Bean pies, power, sex and death at Oakland's Your Black Muslim Bakery

The San Francisco Chronicle/August 12, 2007
By Matthai Chakko Kuruvila

Yusuf Bey believed fish sandwiches and bean pies would lift up marginalized black people in Oakland.

For more than three decades, his bakery was both pulpit and profit center, providing the money to start other nearby businesses, such as a hair salon and school, to bear witness to black self-empowerment.

But the block of stores on San Pablo Avenue has withered since Bey's death four years ago. The final blow came this month, when police raided Your Black Muslim Bakery, smashing its windows and putting its leaders in jail.

Even its food - once touted as "pure" and sold in places such as Whole Foods, Rainbow Grocery, the Oakland Coliseum and the Oakland International Airport - was labeled unsanitary. And last week, a judge ordered all bakery assets to be liquidated as part of its bankruptcy.

The empire's heir, 21-year-old Yusuf Bey IV, sits in jail facing charges of assault with a deadly weapon. Bey IV, his brother Joshua Bey and a bakery employee also have been charged with kidnapping and torture. And a 19-year-old bakery handyman has been charged with the assassination of a symbol of African American self-sufficiency - Chauncey Bailey, the black editor of a black-owned weekly newspaper serving the black community.

The Bey family and its alleged victims put forth two widely divergent views to define the legacy of Yusuf Bey and his bakery: He was either a model of black pride who made broken lives whole or an urban criminal leader whose associates terrorized those who couldn't fight back.

Two of Bey's remaining sons say the bakery's rise and fall speaks to the power of their father, whose life and death roughly paralleled the store's fortunes.

Their father was a charismatic and powerful force, they say, who used a bakery to pull together an economic gospel, relationships with influential politicians, employees culled from society's margins, and a family of about eight wives and 40 children.

"It was his dream, and it was his reality," said Yusuf Bey Jr., 45, the oldest biological son, who runs his own auto detailing business in Los Angeles. "When he died, it was too much for me and for any of my brothers to take over. ... We dropped the ball on that collectively as a family."

Bey Jr. told The Chronicle that his half brother, Bey IV, had nothing to do with his father's legacy.

"(Bey IV) chose to do evil instead of good," said Bey Jr., who has not been involved in the day-to-day bakery business for decades. "I don't understand how you could have the father I did and turn out the way he did."

But many of those who describe themselves as victims of bakery employees and the Bey family say the alleged crimes started with the father.

Tarika Lewis will testify. No one listened to Lewis when she spoke out in the 1970s, when she worked at the bakery and said she saw the elder Bey beating women. No one - not police, not community leaders, not Child Protective Services - intervened in 1981, when Lewis said she told them Bey had raped underage girls.

The alleged victims were Lewis' stepdaughters, who had been placed in Bey's custody by her ex-husband. In 2002, prosecutors said they had DNA evidence to prove that Bey fathered five children with four victims under the age of 14, two of whom gave birth when they were 13. Two were Lewis' stepdaughters. Bey died of colon cancer at age 67 before he was to go to trial on charges involving one of the victims.

"I'm just sick over this whole thing," Lewis, 57, told The Chronicle. "This could all have been nipped in the bud decades ago."

Until last week, Your Black Muslim Bakery was the Bay Area's most visible Black Muslim institution, although it had no ties to the Nation of Islam, whose original adherents were called Black Muslims. Both the bakery and the Nation of Islam claim their spiritual origins rest in one man, Elijah Muhammad.

Muhammad preached that the messiah was a man named Wallace Fard Muhammad, who was in Detroit in the 1930s. Elijah Muhammad preached a theology of racial separatism from white people, who had dehumanized black people through centuries of slavery. These beliefs dramatically differ from Islam as it is practiced by a billion Muslims around the world.

Elijah Muhammad listed 12 steps for black people to end dependence on whites. They included: "Make your neighborhood a decent place to live," "build an economic system around yourself," and "protect your women."

Yusuf Bey took Elijah Muhammad's teachings and writings, and turned them into largely secular mantras for his bakery, which was incorporated as a for-profit business in 1968. Bey felt like institutional religion itself got in the way of black unity, and once called religion "the biggest problem in the world."

Bey, a trained cosmetologist who started his entrepreneurship with hair salons, used the recipes of his father, a cook, and Elijah Muhammad's book "How to Eat to Live" to start his bakery. Bey lined up contracts to sell his preservative-free pies and goods at many venues.

But the core of the business was showing that the most underprivileged, disenfranchised black people "could be independent and successful people if given the chance," said Bey Jr., speaking of the poor, drug addicts and ex-convicts.

"The foundation was built off of people that the community, nation and the public gave up on - the people on the bottom, not the people who went to university and got educated," said Bey Jr., who has lived in Los Angeles for the last two decades.

