Blood & Money
Part Two: The Influence
In March 1994, Black Muslim leader Nedir Bey allegedly tortured a man for several hours, beating him with a police flashlight and jamming the barrel of a gun inside his mouth. When Oakland police arrived to investigate the incident, Bey’s associates mounted an organized attack in which mob leader Basheer Muhammad allegedly rallied his troops by shouting that white officers would soon die. How did the Oakland Tribune play the story? By burying it on page A-13. And what did the San Francisco Chronicle write? Nothing.
In May 1994, mayoral candidate Yusuf Bey organized a massive hate rally that featured disgraced Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad ranting about the “no-good, hook-nosed Jews sucking our blood.” Yusuf Bey heaped praise upon his guest speaker and scolded Jews who objected to Muhammad’s appearance. How did the East Bay Express respond? By running a profile of Bey later that summer that treated him as a thoughtful statesman, speaking of his “life devoted to the development of economic self-reliance for Oakland’s African-American community.”
After years of horrific allegations of torture, beatings, and anti-Semitism on the part of the Bey “family,” what does state Senator Don Perata think of Yusuf Bey? “The leadership you provide should be an inspiration to all concerned over the city’s future,” Perata wrote Bey in August. You can read the senator’s words for yourself; his framed, handwritten letter sits atop the pie case in the lobby of Bey’s bakery.
When it comes to indulging the racism and alleged crimes of Yusuf Bey and some of his associates, there’s plenty of blame to go around. For two decades, ugly stories about the Beys have circulated throughout the city of Oakland, but no one in a position of power has spoken up about it. Instead, white and black leaders alike have embraced Bey as a pillar of the African-American community. Whether due to cowardice, ignorance, or Machiavellian realpolitik, government officials and media outlets have chosen inaction and silence — a choice with terrible ramifications for some Oakland residents.
Tarika Lewis is one of them. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, she called police, lawyers, county child welfare bureaucrats, and ministers all over the East Bay, warning that Yusuf Bey had a dark secret that must be exposed. Bey, she claimed, was doing horrible things to a little girl being held captive in one of the numerous homes owned by his female associates. But no one listened.
Today, when Lewis hears ministers and politicians praise Bey’s work for the community, she chokes on their kind words. “I see how gullible some people are,” she says. “I see how gullible I was, how young and dumb I was.”
If what Lewis claims is true, the entire Oakland political establishment is tainted. Politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, and businessmen have not condemned Bey and his associates but rewarded them — with money, protection, prestige, and lucrative contracts. A two-month examination of court and government records, as well as dozens of interviews, has revealed the following:
* Tarika Lewis, the stepmother of two young girls who Yusuf Bey allegedly beat and raped, claims to have spent at least five years begging law enforcement agencies and child welfare officials to save her stepdaughters — to no avail.
* Two senior Oakland police officers claim that their department looked the other way as Bey family associates exacted vigilante justice in certain North Oakland neighborhoods.
* Officials with the downtown Marriott Hotel and the Oakland Ice Center, both of which were built with city funds, have employed the Bey family’s security company Universal Distributors in spite of its apparent lack of a state-issued security license. Officials at the Port of Oakland even recommended the company as their top pick to provide security at Oakland International Airport.
* During the sentencing phase of Nedir Bey’s 1995 trial on charges that he beat and tortured a man, Bey produced letters of support from Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and City Councilmember Larry Reid.
* One year after Nedir Bey pleaded no contest in that trial, the city of Oakland lent him $1.1 million to start a home health care business. After the city complained that Bey misspent the funds on personal perks and overinflated salaries, Bey allegedly closed the business secretly and sold equipment pledged as collateral. Not one cent has ever been repaid.
* Even after losing this $1.1 million, the city of Oakland gave Nedir Bey $14,000 to finance his unsuccessful campaign to win a seat on the city council. Bey repeatedly has refused to explain how he spent the money — and may have violated campaign-finance regulations to get some of it.
* The Soul Beat cable channel — which serves as the local black community’s only television outlet for discussion of critical issues — has banned discussion of the charges facing Yusuf Bey, who pays station owner Chuck Johnson an undisclosed fee to broadcast his hate-filled sermons every week.
Now that Yusuf Bey has been arrested for a remarkable 27 felony counts of rape and committing a lewd act with a minor, this landscape of influence is finally crumbling around him and his associates. But how is it that all these allegations, which are documented in a decade-long string of police reports and court records, failed to trouble the city’s leaders? Indeed, why have the Beys enjoyed the patronage of such powerful friends?
The story told by Tarika Lewis makes these questions more urgent than ever.
