Chauncey Bailey Project

Newhouse: An American tragedy in Oakland

Zachary Stauffer
Zachary Stauffer

Zachary Stauffer

By Dave Newhouse, Oakland Tribune columnist

Chauncey Bailey was a muckraker. That’s not all he was, but it was his public image, and it cost him his life.

Muckraking is the equivalent of knighthood in journalism — the diligent, investigative, raking-the-muck probing that rights societal wrongs. And Bailey had ascended to muckraking knight in the Oakland community.

Then he was slain in 2007. Bailey’s death was the most prominent killing of an American journalist since the 1976 car-bombing death of The Arizona Republic’s Don Bolles.

Bailey would be proud of the award-winning Chauncey Bailey Project, emanating from his old workplace, the Oakland Tribune, for uncovering what he would have been even prouder to unravel himself.

Speaking of winning awards, Zachary Stauffer, 30, of Oakland, was honored this year by the Fargo (N.D.) Film Festival for producing the Best Short Documentary, “A Day Late in Oakland,” about Bailey, who was the Oakland Post editor when he was killed while investigating financial improprieties involving Your Black Muslim Bakery.

Stauffer’s 261/2-minute documentary, which was his master’s thesis at UC Berkeley, will be shown at the Oakland International Film Festival today at 5 p.m. at the Jack London Theater and Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. at Merritt College.

Stauffer majored in history at Boston College with a filmmaking minor, intending to merge both fields of study into the role of documentarian. After moving to Oakland, he worked for a year at the East Bay Conservation Corps, helping Oakland kids acquire job skills along with their high school diplomas.

What he observed at that center, followed by the gunning down of Bailey by an accused employee of Your Black Muslim Bakery, led to the documentary.

“Obviously, the murder was significant,” Stauffer said Wednesday. “But, personally, because of my work at the East Bay Conservation Corps, I had gotten to know, and developed friendships with, dozens of 19-year-old young men from tough neighborhoods in Oakland whose backgrounds were not terribly different from guys who might be inclined to join the bakery or may have been involved with the murder itself.”

The last precarious step into a criminal’s world — the young person may come from poverty without a two-parent home, or even a single-parent home, while tempted by drugs in the neighborhood, where gang activity is prevalent.

It’s difficult for these youths to resist such dead-end temptations, unless someone convinces them of a better, safer alternative. Stauffer successfully balances this point-of-no-return life decision with the extreme rarity of Bailey’s homicide.

The yearlong project took Stauffer from Oakland to New York, where he interviewed former East Bay Express reporter Chris Thompson. Finally, after attaining his master’s degree, Stauffer evaluated what he had learned mostly from his investigation.

“Questions of responsibility of the media was the thing that eventually rose to the surface for me,” he said, “the culpability across the board of politicians in Oakland who were eager to have a photo op with bakery members and media who, somewhat frequently, would write puff pieces about the organization.”

Stauffer chided the media by not “looking below the surface, or ignoring evidence that there was more to this group than they projected.” He also focused on the deterioration of Your Black Muslim Bakery, from its rescuing of young criminals and preaching about healthy diets in the beginning to charges of thuggery, plus child rape against its founder, the late Yusuf Bey.

Stauffer now is based in Berkeley, working for KQED-Channel 9’s “Frontline.” His next project: a documentary on the credit card industry to be televised in November.

Does Stauffer envision himself emulating Ken Burns?

“Ken’s in a category by himself,” he said. “I’ve never contemplated trying to take on a project that would take a week of air time. I do want to work more than just shorts and get up into the 80-90 minute range, which is about as long as a documentary can hold together generally.”

Except for that Burns fella.

Dave Newhouse’s columns appear Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays, usually on the Metro Page. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208-6466 or e-mail dnewhouse@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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