[19 July 2012]
Crime, corruption, journalism, race and politics come careening together. And you thought The Wire was fiction.
Of course it was, even though it was fueled by co-creators Ed Burns and David Simon’s parallel experiences on the Baltimore, Maryland crime beat. Even though it has come to represent the state of modern, besieged urban America, who would imagine its cast of characters: a streetwise detective whose personal life is a mess; a former addict and snitch who ends up getting profiled in the newspaper he sells on the street; and a notorious drug dealer who conducts business seminars for his young charges, for starters? Where else would one find so many vivid storylines intersecting race, crime, politics and journalism?
Try Oakland, California.
A seemingly innocuous bakeshop in the heart of Oakland’s hood was revealed as the headquarters of a heinous criminal operation. In public, it presented itself as a shining beacon of uplift, and gained the favor of politicians on the troll for black votes. In private, its masterminds ran an enterprise based on fear, female abuse and financial game-playing, enriching themselves while sharing few of the spoils. To make matters worse, they did so in the name of religion, preying upon the desperate and impressionable by claiming to represent the true way forward for black people.
And it all might still be going on had the enterprise not authorized the murder of a reporter hot on its trail.
That reporter was Chauncey Bailey, a down-on-his-heels print junkie looking for a scoop to save his career. Barely clinging to a rung at a local weekly, he was on the verge of publishing a potential takedown of the bakeshop’s behind-the-scenes activity when he was shot and killed in broad daylight in 2007. Other journalists rallied to the cause, and threw far more into fleshing out his story than he ever could have on his own. Thomas Peele’s Killing the Messenger is a taut, gripping chronicle of how both Bailey and the enterprise came to be.
The business in question was Your Black Muslim Bakery, opened in the early ‘70s by a former hairdresser who had an epiphany after hearing a Los Angeles speech by Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. The hairdresser, neé Joseph Stephens, and his brother converted to the faith, and eventually closed their Santa Barbara salon, started a mosque and opened a bakery, following the Nation’s credo. After a highly suspicious murder (a sign of things to come), the brothers decamped for the Bay Area. But internecine politics ended up separating the brothers, with Joseph splitting off from the Nation mainstream, keeping the bakery business going and changing his name to Yusuf Ali Bey.
But Peele’s telling of the story begins much earlier – to the genesis of the Nation of Islam in the ‘20s and ‘30s as less a religion than a fable foisted upon impoverished black people looking for hope. Building on previous research into the Nation of Islam’s origins (especially, Karl Evanzz’s 1999 book The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad) and newly-available FBI files, Peele reveals new truths about its creation myth. Muhammad would say that a mysterious man named Wallace Fard opened his eyes to the black man’s true destiny. In fact, Fard was little more than a confidence man; one of the FBI files Peele cites contains Fard’s records as an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, where he’d been sent up on drug charges. Further, Peele credits Evanzz for providing a copy of the World War I draft card on which Fard lists his birthplace as Afghanistan and his ethnicity as Caucasian.
Peele uses this research to establish the foundation for Bailey’s murder 90 years later. Beneath the Nation of Islam’s veneer of positive messages for black people lay a cult-like undercurrent of violence and perversion at the highest levels. What happened in Oakland may simply have been the most heinous extreme of that mindset.
But heinous it was, and extreme, too. Bey turned the bakery’s storefront into a hiding-in-plain-sight compound, where he beat and raped the women he took as multiple wives, and the daughters they bore him, as well. Meanwhile, the Bay Area was gripped by a spate of random killings of white people in the early ‘70s; the killers would have ties to Bey, although Bey was never formally connected (the Oakland police get poor marks throughout Killing the Messenger). Indeed, h felt such impunity that he ran for mayor of Oakland in 1994.
Charges of his abuse finally came forth, as did increasing rumors of his other misdeeds. He was charged with rape in 2002, but died of AIDS a year later before his case went to trial.
And all that was just the first two acts of the tragedy.