Back in the ’50s, when West Oakland’s black commercial corridor bustled with thriving businesses, Lewis’ grandfather ran a boxing gym on 5th Street. Her father was a professional boxer and good husband, the kind of man who would leave the house when he grew angry rather than curse at his wife. Lewis grew up in a North Oakland neighborhood so quiet that no one locked their doors at night, but as the ’60s rolled on, she watched the city’s best black neighborhoods hollowed out by Urban Renewal, their men left idle as manufacturing jobs disappeared. Determined to do something for her people, Lewis first joined the Black Panthers, then switched to the Nation of Islam in the early ’70s.
“I came into the Nation of Islam seeking some peace, trying to build a nation, trying to build black businesses,” she says. “With my young eyes and my young heart, my optimism, I really felt that these black people were honest about building something in the community that would change the way people ate as far as natural foods, to establish businesses that would employ people in the community.”
Lewis married a man with three children from a previous relationship, and together they had a child of their own. She attended classes at Merritt College and worked part-time at the headquarters of Yusuf Bey’s empire, Your Black Muslim Bakery on San Pablo Avenue. She even cut the first deal to stock the college’s cafeteria with bakery bread. But trouble was brewing inside the Nation. A culture of violence was slowly growing within the organization, she says, and the beating of women was becoming a regular occurrence. Appalled, Lewis eventually broke with Yusuf Bey.
“My father’s hands were registered weapons, because he was a professional boxer, but he never put his hands on me or my mother,” she says. “I didn’t know what domestic violence was. So when a man starts hitting a woman, that was hard for me to comprehend. It was hard for me to stomach or sit around, pretending that it was not happening.”
Soon thereafter, Lewis and her husband divorced for unrelated reasons. But by then she had grown to love her stepchildren as her own, and she resolved to keep them in her life. So when her husband placed them under the foster care of Yusuf Bey, Lewis tried to stay in touch with them. But for years, she claims, she got nowhere. “I wasn’t able to talk to them,” she says. “They wouldn’t let me. Every time I called down there, they weren’t available. There was nothing I could do.”
She finally managed to see one of the children in 1981. Spotting one of Bey’s bakery vans on 59th Street, she walked up and saw her thirteen-year-old stepdaughter sitting in the passenger van, clearly in the late stages of pregnancy. And Lewis says she concluded — by the expression on her stepdaughter’s face, by the way she hung her head and carried herself — that the father was none other than the man who sat next to her behind the wheel, 45-year-old Yusuf Bey.
Lewis spent the next five years telling her story to anyone who would listen. She says she filed a complaint with the Alameda County office of Child Protective Services, alleging that the young girl had been impregnated by her own foster father. But when county officials investigated the allegation, Lewis claims, they interviewed the girl while in the presence of Yusuf Bey. The terrified girl said nothing, and the social workers closed the case and went home. Officials with the county Social Services Agency declined to respond to these allegations.
But Lewis wasn’t finished. She talked to Oakland police officers, but they said to call Child Protective Services. She called a bevy of lawyers, but they all said that since she wasn’t the girl’s biological mother, she had no legal standing. She talked to numerous Christian and Muslim ministers, but they said they could do nothing. “I tried to alert the authorities, but I got so much flak and nonresponse,” she says. “I went to a couple of ministers — I had to get this off my chest, this was overwhelming. They told me to report it, but I said I already had. As far as the Muslim community, they said he was not a part of the mosque; he was not in the Nation. So there was nothing they could do about it.”
Whenever one of Lewis’ friends told her that their children were about to take a job down at the bakery, Lewis told them to get their kids as far away from Bey as possible. But almost no one listened; it was just too ghastly to accept, and twenty years ago public discussion of domestic violence was in its infancy. Lewis says she developed an ulcer from the stress. And every few years, as she’d once again learn that one of her stepdaughters was pregnant, that sick feeling would creep back into the pit of her stomach. “That was the most hurtful stuff, that all this could have been prevented,” she says. “It’s just really shameful, like Oakland’s dirty little secret.”
After eight years, Lewis’ two stepdaughters finally escaped Yusuf Bey. But Lewis still carries inside her the memory of what they went through. And every time she saw Bey on television, every time she heard a politician praise his work with ex-cons, she worked to keep the bile from rising in her throat.
Although Bey is now being held to account for these allegations of rape and child abuse, his legal untouchability may once have extended far beyond such alleged sexual atrocities. In the late ’90s, Allen Tucker was a resident of an apartment complex at 530 24th Street; in 1997, Bey family associate and apartment manager Basheer Muhammad allegedly led a crew of men in beating him unconscious. According to Tucker, associates of the Bey family did much more than this one alleged beating. In fact, he says, the Bey family terrorized the tenants with military drills in the parking lot and violent confrontations. And the cops, Tucker claims, did nothing to stop it.
“Everybody was under threat at that apartment building, even the neighbors,” he says. “Every Sunday, they would come over and do these military marches. Every time they came around, you could feel the tension in the air. You knew when they came somebody was gonna get beat up.”
