The Oakland Bakery Linked to Slain Newsman

Even in a city that prides itself on diversity, Your Black Muslim Bakery stood out. In a neighborhood occupied by a Baptist Church, a meditation Ashram and a Chinese deli, the Bakery advertised its presence with a giant red-and-white sign and a mural of its controversial founder, Yusef Bey, beaming, as if in some old Soviet propaganda poster, over a bountiful harvest of bread and wheat stalks. Founded in the 1970s, when Oakland was home to the Black Panthers and the nationwide Black Pride movement, the Bakery was far more than a bread shop. Under Bey, its charismatic patriarch, who preached a doctrine of discipline and black self-reliance and once ran for mayor of Oakland, the Bakery peddled health food and offered job training for underprivileged youth and ex-cons, earning the trust of city officials. But the bakery is boarded up now, after Oakland police stormed the place last week, arresting several suspects in the murder of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey. Police say the bakery's handyman, 19-year-old Devaughndre Broussard, confessed to shooting Bailey in broad daylight as he walked to work at the Oakland Post, a black community newspaper, because he was upset about Bailey's coverage of the business's finances.

The assassination of a prominent black journalist would be shocking enough in a city that has seen a record number of homicides this year, prompting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week to dispatch extra California Highway Patrol officers to help quell the crime wave. But Bailey's death has also prompted deep soul-searching among the city's mostly black elite, who for years watched, but did not intervene, as Bey, who died in 2003, and his followers were implicated in a rash of violent crimes, including rape, kidnapping and armed robbery--as well as the mysterious deaths of several insiders. Shortly after Bey's death, his successor, the Bakery's CEO, was found in a shallow grave in the Oakland hills. One of Bey's sons took over the business, only to die a short while later in a failed carjacking. No charges were ever filed. Yet even as some of Bey's feuding heirs terrorized the community--and each other--attacking liquor stores owned by Muslims in 2005 and allegedly kidnapping and robbing a woman to get money for the failing business last year, community officials continued to support the Bakery, which is now in bankruptcy proceedings. This week, two of Bey's sons were among those charged on several counts, including felony kidnapping, assault and weapons possession in the 2006 incident. (Neither has yet entered a plea.)

Despite these well-publicized incidents, top officials continued to support Bey's organization. Earlier this year, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums sent a letter on behalf of the Bakery to the judge in the bankruptcy case, attesting to its historic role in providing healthy food and jobs to the community.  Karen Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the mayor said Dellums, who only took office in January, merely signed a "standard letter of support" routinely granted to civic institutions, and that the mayor's office would review its procedures. Dellums, who had a warm relationship with the slain journalist, approved a police crackdown against the Bakery earlier this year, Stevenson said. Speaking at Bailey's funeral in Oakland on Wednesday, Dellums was visibly emotional when he appealed to the overflow crowd to help fight the violence engulfing his city. "This madness has to stop," Dellums said, his voice cracking.

Regardless of the tone now, Oakland has a history of looking the other way when it came to Your Black Muslim Bakery, which continued to exploit its reputation as a civic-minded business long after its legal troubles began. In 2002, Bey was charged with raping underaged girls in the extended Bakery "family"--a group of underprivileged youth who were offered jobs and boarding--fathering a child by one who was only 13. He pled not guilty, then died of cancer in 2003 while awaiting trial. Earlier this year, the County of Alameda settled a civil suit for an undisclosed sum brought by three women who were taken in by Bey as teens and claimed to have been ignored when they reported Bey's sexual abuse to county social workers. One of the women, identified in court papers as "Jane Doe 3," and interviewed by NEWSWEEK, says a social worker told her when she was a teenager that the county wouldn't act on her rape claims because Bey was "too powerful."

Bey, although not a member of the Nation of Islam, surrounded himself with bow-tie- and bowler hat-wearing bodyguards, known for their swaggering style. He ran for mayor in 1994 in a campaign tinged with anti-Semitic rhetoric and also had a television show on the city's most influential black cable station, where he preached about African-Americans as the "original man." Over the years, the Bakery spun off several affiliated businesses, including a security firm that often had contracts with the city.

In 2002, the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly, ran a series exposing the violent criminal acts, including assault and kidnapping, of Bey and some of his disciples, many of whom adopted the name Bey as the patriarch's "spiritual sons." The reporter, Chris Thompson, received death threats and someone threw a brick through the newspaper's offices, shortly after the stories were published. According to the paper's editor, the mother of one of the Bey son's mentioned in the article appeared in the newspaper's lobby to berate the reporter. Yet East Bay Express editor Stephen Buel says that when he complained to Oakland police, "they were useless. … For the better part of a decade [Bey and his followers] were treated as though they were honored members of the community when in fact it was an organized crime syndicate," Buel told NEWSWEEK. "The cops were afraid, the politicians were cowardly and the media were stupid." The paper stopped covering the group in 2003, in part over concerns about its reporters' safety. "We pulled back," Buel says. "Today it sickens me."

Even when those inside the organization tried to communicate with city officials about violence, sexual abuse and financial irregularities associated with the business, especially after the bankruptcy proceedings began, no action was taken. One former Bakery insider, Ali Saleem Bey, outed himself this week to the Oakland Tribune as Chauncey Bailey's source on the story he was working on when he was murdered. Saleem Bey told the Tribune that he went to Bailey with information about fraudulent business practices among the feuding heirs of the Bakery only after he tried repeatedly to alert authorities, including Oakland police, the I.R.S. and U.S. bankruptcy court, but was ignored. Efforts by NEWSWEEK to reach Saleem Bey were unsuccessful.

Officials at the Oakland Police Department, perennially underfunded and reeling from this year's crop of record homicides, bristle at suggestions that the department was somehow soft on the Bakery-backed crime spree. "There were a handful of individuals who took over the bakery for their own violent means," say Lt. Ersie Joyner. "This was an organization that did have ideals and do good things a long time ago."

On Wednesday, hundreds of mourners packed Bailey's funeral in Oakland to honor the slain newsman's  passionate commitment to black community journalism.  His friends say it is more than ironic that the story that cost him his life is now being told by others.

With Nadine Joseph in Oakland  

Join the Discussion