When a nineteen-year-old member of a Black Muslim cult assassinated Oakland newspaper editor Chauncey Bailey in 2007—the most shocking killing of a journalist in the United States in thirty years—the question was, Why? “I just wanted to be a good soldier, a strong soldier,” the killer told police. A strong soldier for whom?
Killing the Messenger is a searing work of narrative nonfiction that explores one of the most blatant attacks on the First Amendment and free speech in American history and the small Black Muslim cult that carried it out. Award-winning investigative reporter Thomas Peele examines the Black Muslim movement from its founding in the early twentieth century by a con man who claimed to be God, to the height of power of the movement’s leading figure, Elijah Muhammad, to how the great-grandson of Texas slaves reinvented himself as a Muslim leader in Oakland and built the violent cult that the young gunman eventually joined. Peele delves into how charlatans exploited poor African Americans with tales from a religion they falsely claimed was Islam and the years of bloodshed that followed, from a human sacrifice in Detroit to police shootings of unarmed Muslims to the horrible backlash of racism known as the “zebra murders,” and finally to the brazen killing of Chauncey Bailey to stop him from publishing a newspaper story.
Peele establishes direct lines between the violent Black Muslim organization run by Yusuf Bey in Oakland and the evangelicalism of the early prophets and messengers of the Nation of Islam. Exposing the roots of the faith, Peele examines its forerunner, the Moorish Science Temple of America, which in the 1920s and ’30s preached to migrants from the South living in Chicago and Detroit ghettos that blacks were the world’s master race, tricked into slavery by white devils. In spite of the fantastical claims and hatred at its core, the Nation of Islam was able to build a following by appealing to the lack of identity common in slave descendants.
In Oakland, Yusuf Bey built a cult through a business called Your Black Muslim Bakery, beating and raping dozens of women he claimed were his wives and fathering more than forty children. Yet, Bey remained a prominent fixture in the community, and police looked the other way as his violent soldiers ruled the streets.
An enthralling narrative that combines a rich historical account with gritty urban reporting, Killing the Messenger is a mesmerizing story of how swindlers and con men abused the tragedy of racism and created a radical religion of bloodshed and fear that culminated in a journalist’s murder.
THOMAS PEELE is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and the Chauncey Bailey Project. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. His many honors include the Investigative Reporters and Editors Tom Renner Award for his reporting on organized crime, and the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage. He lives in Northern California.
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THOMAS PEELE is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and the Chauncey Bailey Project. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. His many honors include the Investigative Reporters and Editors Tom Renner Award for his reporting on organized crime, and the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage. He lives in Northern California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There Goes Lucifer
“Why do I recall, instead of the order of seed bursting in springtime, only the yellow contents of the cistern spread over the lawn’s dead grass? Why? And how? How and why?”
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Several times a day, Yusuf Bey IV would make a hard U-turn on San Pablo Avenue at Fifty-ninth Street and gun his black BMW 745i toward downtown Oakland. He drove by no known rules, swinging in and out of lanes, accelerating, ignoring red lights, other cars, whatever stood in his way. He couldn’t go anywhere without scaring people, and he was always going somewhere, a cell phone pressed to his ear as the BMW coursed through the city’s streets, three or four impassive young men whom he called his soldiers dressed in cheap dark suits piled in with him. He’d speed away from the fading red and black brick walls of the compound that housed Your Black Muslim Bakery, away from the frenzied pit bull and mastiffs that guarded it, away from the steaming industrial ovens, assault rifles leaning against them, spent cartridges and banana clips scattered on the rat shit–flecked kitchen floor.
Beneath the bakery’s signature black star-and-crescent sign looming over the street was an awning with words printed on it in block letters: taste of . . . the hereafter. That the kind of Islam—or what they called Islam— that the Beys and their followers practiced was based on teachings that rejected belief in an afterlife escaped most passersby. Despite those words, Black Muslims didn’t believe in heaven. “I have no alternative than to tell you that there is no life beyond the grave,” Elijah Muhammad once wrote. “There is no justice in the sweet bye and bye. Immortality is NOW, HERE. We are the blessed of God and we must exert every means to protect ourselves.”
