Chris Thompson, a former longtime staff writer and columnist at the Express, died unexpectedly last week, apparently from heart problems. He was 46.
Thompson, who was a staff writer at the Express from 1998 to 2007, is perhaps best known for his November 2002, award-winning, two-part series, “Blood & Money,” which examined the life of North Oakland cult leader Yusuf Bey and the violent crime family behind Your Black Muslim Bakery. After Thompson’s investigative stories appeared in the Express, he was forced into hiding because members of Bey’s family were stalking him. Five years after Thompson’s exposé, Bey’s family members murdered Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey.
Thompson, of course, won numerous accolades for his work beyond the Beys. A watchdog journalist who took pride in holding powerful figures accountable, Thompson was loved, especially by his colleagues at the Express, for his quick wit and contagious sense of humor. Some of us decided to share our memories of him for this week’s issue:
If there ever was a person who was destined to be a part of the alternative press, particularly that which existed before the rise of our current internet-saturated and social media-dominated press culture, it was Chris Thompson. When his byline first appeared in these pages in the mid-nineties, this newspaper, and others like it were still proudly setting ourselves against a mainstream press, which was far from the enfeebled beast it is today.
We fancied ourselves, in those days, to be hip and irreverent, smart and courageous. Fortunately for us, we occasionally attracted a talented, hard-working, no-bullshit, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may writer who actually embodied the qualities we so glibly claimed. Chris was whip-smart, indefatigable, and, above all, fearless. He was a superb stylist who seemed to take his chops for granted, a clear-eyed newshound who never let his narratives get ahead of the facts that he was uncovering. He was not put off by the chaotic, low-paid, journalistic enterprise that this paper was when he started; for a man blessed with so much talent, he had not an apparent shred of vanity. He merely needed a bike, a desk, a telephone to glue to his ear, and stories to tell that would require all of his prodigious political insight and intelligence. Throughout the management and ownership changes that this paper absorbed, Chris continued to thrive at the Express for many years.
Now, both those of us who were lucky enough to know Chris in person, and the readers who only encountered him in print, are struggling to adjust to the reality that someone so energetic and full of life is no longer with us. But we are also very grateful that he chose to spend the years with us that he did. He kept us honest.
John Raeside edited the Express from 1978 to 2001.
Chris Thompson was one of the two most agile thinkers I have ever encountered. His sweep of interests was as endless — and occasionally as maddening — as his range of opinions. Chris would often have missed the deadline for his weekly column when he would amble into my office all worked up about something completely unrelated to his topic. He had obviously spent the past hour chasing his interests rather than completing his assignment.
Such was the origin of the most famous project that Chris ever initiated. One day in 2003, Chris sauntered into my office with an astounding observation. The 2003 recall election had just been certified for California’s ballot, and Chris noticed that it would only take $3,000 and 75 signatures to field a candidate for governor. As a satire, Chris suggested that the Express run Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington for governor. We ran with the concept, but replaced his suggested candidate with someone more in keeping with his intent: the actor Gary Coleman. Although our satire backfired, Coleman received more votes per dollar spent than any of the other 134 candidates.
More typically, though, the breadth of Chris’ passions made him a fascinating read on an incredible range of topics, from his prescient warning about mortgage fraud more than a year before the Great Recession, to his blunt assessment of Jerry’s Brown’s tenure as mayor (good salesman, bad manager), to his fascinating portraits of subcultures as diverse as the Acts Full Gospel Church, Berkeley Medical Herbs, the Rossmoor retirement community and, most enduringly, Your Black Muslim Bakery.
For me, talking to Chris was as rewarding as talking to Bill Clinton. You never knew where the conversation might lead, but the end result was always worth the journey.
Stephen Buel edited the Express from 2002 to 2010.
Chris Thompson and I were the two-person staff-writer team at the Express around the turn of the millennium. It was my first reporting job, and I looked up to Chris like a big brother — a smarter, more fearless, endlessly loyal pro who knew everyone and everything. One of our friends says she remembers us dividing our beats into “comforting the afflicted” and “afflicting the comfortable.” If you were a reader back then, you can guess who was in charge of which.
I have a million good memories of Chris. The way he somehow covered the epic tire fire in Westley, even though it was eighty miles from Berkeley, and he had never learned to drive. The time we pulled an all-nighter at the office to write 8,000 words on Proposition 209, with one of us sitting at the computer and the other one lying on the floor yelling directions. The way we’d hole up in my office and talk about whatever while eating our terrible lunches. We bickered like brother and sister, too, once so loudly that movie critic Kelly Vance, who sat somewhere in between us, shouted, “If you kids don’t stop fighting, I’m turning this building around, and we’re going home!”
But the thing everyone knows about Chris — more than his fearsome intellect, more than his elegant prose, more than his perpetual wearing of cargo shorts — is that he was a true news reporter, totally driven by the endlessly unfolding story. He began every conversation by asking: “Have you read The New York Times?” (He didn’t mean a particular story. He meant the whole thing.) Even after he left the Express for the East Coast, he would call you at all hours with the latest on the latest.
