It’s strange to cover a murder trial when you know the man who was murdered – and several people on the witness list.
I met Chauncey Bailey when I was an editor and reporter at the Oakland Post. There, I also had my first encounters with Your Black Muslim Bakery, whose leader, the young Yusuf Bey IV, is on trial for ordering the hit on Chauncey for a story he was working on about the bakery.
The Oakland Post wasn’t the most obvious place for my first job as a journalist. The Post is a venerable African American weekly newspaper and I was a young white Jewish kid fresh out of college. But it was the first paper to offer me an internship after I rolled into Oakland in my red pickup truck – and it turned out to be an excellent training ground.
In one of my first encounters with Chauncey, he appeared on the Post’s front page – as a subject, not a writer. He was leaving the Oakland Tribune, where he’d long worked as a staff writer – and was moving to St. Kitts. There, he would somehow serve as the Oakland Post’s "Caribbean Correspondent." The headline, written by Paul Cobb, the word-playing publisher of the Post, read: “Let’s Just St. Kitts and Say Goodbye.”
Chauncey was a news-generating machine, a tough no-nonsense questioner, and always smartly dressed. When he returned from the Caribbean and began appearing on the Post front page as a writer, he would sit at his desk and pound out a half-dozen stories a day. At the same time, he was writing stories for the Globe, a competing black weekly, and doing television shows for two competing TV stations. As Paul liked to say, “He was the James Brown of journalism: The hardest working man in the business.”
The Post was always short-staffed and getting the paper together each week was an entertaining scramble. I would write, edit, take pictures and lay out the pages. After Chauncey came along, we easily filled the paper each week with his stories. Some appeared under his byline, some under “Post Staff,” just for variety.
Although I was technically an editor, I was young and inexperienced and Chauncey taught me how to report and write quickly and how to turn most anything into the story. By example, with his tough questioning, he taught me how to cut through politicians’ bullshit.
When, after a year and a half at the Post, I was eying an open position at a weekly paper in Marin, the Post newsroom good-naturedly gave me shit: I would surely be writing about hot tubs and yachts instead of the more life-and-death issues in Oakland’s black community. But Chauncey took me aside and told me it would be good for my career, which even though I ended up writing about yachts, it was.
Chauncey eventually succeeded me as editor of the Post.
The first contact I had with Your Black Muslim Bakery was writing a story for the Post about the death of Waajid Aliawaad Bey. He was an adopted son of the charismatic and controversial founder of the bakery, Yusuf Bey, and had inherited the throne after Bey died in 2003. Soon after, Waajid was found in a shallow grave in the Oakland hills.
Waajid Bey’s murder has never been solved, but I remember interviewing the young Antar Bey, another son of the founder, who’d taken control of the bakery after Waajid’s death. Throughout the interview, he said he had no idea who the killers were, but insinuated with his cavalier and mocking tone that business had been taken care of.
Soon after, Antar Bey was murdered at a North Oakland gas station. Another son, Yusuf Bey IV, now accused of ordering Bailey’s murder, followed him as the leader.
Sitting in the advertising department of the Oakland Post was another key player in the saga. She was a former model and a lieutenant in the Nation of Islam and went by many different names throughout her life: Sister Felicia, Nisa Islam, Nisa Bey and finally Nisayah Yahudah as I knew her.
Dressed fashionably and often sporting blonde hair, Nisiyah volunteered to sell advertising, though she didn’t sell much, and she had some sort of modeling agency on the side. She was a friend of Chauncey's and, as it turned out, the ex-wife of the bakery’s founder, Yusuf Bey.
As the Chronicle reported in a well-researched story by Matthai Kuruvila, many thought it was Nisiyah who’d passed word along to the bakery that Chauncey was working on a story about their crumbling finances – sparking anger and eventually murder.
Nisayah, too, is a witness in the murder trial.
I had been gone from the Post for less than two years when Chauncey was gunned down while walking to work on the morning of August 2, 2007. I visited the spot and attended the enormous funeral at Allen Temple.
Time has passed. But seeing the photos of Chauncey’s dead body — riddled with red holes from shot-gun blasts — that the prosecution put on the screen this week was like getting punched in the stomach.
A few months after Chauncey was killed, I was at the laundromat near my house and I ran into a man who ran the North Oakland branch of Your Black Muslim Bakery on Telegraph Avenue. (The headquarters that was raided the day after Chauncey was murdered was on San Pablo Avenue). We’d become friendly over the years. He’d help me with stories occasionally and I would buy those famously thick bean pies from him.
There are small visceral reactions to traumatic events – and since Chauncey had been murdered I felt sick at the thought of those bean pies, so I hadn’t been back to his bakery. I approached him while we were washing our clothes, demanding answers about what had happened. He blamed the young men who’d had taken over the bakery: they were wild and didn’t listen to their elders.
The explanation was hardly satisfying.
Now those young men are on trial. On Thursday, Devaughndre Broussard, 23, who pleaded guilty to shooting Bailey at close range with a shotgun, was on the stand. He was there to implicate the head of the bakery, Bey IV, for ordering Bailey’s murder because of the stories he was working on. Bey IV, who is now 25, was sitting at the table in a tan suit jacket with a matching tan bow-tie – the signature accessory of the black Muslims. Bey IV, who infamously led missions to destroy liquor stores for selling alcohol to the black community, is also on trial for ordering the murder of another man.
Progress in the case has been made. Excellent reporting by the Chauncey Bailey Project, a group of journalists that banded together to investigate his death, and others nudged the District Attorney to eventually charge Bey IV. At first, Broussard had taken the rap alone. Broussard’s testimony will be key to convicting Bey IV, but the defense plans to discredit him using his criminal past and changing stories about what happened on August 2, 2007.
It was the first time I'd seen Broussard and Bey iV in person. I was struck by how young they were. I wondered if they even understood what Chuancey's life as a tireless journalist and a voice of the black community was all about.