The now, here for Yusuf Bey IV was the sagging, blood-splattered ghetto.
Fourth referred to himself as the bakery’s chief executive officer, as if that meant much for someone who had barely graduated from high school thanks only to social promotion and administrators’ unrelenting desire that he be gone. He lacked even basic business skills. But as prosecutors would one day lean over lecterns and impress upon jurors, the bakery was much more than a bakery, so he had much more to do than just keep shop anyway. Sure, the Beys churned out sugarless cakes and sold tofu burgers on whole-grain buns. But they also churned out scores of converts to their cause who helped them run innumerable criminal enterprises. Many of those people had worshipped Fourth’s father, Yusuf Bey, as God, and those who remained were ready to follow his son’s commands to their deaths.
By late 2005, a few months before his twentieth birthday, Fourth stood at the head of the remnants of his father’s cult. He claimed that his ascension to leadership and greatness at such a young age had been prophesied in the book of Genesis. Allah had chosen him—and him alone—for greatness. The correct interpretations of the Bible and the Holy Qur’an made plain his destiny.
The facts of his life, though, seemed to destine him for something else.
Fourth grew up as one of the last believers in W. D. Fard’s divinity. Despite claims dating to 1930 that followers of Fard and the man who claimed to be his messenger, Elijah Muhammad, simply sought freedom, justice, and equality, the Nation of Islam they founded had largely collapsed under the weight of hate and violence that equaled those of Klansmen and Fascists. Its more well-known members, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Elijah’s son, Wallace Muhammad, had renounced and abandoned its rhetoric for Orthodox Islam. The Nation had been left, since 1980, under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, a man of frequent, incoherent rants whose former spokesman, Kahlid Abdul Muhammad, had called for Hitleresque mass slaughters of whites and Jews. But despite Farrakhan’s occasional feints toward moderation, the Black Muslims had, by the end of the twentieth century, become an afterthought, a bizarre, fading fringe group.
Yet in Oakland, Yusuf Bey had clung to their rhetoric and preached their radical faith to his breakaway sect. From behind brick redoubts at his compound in the city’s northwest corner, he ruled a small, cloistered cadre of believers with inviolable authority.
Fourth, the third-oldest child and second son of a woman who had borne Yusuf Bey eight children, had grown up in a compound where his father bellowed about self-determination yet held absolute power over his followers, controlling when they worked, ate, and spoke, when and where they slept, what they wore, where they went. Through ridicule and beatings or pretenses of love and praise, he convinced them to give themselves totally to him. Many were but indentured servants, working only for room and board. In that compound, on any given day, Bey could point to a dozen or more women and say that each, under his fictive version of Islam, was his wife; those women were taught that their lives were but the floor upon which their leader walked. In that compound children were forced to work endlessly; some were kept from school and lived in constant terror of what Bey did to them when he got them alone. Guns were omnipresent and violence was the routine way to deal with even the most minor transgression; hate was preached continuously, as was the inferiority of other races, especially whites and Jews, who were devils created by the mad scientist Big-Headed Yakub. So was the idea that the mother plane was always on the brink of launching Armageddon.
As his father’s son, Fourth was raised to believe that he was among the last true Black Muslims. He was told he was entitled to whatever he wanted and should obtain it by any means necessary, that his value was based upon how much money he had in his pocket at any moment and what he could make others do for it. It was instilled in him that his father was a God-king, and so he called himself “the prince of the bakery.”
Those who feared Fourth called him something else.
When he drove away from the compound, he sometimes banged a quick left or right from San Pablo and cruised along residential streets, passing a mishmash of yardless, vinyl-sided houses that made up North Oakland, iron grates covering nearly every window and door. When he wasn’t on the phone, music thumped from the car, Usher, Tupac, 50 Cent. People had long since accepted that living near the bakery meant being under the constant dint of vigilantism and terror. They would hear the blaring hip-hop, inch curtains aside, recognize the BMW’s twenty-two-inch, five-thousand-dollar rims, and mutter the name no one dared call Fourth to his face. “There goes Lucifer,” they’d say.