My very favorite memory is of a late night call. It was election night 2000, the year of the hanging chad. Chris and I and a crew of reporters camped out in front of the TV, trying to breathe. Florida went for Gore. Then for Bush. That seemed to be that.
I drove home, exhausted, and fell asleep. And then around 3 a.m. the phone rang, and it was Chris: “It’s still in play.”
Maybe that sounds like nothing much, but this is the thing about reporters: When the news breaks, when the story pivots, when it’s too close to call, you want to hear about it. And there is no one you’d rather hear it from than Chris.
Kara Platoni was an Express staff writer from 1999 to 2007.
It is surreal to wake up in the morning and remember that Chris Thompson isn’t here anymore. I knew him before we worked together at the Express, but that’s when I really got to know and value him. Chris loved to talk a story out as he reported it. Even though I wasn’t his main editor, he would always be dropping in to share the latest tidbit, or get an opinion about where to take a story. I looked forward to those visits. He was always curious and interested in the world, in people and what motives them.
His groundbreaking series on Yusuf Bey’s Black Muslims came out of one of those conversations. Bey was under indictment at the time, accused of having sex with underage girls at his compound, a few blocks from our Emeryville office. We were reminiscing about some of the crazy things the Beys had been into over the years. The local dailies had covered them piecemeal, and I commented that nobody had ever really connected the dots and done the definitive story on the Beys. They were such a part of the Oakland fabric that reporters took them for granted. Chris’ eyes lit up. He went off to huddle in his corner, read a bunch of clips, and start making phone calls, and before long he was deep into it.
His exposé, edited by Stephen Buel, won all kinds of awards and got other media interested — and that was the beginning of the end for this local criminal enterprise, which later assassinated another reporter for asking too many questions.
Chris also was a hilarious wiseass. I wish I could relive story meetings where columnist Will Harper would do irreverent impersonations of editor Buel (in his presence) and Chris would throw out nutty ideas, some of which stuck — such as having the paper run Gary Coleman for governor. Chris always turned in pieces that were too long, but his insightful thinking made his work hard to cut. He was also a loyal friend. Long after we were no longer working together, he would reliably call me out of the blue just to see what I was doing and suggest we get together soon. I was always happy to hear from him, but kids and work and life usually got in the way of following up. I guess I figured Chris would always be around. Now I wish I’d accepted those invitations more often.
Mike Mechanic was the managing editor of the Express from 2002 to 2007.
When I came to work at the Express, my initial observations about Chris were that he smelled terrible, he always wore shorts (even in the rain), and that he was brilliant. Chris was the kind of guy who threw around words like “hegemony” (which, unlike me, he could pronounce correctly) and would casually allude to Potemkin Village while discussing East Bay politics. But he wasn’t pretentious. He was brilliant, but he was also a goofball. I loved that about him. People mostly remember him for his work exposing the brutality and corruption of the Bey family, but he was also the brains behind our stunt to run Gary Coleman for governor.
Chris thrived on debate and the exchange of ideas. While most Express staff writers dismissed our weekly story meetings as a plot by our editors to hold us hostage for an hour, Chris looked forward to them. He genuinely enjoyed sitting at a table with his colleagues and discussing the merits and shortcomings of their pitches and the underlying issues their stories raised.
After Chris left the Express, he went to New York to work for the Village Voice. He didn’t last a year there. New York just didn’t get Chris Thompson. He was the kind of conundrum only Berkeley and the Bay Area could properly appreciate. It makes me sad that in the years after he left the Express, no major news publication could find a way to harness his amazing talent and put it to use.
I can still see Chris pacing in our cubicle while writing his column. When on deadline and in deep thought, he had this tic where he’d vigorously rub his hands together, which sounded like sandpaper on wood. I ended up adopting the hand-rubbing tic myself — I still do it to this day when I’m trying get something out of my head and onto paper. I guess it’s my way of trying to channel the Thompson brilliance into my own work. And, now, it will sadly serve as an homage to a terrific colleague who died too young.
Will Harper was an Express staff writer from 2001 to 2006.
I first remember Chris Thompson when I was at the Oakland Tribune, he was at the Express, and we were both covering the highly dysfunctional Oakland public schools, circa 1999. I remember thinking, “I like this guy.”
I became a fan of his weekly columns and occasional in-depth cover stories. And, god, did I love his writing. But I didn’t fully grasp his greatness as a reporter until 2002, when the Express published his epic two-part series on the Oakland child rapist/crime boss/cult leader/mayoral candidate Yusuf Bey. I remember at once being both in awe and pissed off. I stood up in the Tribune newsroom and yelled, “Why the fuck didn’t we have this story?”
It was then that I decided that I needed to go work with Chris and the folks at the Express — Stephen Buel, Mike Mechanic, Kara Platoni, Will Harper, et al. And I’ve been there ever since.
Good bye, Chris. You were the best writer I ever worked with.
Express editor Robert Gammon has been at the paper since 2004.