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New book links journalist’s murder to history of racism

Peter Schurmann | 4/11/2012, 8:22 a.m.
Former “Oakland Post” editor Chauncey Bailey was shot to death in Oakland, Calif., Aug. 2, 2007 in what police believe was a deliberate hit. A 19-year-old associate of Your Black Muslim Bakery confessed last week to the shooting. AP /Oakland Tribune

On Aug. 2, 2007, veteran journalist Chauncey Bailey was murdered in Oakland for a story he was working on about Your Black Muslim Bakery, a local business that fronted for an organized crime operation. Bailey’s murder was the first assassination of a journalist over a domestic story in the United States since 1976.

Award-winning investigative reporter and author Thomas Peele spoke with New America Media about his work on the Chauncey Bailey Project — a collaboration of journalists that formed to finish the work Bailey was doing — and his new book, “Killing the Messenger,” that traces the black Muslim movement from its founding to a violent cult-like organization in Oakland that was responsible for Bailey’s murder.

What prompted you to want to investigate Chauncey Bailey’s murder?

I’m aware of journalism history and I was certainly aware of the history of the Arizona Project (created after the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles for a story he was working on involving the Mafia). That was the template — this has got to be done again. It felt like there was little choice. Journalists are in a unique situation to do something when this happens. It was a call to duty type of thing.

Bailey was killed for his work on Your Black Muslim Bakery. Can you talk briefly about his career as a journalist?

Bailey did a hell of a job for the “Oakland Tribune” before his troubles began. He covered the African American community on a multi-daily story basis. He was nothing if not prolific. He’s one of these guys who filled a news hole. He sought out positive stories about the African American community. He always had an agenda to counterbalance the reporting (on the black community) that was out there. He let his personal agenda flow into his reportage.

How did the city respond to his murder?

Until I really researched it for the book, I was surprised that nobody provided a bit of larger context for why the murder happened. Nobody stood up — this was an assault on the First Amendment.

(Former Oakland Mayor) Ron Dellums was so esoteric and disconnected. It might have been difficult for him to do. The police chief (Wayne Tucker) didn’t want to attract attention to the case because he delayed the raid (on Your Black Muslim Bakery) for two days. The district attorney at the time, Tom Orloff — it wasn’t in his political nature to speak publicly. He was a technocrat. These three people who could have provided that larger context didn’t.

The Oakland police also seemed to take a hands-off approach to the killing.

There is a clear record that the police had a policy of disengagement with the Bey family (that led the organization) that stretched a couple of decades. There’s been trial testimony about unwritten policies. Yusuf Bey IV acted with a great deal of arrogance. A week or two before Bailey’s murder, some of his men were seen firing shotguns into the air. Cops were hitting the ground.