A succession vacuum after Bey’s death created a power struggle for the bakery. The victor was Bey’s son Yusuf Bey IV, known as Fourth, who turned out to be just as greedy and blood-thirsty as his father, if not more so. He authorized the killing of his rival, the bakery’s former bookkeeper. He got caught on security camera footage brazenly busting up a liquor store along with his crew. Over the years, other dead bodies turned up all over the place, even as Fourth nearly curried favor from a member of Congress to extricate the bakery from its ongoing tangle with the IRS.
While all this went on, Bailey rode up and back down the journalism career ladder. A Bay Area native, he got his first reporting job after college at a San Francisco black weekly. He moved on to papers in Hartford, Connecticut and Detroit, but ended up back home in 1993 at the Oakland Tribune. He made a few extra bucks hosting a news program on a public access cable station, where he often crossed paths with Bey, who hosted a show of his own there. But Bailey had also begun to pay a little more attention to the Black Muslim community than Bey—and his family, as it turns out – preferred.
Bailey had job issues throughout his career; back in Oakland they were mostly ethical in nature. They resulted in his losing his Tribune job, and living pretty much on the margins. But a source he’d been cultivating for a long time was going to give him the story he needed – the story, in fact, it seemed he and he alone had been destined to write (even if it was for the lightly-regarded Oakland Post, a black weekly paper where he was editor). No other reporter knew as much about Your Black Muslim Bakery and the Beys as did Bailey – in fact, Peele asserts that except for one other reporter, the local media didn’t much care, or was willing to swallow the same touchy-feely pabulum spoonfed to the local politicians.
All the themes Peele sets forth converge in not only Bailey’s murder, but also the subsequent investigation and trial. Indeed, if there any heroes in this story, it’s the reporters who devoted themselves to finishing the work Bailey started. Dubbing themselves The Chauncey Bailey Project (Peele was among them), they did the work that generations of Oakland police and media had failed to do: methodically piece together and expose the true nature of Your Black Muslim Bakery. Their work helped bring about convictions and life sentences for Fourth and an accomplice. But Peele can’t quite let the story end there, not when there’s a small flicker of the pathology still traipsing around out there, 40-plus years after the fact.
As exhaustive and detailed as Killing the Messenger is, there are still some nagging questions it leaves unanswered. One wonders what has happened to the site of the bakery, and the women who suffered the horrors behind closed doors; one hopes reporting on those aspects will continue. A bigger mystery, and the one Peele never quite solves, is what drove an outwardly genial hairdresser like Joseph Stephens to become the patriarch of such an evil enterprise. He attempts to link it to stories of Stephens’ upbringing in Texas and California, and some underlying bitterness he may have felt while dolling up his customers. But those facts don’t completely get at the awful truth; perhaps we’ll never know for sure.
Beyond its obvious meaning, the book’s title can be seen to have a second resonance. What this book does is not only chronicle the murder that finally blew open the whole sordid can of worms, but also helped takedown a oft-discredited belief that, indirectly, helped inspire Bey and his followers. Muhammad often referred to himself, faux-humbly, as “the messenger”. Although Evanzz did it first and unsparingly, Peele gives further evidence of the mayhem done in the name of the Nation’s dubious interpretation of Islam (while giving scant mention to the millions who turned their lives around for the better through the Nation’s exhortations to personal and collective responsibility). In that light, the title for this book’s main subplot could well be Killing “the Messenger”.
However you choose to title it, this is a remarkable book. Peele and the rest of The Chauncey Bailey Project did outstanding work in researching and reporting the case. Peele’s writing is as brisk and propulsive as the best crime fiction. You won’t be able to put it down, except for those passages that might be a little too gruesome to bear.
But this isn’t fiction at all, although the basic parameters of an outwardly legitimate enterprise hiding criminal activity isn’t all that far removed from the dockworkers storyline in season two of The Wire. We can only hope that whatever impulse there might remain to emulate what the Beys did all those years remains, like the show’s theme song says, way down in the hole.