Despite the name, and Bey's personal beliefs, the bakery had no worship component. But on Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m., Bey would teach self-empowerment, where he would cite the Bible alongside a translation of the Quran as well as secular books.

He also had a public forum, True Solutions, a show that ran for 25 years on a black-owned cable TV channel. But sometimes Bey's rhetoric would get in the way of the business.

In 1993, Bey said on the show that he didn't want gay teachers because they might influence his children to be gay, and he claimed that homosexuals are beheaded in the Middle East. Two dozen natural foods stores stopped carrying the bakery's products.

But some say there was a far more malevolent force at play below the surface of the bakery business.

In 1994, members of the bakery allegedly beat an Oakland man with a police officer's heavy-duty flashlight and threatened to kill the white police officers who came to investigate.

Few of those victimized came forward to police. Chris Thompson, a reporter for the East Bay Express who meticulously detailed many of the misdeeds of the family in 2002, received personal threats, had a brick thrown through his office window and was routinely followed.

The Chronicle tried to talk to several alleged victims, but almost no one wanted their name used - for good reason, said the mother of one man who was severely beaten.

Before the Aug. 3 police raid, associates of the bakery did "all sorts of things, but nothing has happened to them," she said. "They still didn't stop, did they? They got worse, as a matter of fact."

The elder Bey's political influence in Oakland was significant, as he curried favor with white, black and Latino politicians. He even ran for mayor in 1994, receiving 5 percent of the vote.

The bakery received a $1.2 million advance from the city in 1996 to start a job-training program for health care workers. Money was used to lease a Cadillac, but the school was never opened and the loan was apparently never repaid.

Even as the bakery was going through bankruptcy, Mayor Ron Dellums and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, gave it letters of support. (They both declined to be interviewed for this story. Lee issued a statement Friday disavowing her earlier support for the enterprise.) Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, wrote a letter to Bey in August 2002 that said "the leadership you provide should be an inspiration to all concerned over the city's future," according to an East Bay Express article.

At about the same time as Perata's letter arrived, authorities were investigating Bey for alleged sexual abuse of girls.

"It's like this dirty little secret that no one wants to admit to," said Lewis, whose stepdaughters bore children after Bey allegedly raped them. "A lot of people befriended him because of this perception of power."

But the enterprise and those associated with it began to spiral out of control after the founder's death.

Waajid Aljawwaad, a "spiritually adopted son" of Bey who was the bakery accountant, was supposed to shepherd the business. But Aljawwaad, 51, disappeared in February 2004. His badly decomposed body was found six months later.

John Bey, another son, was ambushed in June 2005 as he left his home. He has since gone into hiding.

Antar Bey, 23, the next successor, was killed at a gas station in October 2005. Police speculated that it might have been an assassination. A Bey family attorney had said there were many power struggles within the family after the father's death. Police also noted that Antar Bey's slaying came after two incidents in which he was shot at but not harmed.

Soon after the killings and shootings, none of which has been solved, Bey IV took over the bakery business.

Saleem Bey, one of several "spiritually adopted sons" of Yusuf Bey, said the positive message his father had preached became drowned out by a string of illicit activities committed by Bey IV. The association with ex-cons, which once had been a way to lift people up, dragged the family down, said Saleem Bey, who is also Yusuf Bey's son-in-law.

In 2005, Yusuf Bey IV and several men affiliated with the bakery were arrested and accused of vandalizing two Oakland liquor stores and threatening the owners for selling alcohol to African Americans.

Assistant Police Chief Howard Jordan said Bey IV had recently flaunted a sense of invincibility and challenged police despite a warrant for his arrest in a 2006 case in which he allegedly tried to run over a bouncer outside a San Francisco strip club, where Bey IV had been thrown out. Bey IV has been arrested and prosecuted at least four other times in Alameda County. Lorna Brown, attorney for Bey IV in the cases involving the liquor stores and strip-club bouncer, described her client as dedicated to the business but apparently overwhelmed.

She said that he was convicted of one crime in Vallejo involving a false driver's license and credit information about a year and a half ago but that in the two years she's known him, she has seen no evidence of the criminal conduct he's now being accused of.

"I didn't see any of the behavior that has been alleged," she said Saturday. "It was my impression that he was doing his best to keep the business afloat."

Bey IV was arrested in January on a charge of shoplifting several boxes of condoms from a Walgreens in Oakland's Temescal district. While being cited for petty theft, he declared to an officer: "We have the best lawyers. That's why I'm not in jail."

He was released on bail before his arrest on Aug. 3.

"They are hiding behind the aura that was built up by the bakery," said Saleem Bey. "It's like a chicken with its head cut off. It doesn't know it's dead and keeps running around."

Chronicle staff writer Leslie Fulbright contributed to this report

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