Tucker claims that during the numerous confrontations he witnessed, neighbors called 911 but the police never bothered to show up. “The cops would never come,” he says. “It was like they were given the okay, like the police wanted to let them do their thing. But their thing is criminal. One police officer, I remember he wanted to get them so bad. But his hands were tied. … I guess Yusuf Bey’s hooked in with the police or the mayor’s office. I couldn’t understand that.”
Tucker’s not the only one with stories like this. Two senior Oakland police officers claim that their department allowed Bey family associates to exact vigilante justice in certain neighborhoods in the mid-1990s. According to one officer, there was an unspoken rule among police patrolling the North Oakland beat: In certain neighborhoods, Yusuf Bey’s men were going to clean up drugs and crime however they could, and the cops should just get out of the way.
“The methods they employed, we’re not allowed to do that in a democratic society,” this officer says. “The police aren’t allowed to go around and beat up young black men. But during this time, if you were a Black Muslim, you had the permission to do that, and the police were told to look the other way.”
According to this officer, he believed that the department’s posture started with Police Chief Joe Samuels. “Joe Samuels was a very political animal, and he and other politicians were in bed with Mr. Bey and would do everything they could to garner his support,” the source claims. “No one ever reached down and said, ‘Leave the Beys alone.’ But when you work in an organization, you learn what the sacred cows are. The people you don’t mess with. The Bey family was one of those. … A bunch of crap happened, and people were told to keep their hands off. When the cases were clear-cut, sometimes you couldn’t do anything about it. But they were given a lot of latitude to operate. You can see the power of the Bey family politically.”
Samuels, who now serves as Richmond’s police chief, strenuously denies these allegations. “Why someone would involve me in whatever’s going on in the Bey family, I have no idea,” he says. “I’m proud of the fact that I was able to establish an open dialogue and hold honest conversations with the Muslim community in Oakland. There’s nothing in word or deed that has any merit of truth in what this anonymous officer is alleging.”
Oakland police lieutenant Mike Yoell says that while he was no fan of Samuels, he never heard of any such directive coming from him or his office. But Yoell claims that on one occasion, Bey family associates essentially took over law enforcement duties from police officers. While responding to a reported rape at a Sycamore Street apartment complex, Yoell says, the police were met at the complex gates by a crew of Black Muslims, who refused to let the officers in and said they’d take care of it themselves. Yoell implied that the officers went away, but refused to elaborate.
Nor is Yusuf Bey the only family member who enjoyed the support of powerful men. Thanks in part to his political connections, Yusuf’s “spiritual son” Nedir Bey served only six months of home detention after being convicted of felony false imprisonment charges resulting from an incident in which he allegedly tortured a man. An old probation report tells the story: “In viewing copies of the reference letters submitted to the court on 2/17/95, it appears the defendant is a respected, well-thought-of individual. Among the defendants’ references are Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and City of Oakland Chief of Staff Lawrence E. Reid.”
Carson says he was dismayed to learn that his name has been connected with Bey’s case. Although he says he once offered a reference in support of Bey’s efforts to secure a health-service contract from the county, Carson swears he never even knew about Bey’s criminal history. “I wrote a letter for a specific usage, which was for a contract,” he says. “I wouldn’t be happy at all that he used it for some other purpose. This is the first time ever that I’m aware of any court-related activity on the part of Nedir.”
Reid, who is now an Oakland city councilman, was livid when informed that his name was offered as a reference in a criminal case. “I have never offered a character reference for Nedir Bey in this way,” he says. “When I see Nedir Bey, I’ll have my words with him. I resent the fact that someone used my name without my permission. My father gave me my name, and I won’t see it sullied. I am pissed. And when I see Nedir, Nedir will know that I’m pissed!”
The assertions of Carson and Reid cannot be verified because their letters are missing from the court record. But Bey claims, however diplomatically, that the two politicians stood by him. “I can understand a person not recalling writing a character reference or what have you eight years after the fact,” Bey says. “The last thing I want to do is create division or animosity between people of goodwill and good faith — black or white. Especially between black people. I would hate to have any type of discrepancies or disagreements between myself and the Honorable Keith Carson and the Honorable Larry Reid. I would only say that I have never used anyone, I have never forged any letters or anything like that.”
Regardless of how it happened, just one year after Nedir Bey got off with nothing more than home detention, he received a magnificent gift from the city: $1.1 million in taxpayer money. Bey was the founder and chief executive officer of EM Health Services, which in 1996 asked for a $1.1 million city loan to build a business training nurses’ aides and home health care providers to care for AIDS patients and other desperately ill people in low-income neighborhoods. The city just happened to have an ample fund ready to spend on such ventures: $50 million in cash from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, $22 million of which was to be disbursed by the city’s One Stop Capital Shop to needy inner-city businesses rejected by traditional banks. The fund was specifically designed to revitalize struggling neighborhoods. Moreover, EM Health Services promised to make its money by giving comfort to the terminally ill — an ancillary benefit that seemed to make the company an ideal candidate.