When Fourth stayed on San Pablo Avenue, North Oakland’s main drag, he rolled past coin laundries, check-cashing joints, and neon-glowing liquor stores, street-corner drug hawkers and prostitutes scurrying into the darkness when they saw or heard the BMW approach. It would be just like Fourth to swing sharply to the curb, doors flying open before the car stopped, his soldiers swarming, kicking, beating, filling their pockets with money, sometimes tossing tiny glass vials of rock cocaine or heroin in the gutter and grinding their feet over them, sometimes, depending on Fourth’s whim and the girth of his own roll of bills, stealing them so they could be sold elsewhere.
Railing about drugs—they were but the devil’s way of suppressing and destroying Blacks—had always been a cornerstone of the mantra that enabled the Beys to control North Oakland. It was Hoover, Fourth’s father would preach, that motherfucking devil J. Edgar Hoover and his motherfucking FBI, who first enabled the flow of heroin (he pronounced it “hair-on”) into Black communities to push them further toward destruction, knowing that the already hopeless conditions that African Americans faced made narcotics a desperate form of escapism. Regardless of his theories (and history has proven that Hoover’s clandestine campaigns had few limits), Bey’s antidrug screeds helped bolster his image as an iron-willed civic reformer.
Bey’s soldiers frequently attacked drug sellers, beating them senseless in the name of Allah. They were unlikely to steal their wares, though. To them, it was about righteousness: They would leave cheap, clip-on bow ties on the blood-speckled cement as calling cards: The Beys were here.
Fourth aspired to that same image, but if he had a chance to sell drugs stolen on the street, or to dispatch his soldiers to do muscle work for those who sold them wholesale, he would sidestep his self-righteous spiels in favor of what mattered most to him: money.
Fourth drew his superbia from the fealty of the grim-faced young men, their suits freshly pressed, their hair shaved in military crops, who flanked him at every turn. They lived on his largesse, nearly begging for his attention and approval. Inside the bakery, he ordered them to salute him like privates passing a general. They did little without his authority. If a drug dealer was beaten and robbed, it was because Fourth wanted that drug dealer beaten and robbed. Soldiers follow orders. Yet Fourth knew that keeping his charges close to him meant his own conduct stood under constant scrutiny. The highest disgrace a Black Muslim could face was being labeled a hypocrite. Fourth had to be careful about who was around when he ordered drugs stolen. He needed his men as close to him as intimate brothers, but he couldn’t let the exposure corrode his authority, lest his followers learn his true nature: Just like his father, Fourth falsely claimed to be motivated only by a desire to help his people, when his true obsessions were greed and power.
Fourth and his men had little to fear from police. If an officer happened past and saw Fourth’s men blitzing a corner, that officer was likely to keep driving. If the cocaine or heroin being stolen ended up being sold elsewhere, it would probably be way out in East Oakland, where it became another officer’s problem. To the cops, they were just punks beating up other punks. Maybe luck would prevail and someone would get shot; one less scumbag to worry about.
Oakland’s police department was chronically understaffed despite the city’s soaring crime rates—higher per capita than Detroit, New York, or Los Angeles—mostly because voters rejected property-tax levies to pay for more cops, landing the department in a perpetual catch-22: It needed more money for additional officers and better equipment with which to fight crime, but because it did a poor job of fighting crime in the first place, voters lacked the faith to provide more resources.
To many cops, the job was simply about racking up overtime, collecting paychecks, and surviving. In 1999, then-governor Gray Davis signed laws that doled out the most lucrative law-enforcement pensions in the country to California’s police officers and prison guards. Ostensibly, Davis’s plan was designed to attract and retain better-qualified and better-educated applicants to law-enforcement by providing a back-loaded incentive. A cop who retired at fifty could then embark on a second career knowing that hefty government checks were a monthly certainty for life. But, as in nearly all of his dealings, Davis was mostly motivated by the quid pro quo of campaign cash and union endorsements.
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