more than voice-mail threats or the bloviations of talk-show hosts.
Before Bailey’s death, veteran Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles was the last American-born reporter killed in the U.S., in 1976, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Bolles was killed when a remote-controlled bomb exploded beneath his car in a Phoenix parking lot. There were 11 immigrant journalists killed in the U.S. between 1976 and 1993, according to CPJ. The group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement that said: “The manner of Bailey’s death was as shocking as its impact. It was a targeted killing carried out in broad daylight.”
The fallout from the Bailey murder has shaken this high-homicide-rate city of just under 400,000 people. In the early-morning hours the day after the murder, more than 200 Oakland police officers raided the operations of Your Black Muslim Bakery. Seven people were arrested, including the murder suspect, Devaughndre Broussard, 19, who worked as a handyman at the bakery.
The bakery was part of a broader black nationalist social welfare organization founded in the 1960s—not affiliated with the Nation of Islam—and accused in recent years of involvement in murder, torture, rape, kidnapping and other crimes. Through much of this, the organization had received political and financial support from the city of Oakland.
“These guys are intimidating. I knew they were thugs, but I didn’t think any of them were that crazy,” said Joseph Debro, 78, an engineering contractor who writes a regular column for the Post.
“They (the bakery) were trying to get a loan from the city, and that might not have happened if the story came out. That’s what they were afraid of,” Debro said.
Bailey was not a reporter who spent his days poring over files and documents, yet he was the ultimate victim after years of intimidation aimed at other reporters who probed into the workings of the bakery. In 2002 the East Bay Express, a weekly alternative paper, published an eyebrow-raising, 17,000-word series linking Your Black Muslim Bakery to an array of violent crimes in the Oakland area.
Chris Thompson, the reporter who wrote the series, received death threats for the next year and a half. Thompson eventually moved 100 miles away to write his regular column. A brick was heaved through the paper’s front window in suburban Emeryville. Members of the group followed employees home, East Bay Express editor and co-owner Stephen Buel said.
Buel said he finally decided to stop reporting on the organization “because I was not comfortable with the notion of jeopardizing an employee. ... It was my call.” The threats stopped.
Bailey, who was then working at The Oakland Tribune and had written about some of the organization’s legal troubles, had also received a death threat around that time, Thompson wrote in a recent column in The Village Voice.
Much of Bailey’s well-traveled journalism career had been marked by controversy, frustration and a search for purpose. After working for The Hartford Courant and UPI, Bailey served one year—1981—as press secretary for Rep. Gus Savage, D-Ill. In Chicago, Bailey helped launch the Black Press Institute and the Black Press Review with Buzz Palmer, compiling a digest of news articles from black newspapers around the country.
“He lived at our home for a good two years,” Palmer said. “When he and his (first) wife were married, they honeymooned at our place in South Haven.”
Bailey moved to The Detroit News in 1982, as a columnist and urban affairs reporter for the next decade. While at the News he was involved in a newsroom fistfight with another reporter, said James Vesely, a former News managing editor.
“He was independent, and he wasn’t playing anyone else’s game. He stood up to (Detroit Mayor) Coleman Young. It’s not surprising that he would have stood up to black Muslims later,” said Vesely, who is now the editorial page editor at The Seattle Times.
“He was a very strong-willed man, and he was passionate about the city and urban life. I think he reached the point that a lot of reporters do. ... He was completely frustrated that nothing had changed in Detroit.”
In addition to working long hours and juggling duties with newspapers, radio and TV, Bailey was known as a journalist who generously mentored young reporters, including Reynolds, his future boss.
“He was my big brother in the business,” said Dave Robinson, who worked with Bailey at The Detroit News. “He taught me to read five newspapers every morning. He was hard-core.”
Bailey moved back home to Oakland in 1992 as a newscaster for a Bay area radio station, where he earned a reputation as a combative interviewer. He joined The Oakland Tribune in 1993, covering black community affairs. He almost always wore a suit coat and tie, befitting what he saw as the dignity of his position. Reynolds praised his work and energy but noted that sometimes Bailey “was more of an advocate than a journalist. ... He needed to be reined in.”
“I think he was frustrated with the Tribune. ... He felt that we didn’t do enough reporting on the black community,” Reynolds said.
Bailey left the Tribune in a dispute the paper described as “a conflict of interest.” Debro said Bailey was frustrated by the strictures of major daily papers and had grown weary of media portrayals of blacks, largely presented through the prism of violent crime and, 28 days every year, celebrations of Black History Month.
“Unfortunately, dailies ignore minority communities, and he was bitter about that,” Debro said.
Bailey seemed to find his personal footing—he was recently engaged to marry—and his professional niche and purpose at the Post, a weekly paper aimed at African-Americans. As editor he could, along with publisher Cobb, set the agenda for the weekly paper, which has five editions and a circulation of about 50,000. With a cable news show that he hosted, Bailey had a multimedia platform to, as he would say, report the news “from the black perspective.”
He had been working on a series of features about members of an Oakland church. The developing story on Your Black Muslim Bakery was only a part of his broader plan, Debro said. “He just thought it was an important story for the black community, but not the only story.”
More than 700 people jammed into St. Benedict’s Catholic Church last week for Bailey’s funeral, an often-rousing, 2-hour-and-40 minute tribute in hardscrabble East Oakland that vaulted Bailey into the realm of local journalistic martyrdom.
“This community will know what Chauncey Bailey and I were working on,” Cobb thundered from the pulpit, just a few feet from Bailey’s closed coffin and a short distance from young Chauncey. “If we can’t find something to die for, it’s not worth it.”