At first, some members of the city council had reservations. Councilmen Dick Spees and Ignacio De La Fuente worried aloud that Bey did not have enough collateral to secure the loan, noting that the family’s bakery also owed $60,000 in back taxes. Although Your Black Muslim Bakery offered equipment allegedly worth $200,000 as collateral, city officials would later conclude that it was either worthless or already encumbered by prior liens.
But in the course of evaluating this loan, not one person in city government apparently asked why the city should lend $1.1 million to a man who just one year earlier had been convicted of a felony in which he allegedly tortured a man. The issue just never came up, according to Elihu Harris, who as mayor joined Spees, De La Fuente, and the rest of his council colleagues in approving the loan. “I don’t know anything about it,” Harris says. “I don’t have any recollection of that. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. But it was not a public issue, it was not raised by anyone I know.” According to Mary Joseph, an employee of the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency, the city’s due diligence simply does not include checking for felonies. “It was not city policy at the time, nor is it currently city policy, to conduct criminal background checks on city loan applicants and their principals,” Joseph wrote in response to a question by this paper. “Staff was not aware that Mr. Bey had pleaded no contest to a felony count of false imprisonment in 1995.”
Joseph’s department moved ahead with the loan in June 1996 — and has regretted the decision ever since. Within months, city officials were complaining about how Bey was spending their money. By January 1997, agency employees and federal officials were questioning the following expenses: a $96,000 salary for Nedir Bey, $2,000 in cellular phone bills, $43,800 in consulting services, $12,600 for “security,” $8,000 in “architectural fees,” and $6,800 to lease a Cadillac Sedan DeVille for Bey’s personal use — although Bey later insisted that no city money was used to lease the car. Officials ultimately concluded that EM Health Services had spent $226,000 in excessive salaries and consultant fees in the second half of 1996 alone.
Meanwhile, Bey complained that the city wasn’t disbursing the money fast enough. Although the city had agreed to pay the money in quarterly installments, officials soon realized that they had acquiesced before getting federal officials to sign off on the deal. After federal officials noted that Bey and the city had failed to complete all the necessary paperwork, Oakland chose to float Bey cash out of its own pocket — albeit not as quickly as he wanted. As the city’s cash flow slowed down, Bey started firing off angry letters to “the powers that be in Oakland.”
“We have come to the conclusion that there are people in the city of Oakland that are deliberately trying to ruin our business and are doing everything in their power to see us fail,” Bey wrote in one such letter. “Racism is not only people refusing to rent to you, or to hire you, racism is also when … people can look at a business plan submitted by a non-black and feel that this person needs much more money to do what is in his business plan. However, when you … look at the same business plan submitted by a black, you feel that this black person can do the same job, the same work, with the same results with much less money!”
Bey ultimately got the rest of the money, but it wouldn’t do any good. Although EM Health Services claimed to be operating profitably by the first quarter of 1998, Bey never provided supporting documents, as required by the city. Bey apparently never submitted a financial statement after that, and the city declared EM Health Services in default in December 1998. When the city requested another audit, Bey refused to cooperate, according to a report to the city council.
On October 5, 1999, city staff paid a visit to the offices of EM Health Services — but Nedir Bey was long gone. “Borrower had shut down his business and abandoned the premises without providing notice to the city,” One Stop Capital Shop manager Greg Garrett wrote in a staff report, noting that the offices were now occupied by real estate agent Jamel Sultan. “It was noted that the phone system, executive cherrywood office furniture … which were purchased from the loan proceeds, were at the premises. Mr. Sultan claimed that he had purchased the office furniture from the Borrower three months ago for approximately $1,000.” In short, Garrett suggested, Bey had sold the furniture he had agreed to treat as collateral, taken computers and laptops that also served as collateral, and disappeared.
Bey dodges most questions about how he spent the money, claiming that he didn’t misspend the money and that white bureaucrats quietly undermined EM Health Services with overly aggressive accounting. He denies secretly closing the business or selling the city’s collateral, and he remains bitter about the whole affair. He claims that “white companies” like Granny Goose get all kinds of subsidies without micromanaging or henpecking. But whenever a black man comes for money, white city leaders either expect him to fail and withhold loans, or attach so many strings that failure is inevitable. “Dr. Bey was like a prophet then,” Nedir Bey says. “He said, ‘Brother, these people don’t want you to succeed.’ But me being a young black man, not having the experience of Dr. Bey, I’m thinking, ‘No, these white folks in the city can’t be that bad! They can’t really want black people to fail!’ That’s exactly what they wanted. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Of course, Nedir Bey is not the only bitter party. On July 18, 2001, the city received a judgment against him for all $1.1 million. City officials are still trying to determine who, in addition to Bey, may be liable for the loan. To this day, not a penny has been repaid.
