Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Zombies

How could they hang with that creep? What were Oakland's leaders thinking?

Those questions run through the mind in the wake of revelations of how Oakland politicians tolerated the thuggish, thieving conduct of Yusuf Bey and his followers. For years.

There was a city loan never repaid, high-profile visits to Bey's home base Your Black Muslim Bakery, muzzled police inquiries, go-easy letters to a sentencing judge, and help with a bankruptcy mess. At every turn, City Hall came through for a quasi-religious group that was more gangster than godly.

Only late in the game, when Bey's empire crumbled after the killing of local journalist Chauncey Bailey, did these enablers vanish.

In the rearview mirror, it was abysmal judgment. But it's more than that - it's the heart of cynical deal-making, the transactional politics that mixes risk and reward to produce a decision. It's what happens when leaders fail in a fundamental way to compute the full effects of a decision.

This short-term thinking may work when locating a freeway billboard or curbing liquor sales in corner stores. But it doesn't compute with criminals linked to rape, spousal abuse, murder and torture with a heated knife. Lives, many of them, were scarred by Bey and the violent conduct he spurred.

The explanations, if you can find one from his long-gone supporters, are plausible but soft: [Your Black Muslim Bakery] was a self-help beacon in a crime-soaked neighborhood. Ex-cons and the jobless benefited. The strong, even harsh ideals of the group sent a message of personal change and belief. That bad stuff? We had no idea, honest.

It's time for a history lesson. This spin was heard before, right across the bay where a parallel saga played out a generation ago. In the late 1970s, the Rev. Jim Jones likewise surrounded himself with big-shouldered bodyguards and a retinue of flunkies. He gave edgy speeches on civil rights and marched at housing eviction protests. His church nursed social programs and health care on a grimy corner in the Fillmore District. He was a wizard with the race card: a white preacher who led a congregation of largely black and poor followers. As in Oakland, the political set flocked to his Peoples Temple to be part of the show. Doubt was not encouraged.

The names of the visitors are gilt-edged Hall of Famers. In San Francisco, it was Willie Brown, gay icon Harvey Milk and then-Mayor George Moscone, who named Jones to the Housing Authority. In Oakland, Bey's chums included former mayor and now Attorney General Jerry Brown, Mayor Ron Dellums and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee. There were plenty of others on both guest lists.

Did these outsiders, on their closely-escorted visits, suspect something amiss or troubling? Did they wonder how either of these airless worlds operated? Were they worried about future embarrassment if the clearly eccentric Jones or Bey had a darker side?

All of them are too smart and seasoned to have missed the trouble signs. Instead they put up with these deluded leaders and hoped things wouldn't get worse. In the meantime, the bargain held with the politicos picking up a high-vis ally while the two decidedly dangerous "community leaders" bought the respect they craved.

The two stories are about more than political back-scratching. Both Jones and Bey were never seriously investigated until late in the game. Jones ran a string of rest homes and foster care facilities that he milked for income. He sheared off pension checks from his elderly followers and sold their possessions in exchange for a promised-land journey to Guyana, where their lives ended. There was no official inquiry until Rep. Leo Ryan went to Guyana in 1978 to check on temple members at the behest of their worried families. That mission unhinged Jones, who oversaw the forced deaths of some 900 followers, including his own suicide.

Bey, who died from cancer in 2003, was a less spectacular saga. His business enterprises brought him respect and standing. His troops chased off drug dealers, which led City Hall and police higher-ups to protect him from investigation. If that sounds like a defensible bargain, you're forgetting the people raped, abused and killed by Bey's soldiers.

There's an age-old question always asked when a monster falls: What have we learned to avoid a repeat? Judging from these two stories, there's a clear answer. Absolutely nothing.
--Marshall Kilduff is a San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the article, very useful piece of writing.

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