Even as Nedir Bey was complaining about the city nickel-and-diming him into failure, another prominent member of the Bey family was enjoying quite a bit of city largesse. Mustafa Bey, another member of Yusuf Bey’s inner circle, is the president of Universal Distributors, a security company that has patrolled some of downtown Oakland’s shining lights. In addition to securing more than a dozen apartment complexes and hotels in the East Bay and San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Universal Distributors has patrolled the Oakland Ice Center and the Marriott Hotel and convention center, both of which were built using city funds. Last year, officials with the Port of Oakland selected the firm as their top pick to provide security outside the Oakland airport. There’s just one problem: A state official insists that Universal Distributors doesn’t have a license to provide security — and never has.
Every security company in the state of California must secure a license with the Department of Consumer Affairs to practice business. The department serves as a clearinghouse for complaints about guard misconduct, and it uses its power to revoke these licenses to guarantee that security companies operate professionally. But according to department spokesman Kevin Flanagan, neither Universal Distributors nor its parent company, Star and Crescent Enterprises, ever have obtained a license. And that, Flanagan says, is illegal.
“Universal Distributors does not have a license with the state of California — period,” Flanagan says. “If there is a company that is operating under that name, it is not operating legally. We are going to investigate this.”
When Universal Distributors submitted a bid to provide security at the airport, the company’s officers not only claimed to have a license, but provided an actual license number. But that number belongs to a different Bey-run security company, EM Security, whose owner is listed as Naim Akbar Bey. Flanagan says state regulations don’t allow one company to use another company’s license. When the Oakland Tribune reported this apparent oversight a year ago, Mustafa Bey insisted that Universal did indeed have a license, but that there were “discrepancies and ambiguities about that.” If Bey was eager to clear these ambiguities up, he didn’t communicate this to the Department of Consumer Affairs. More than a year has passed since the Trib published its story, and Universal still doesn’t have a state license.
Mustafa Bey now claims that he is merely an employee of the company, and promises to look into the matter. But in the company’s 2001 bid to provide security at the Oakland airport, he was identified as the president and majority owner of Universal Distributors.
Why has the Marriott Hotel continued to use the security company? According to its director of security Charles Brown, Marriott staff recently checked with one “Laurie Gilbervitch,” an employee at the Department of Consumer Affairs, who assured them that the company is fine. “We’re comfortable that they’re legal,” Brown says. But Consumer Affairs spokesman Flanagan says no one named Laurie Gilbervitch works at the department. Brown did not return telephone calls seeking further comment.
Nedir Bey resurfaced just one year after dissolving his company and allegedly selling the collateral he had promised the city. In 2000, he ran for city council, attempting to unseat Ignacio De La Fuente, but lost in a landslide. Earlier this year, he tried again, this time seeking to replace outgoing councilman Dick Spees. And despite the defaulted loan and bad blood between Bey and city officials, the candidate once again obtained public funding.
Hoping to reduce the influence of big money in local elections, the city council had launched a pilot program to publicly finance elections, agreeing to match the first $100 of any individual contribution. The idea was to dissuade candidates from being beholden to big campaign donors. It was novel, but not guaranteed to succeed. In fact, many worried that if the program fell victim to scandal in its first election, there might never be a second. But once again, the city looked convicted felon Nedir Bey in the eye and gave him taxpayers’ money.
Bey received more than $14,000 in matching funds from the city’s campaign financing program. But he may have broken the law to get the money. A comparison of Bey’s campaign contributions with county birth records indicates that at least four of his campaign donors may be children. At the time they each donated $99 to Nedir Bey’s campaign, Taji Bey apparently was nine years old, Yusuf Bey IV apparently was fifteen, Fard Bey apparently was twelve, and Saffiyah Bey apparently was nine. If these donors are indeed children, and their parents also gave money to Bey, their donations are ineligible for matching funds because any donation by a minor is considered a donation by the parent. Moreover, this means that Bey may have violated city campaign-finance regulations.
Bey insists that birth records don’t tell the whole story and that everyone who gave money to his campaign is older than eighteen. “Islamic names are very common,” he says. “Just like if you were to go to China, or Korea, or Japan, or India, names are very common.” He refused to provide information on how to contact these donors to confirm that they are adults. But Fard Bey, an underage employee of Your Black Muslim Bakery, confirmed that he had given money to Nedir Bey’s campaign, and that his mother, Daulet Bey, also gave money to the campaign.
There also are numerous questions about how Nedir Bey spent the city’s money. According to staff at the city’s Public Ethics Commission, which oversees the program, Bey has failed to account for how he spent $11,517, as state law requires. Ethics Commission executive director Dan Purnell made numerous calls and sent several letters warning Bey that he must report all campaign expenditures greater than $100, but Bey did not respond. Bey finally filed an expenditure statement on October 2, but it was so vague that city officials still have no idea how he spent the money. According to that statement, Bey spent $39,241 on just one expense: a salary for a man named Vaughn Foster. Bey’s original surname was Foster, but he refused to say if he and Vaughn Foster are related. “I have a lot of brothers,” Bey says. “I believe like the Bible says, your family are those who think and believe as you do.” Bey also declines to say what Foster did to earn the money beyond noting that he “worked on my campaign.”
On October 7, the Public Ethics Commission finally held Bey’s feet to the fire. Charging that he had failed to adequately explain his campaign expenditures despite months of pleading, the commission voted to forward his case to the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Bey showed up and argued his case, alternately stonewalling, accusing the commissioners of racism, and claiming that this was an honest mistake from a first-time candidate — an outright falsehood, since he had run for city council two years earlier.
“It’s interesting to me how, you know, ethics is supposed to be about justice and fairness and what’s right,” Bey said. “But I understand, and no one is fooled here at all, about what the purpose of bringing me here is, or what your purpose is. You’re not here to make sure that the city of Oakland and people who participate in the government process are being treated fairly or as ethical. … Your position is, ‘You didn’t do it fast enough. We gave you enough time. You’re not coming here with a humble enough attitude, so we think we should pass it on to a higher body.’ … So no, I will not bow down to you. … So I say, do what God puts in your heart. Or maybe I should say more correctly, you do what your puppet masters put in your heart.”
By the end of Bey’s twenty-minute performance, ethics commissioner Barbara Newcombe was so exasperated that she compared Bey to a naughty child who wouldn’t take out the garbage. But at the same time, commissioners still praised Bey for getting involved in the electoral process, even as he suggested that their actions had racial motives.
Nedir Bey has intimidated and beleaguered civil servants and politicians with this strategy on more than one occasion. When the city council was discussing its ill-considered loan to EM Health Services, Bey may have tipped the scales in his favor by showing up at a council meeting with one hundred noisy supporters who charged that racism lay at the heart of councilmembers’ reservations. When Oakland Tribune reporters Diana Williams and Paul Grabowicz mentioned Bey’s 1995 conviction and asked if he thought it would impact the city’s decision on the loan, Bey’s answer was classic: “Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and he was respectable enough to become president of South Africa.”
According to one city hall official who watched the process, all the troubling allegations in the world couldn’t stand up to the Beys’ incessant race-baiting. “Having people scream at the council just wore them down,” the source claims. “‘You don’t support small local business, we worked really hard on this, and we should be given a chance.’ That argument goes a long way. It’s painful to stand up to that, ’cause you get called a racist. And staff starts seeing that the council won’t stand up to this stuff. When the council caves, the staff knows which way the wind is blowing. Why fight this stuff, get called a racist, and have the council hang you out to dry?”
This city hall source claims that the Beys’ mau-mauing also secured plum security contracts for Universal Distributors. “They objected that there wasn’t enough minority participation in the ice rink, so someone gives them the ice rink to make them go away. [Community and Economic Development Agency director Bill] Claggett’s office was responsible for awarding the security contract to the ice rink. Same with the Marriott. If you’re a councilmember, and you see the reputation that Dr. Bey enjoys, there’s a great deal of pressure to appease these constituents. An equal factor is the unwillingness of others to stand up to them.”
In fact, relentless race-baiting may be why so many people have over the years paid extravagant respect to Yusuf Bey — whom they always call “Doctor,” even though his only apparent degree is in cosmetology. People can still exploit the injustices of American history to make a buck in Oakland, whether it’s due to white liberal paternalism, a lingering system of racial patronage, or a laudable desire to address the historic racism of American society.
“What is your real concern?” Nedir Bey asked the Ethics Commission in conclusion. “Your concern, like the Oakland Tribune … whenever you can find dirt or find something on a black person in the city of Oakland, is to run them into the ground. ‘Cause that is what you do.” In fact, Nedir and Yusuf Bey have enjoyed some of the most favorable coverage men with their pasts could expect. Although the Oakland Tribune has covered some of their more colorful misadventures with the port and EM Health Services, it has also penned numerous stories characterizing them as legitimate, even noble leaders of their community. Shortly after Yusuf Bey’s first arrest in September, reporter Chauncey Bailey wrote a story, “Accused black leader given support,” which featured a scene in which one thousand members of the grassroots anticrime group Black Men First rose and cheered Bey, their embattled vice president. Bailey followed this scene with a series of interviews with black women supporting Bey. “It’s a trick by the enemy because he’s doing something positive,” Arleta Bass was quoted as saying. “Jesus is the only one I know who is perfect,” Jayla Richardson said. Bailey wrote that the few African Americans who criticized Bey were “middle-class residents in the hills.”
But that’s nothing compared with the favorable treatment they receive at Soul Beat television, the local cable channel whose morning call-in talk shows provide a remarkable forum for the city’s African-American residents to discuss the vital issues of the day. For roughly twenty years, Soul Beat has served as home for the hateful sermons that Bey broadcasts every Saturday and Sunday. Ever since Bey’s arrest electrified the city, station owner Chuck Johnson has banned all discussion of the case, even though the issue rivals the rising murder rate as the hottest topic in the African-American community.
Johnson did not return phone calls seeking comment. But reporter Bailey, who volunteers as news director for the station, stands by Johnson’s ban. Despite the horrific nature of the accusations, he says, Soul Beat’s refusal to allow discussion of the scandal is simply standard operating procedure for media groups with compromising relationships. “When people call me and ask why Soul Beat doesn’t deal with Yusuf Bey and allow callers to talk about it, I guess our logic is you very rarely see a critic of a Disney movie making a report on Channel 7, which is owned by Disney,” he says. “You never see NBC doing a report on General Electric, which owns NBC.”
Others are not so forgiving. “Chuck Johnson is mentally dead,” says Tarika Lewis, who years ago cancelled her cable subscription so she wouldn’t inadvertently stumble upon True Solutions while flipping through the channels. “Chuck Johnson would put some pornography there if they paid him. He’ll put anything on the air for a dollar.”
Yusuf Bey and his associates have enjoyed some of the finest perks Oakland has to offer: a bully pulpit on the black community’s most important television station, vast city subsidies, contracts worth a small fortune, and favors from the most powerful men and women in town. Even after Nedir Bey walked away with $1.1 million in city funds, the Community and Economic Development Agency was prepared to give Yusuf Bey’s bakery a $10,000 facade-improvement grant until Councilwoman Jane Brunner put a stop to it.
But time may be running out for Bey and his associates. Slowly but surely, the city is moving to collect its $1.1 million loan to Nedir Bey. The city got a judgment against him one year ago, and the interest is accumulating by tens of thousands of dollars annually. He’s also under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Committee, and sources close to the Bey family report that Nedir and Yusuf stopped talking to one another within the last year.
As the fallout from Yusuf Bey’s arrest spread throughout Oakland, civic leaders began to distance themselves from him. His position as vice president of Black Men First came under intense scrutiny. Why, people asked, was a man charged with such a monstrous crime serving as vice president of an organization dedicated to turning young men away from crime?
According to Councilman Reid, it didn’t help that Bey and his followers clumsily exploited Black Men First to launder his public image. By universal consent, the group’s meetings have always been closed to the press. But when Reid walked into the meeting immediately following Bey’s first bust, he saw a crew of Black Muslims videotaping the event. A few days later, Bey broadcast that videotape on Soul Beat, and Reid watched footage of himself, Carson, and Oakland Police Chief Richard Word sitting on the same stage as Bey, basking in the crowd’s accolades. “It gave the impression that we were supporting him,” Reid complains. “He played it on his show on Soul Beat, and next thing I know, I’m getting calls from black women at home, saying ‘How can you stand up there with that man?’ “
Soon, Reid adds, he was catching hell from his own family. “My wife and kids read the newspaper and said ‘Daddy, how can you go to those meetings?'” he says. “I’m a father with two daughters, and if the allegations being raised against Dr. Bey are true, I would be incensed. So I decided I could not be a part of an organization whose co-chair was having these allegations. I’d rather step back, take the heat from Dr. Bey and whoever else, and keep doing my work.”
Reid wasn’t the only public figure under fire. Pastor Bob Jackson of Acts Full Gospel Church, the president of Black Men First, started fielding angry calls from residents all over the city. It was just a matter of weeks before Bey resigned in disgrace.
His standing has since crumbled further. At his November 14 court appearance — when the district attorney’s office charged him with another 26 counts of rape and committing a lewd act with a minor, and Judge Allan Hymer set his bail at $1 million — the Tribune reported that Bey’s face went slack with shock, and his men surged from their chairs as he was led away. If convicted, he could face from fifteen years to life in prison.
If the district attorney’s allegations are true, how could Yusuf Bey have presided over a regime of such brutality and fraud for so long? How could so many men and women have meekly accepted their places in such an iron hierarchy? Tarika Lewis still remembers what brought her into Bey’s orbit.
“I don’t say everybody’s lost, but the average black person wants to have something they can call their own,” she says. “Oakland had a black downtown … When that economic base was systematically removed, that did away with those businesses. This is the key. Because what happened after that, crime and unemployment went up, the lack of housing went up. The loss of that economic base was monumental. We’re still feeling that effect, and it’s five generations deep.
“So when someone stands up in the community and starts a business that’s employing people, when he tries to do what he preaches, and has the appearance of clean living, when he’s an alternative to what the media’s projecting — with the high infant mortality rate, the high crime and drugs, and mortality of young black men — people start listening to that.”
The tragedy, Lewis suggests, is that people will still cling to the promise of Yusuf Bey long after they’ve seen his real face. They still need a sense of dignity, of ownership and pride, and they’ll hold on to it even if it costs them their souls. “There’s no men down there,” she says. “There’s no women down there. They’re just little boys and girls — their emotional development stopped once they agreed with whatever went on before their eyes. For someone to not stand up for their own children, for them to say nothing and turn their head, there’s something wrong with them. … This is supposed to be a way of peace? Of justice and equality? Is this the heaven that he’s building?
“Maybe people are so desperate,” Lewis sighs, “they’re so thirsty for any type of family environment, they’ll take anything that goes along with it, warts and all.”
One month ago, Yusuf Bey broadcast his first sermon since resigning from Black Men First. An impeccably dressed young man in a white suit and black shirt took the podium to introduce the man who had saved his life. Holding up his own rap sheet, the young man began to read off all the criminal charges ever brought against him. Murder. Robbery. Assault. Drugs. Guns. “I’m a cold-hearted criminal,” he said, “and this dude done went out of his way to help me get my business started. He done bought licenses, he done bought me trademarks, he done got my bank account started, he done did all my paperwork for me.”
The young man nervously shuffled two slips of paper. As his eyes flitted from the crowd to the words he had written, he bebopped a poem about his mentor’s downfall:
“An old lady once told me love don’t have no strings attached./Well, if that’s the case, how you gonna do my father like that?/If you really wanna know if what happened to Dr. Bey was wrong/Jesus himself said let him who is perfect cast the first stone./I heard there was an organization called Black Men First./Seems like a contradiction to me, ’cause the first thing you do is treat this black man like he was plagued with a curse.”
Although his voice was deadpan, the tone conjured up a certain quiet menace as he made apparent allusions to Black Men First president Jackson and Tribune reporter Bailey, who covered Bey’s resignation from the group. “Mr. Preacher Man, Mr. Preacher Man, you sit high upon your pulpit./I got two words for how you treated my father: Bull—-./Mr. Media Man, Mr. Media Man, you seem to have lost your soul./Don’t believe me, take a close look at the people you work fo’./Here’s a hint to the riddle: does their skin seem to be a tad bit pale?/Wake up you damn fool, it ain’t Dr. Bey they want. From the first, they been wantin’ all black men in jail./Willie Lynch says separate ’em and keep the light-skin eggs over there./Oh I guess you think you better than us ’cause you work for the paper, a proud uppity nigger with curly hair. …”
“Dr. Bey, don’t worry about yesterday, let it signal a new start,” he concluded. “But you know, I bet you a million dollars your sins don’t match mine, for I’m proud to say I was born with a criminal heart./So whatever you do, have faith and be strong./This is only a temporary defeat — real soldiers move on.” The crowd cheered, and he stepped to the side, adding: “I love you.”
Bey walked to the podium clad in a blood-red suit, a bow tie, and fez framing his face. He struggled to choke back tears for a moment. “I didn’t know that my brother would be up here opening up for me like that,” he fumbled.
He started slow and humble, explaining the endgame that forced him from Black Men First. “If I can’t be of service, if I can’t help, then I don’t want to hinder,” he said. “And if my presence hindered Black Men First, then naturally I would want to resign and apologize to Bob Jackson.”
But as he warmed up, Yusuf Bey rallied his troops one more time, before the judgment of men descended upon him. “But the thing of it is,” he said, “what I would like to see out of Black Men First was a group of strong black men who choose our own leaders through democracy, voting. And then back up our leaders. Knowing that as soon as you organize, your enemies are gonna try to divide and conquer.”
“That’s right!” his men shouted.
“This has always been the trick. Willie Lynch set that trick up. You know? None of us are perfect. None of us are free of sin. You crazy if you sittin’ behind your desk pointing your finger at me. God lookin’ at you! God knows what you do! And you know, we’re all sorry, we all make changes, we all go through life making errors and then change for the best…
“I thought this would be a black organization that understood this. That we’re built from criminals.” Gesturing to the young man who introduced him, Bey bellowed, “This brother, this is the backbone of Black Men First! Not the holy, righteous, pure angels out there, no! It’s the man been in the mud! Who has stood up and cleaned himself up! That’s what Black Men First means!”
Bey’s men cheered, and he finished with his ritual coda.
“Praise is due to God.”