I and many other Oaklanders and supporters of the Black press are still reeling from the recent murder of Chauncey Bailey, a well-respected community journalist, last week.
The themes that this tragic incident bring up for me are, again, literacy and the power of writing to shake loose entrenched power structures, to speak truth to power. My experiences over the past few months seem to be pointing me in the direction of taking my writing to the next level, and Chauncey's death and my feelings about it are just another sign that I need to pursue my writing more seriously. His death has affirmed for me that writing can be one of the most powerful acts in the world.
I didn't know Mr. Bailey, had never even heard of him before his death this past week. But as I walked to work the other day, I encountered his spirit in the palpable emotion and heaviness I felt when I walked by the police barricades near Alice and 14th Streets in downtown Oakland. I asked a police officer what was going on; he told me someone had been shot, killed. I kept walking closer to the crime scene (everything had been cleaned up by then but a small crowd had gathered) to find out more. Now, for the non-Oaklander folks reading my blog, despite what you may have heard or what you believe about Oakland, walking through downtown at 9:30am and finding a murder scene isn't a normal occurrence. I asked a woman standing near the intersection if she knew what was going on; she'd been walking with a man who was talking on his cell phone, saying something about 'machine gunned'. I figured she knew something.
"Someone was killed," she told me. I asked if she knew who it was. "Chauncey Bailey, the editor of the Oakland Post." My mouth fell open. I knew the Post as a respected Black newspaper in the East Bay. I've read it off and on over the years, and am a big supporter of the ethnic press in general, as many stories that mainstream news outlets won't tell appear in Chinese, African-American, Spanish-language and other ethnic media.
"He was a friend," the woman said. I weakly mumbled "sorry", knowing that nothing I could say could comfort her at that moment. Before I could voice my fear of why Mr. Bailey had been killed, she voiced it for me.
"I guess he was writing some stuff that someone didn't like," she said. I shook my head, tears springing to my eyes. No, I didn't know him, but when writers are killed for writing controversial stories, you know democracy is truly dead. And while I don't really believe that our country (or this city for that matter, progressive as it can be at times) is a democracy, it's rare that I witness first-hand how much our society has degenerated into madness.
I left the scene after a few minutes, kept walking to work, my mind reeling. I hoped in a twisted way that this man had been shot over some personal or financial matter--borrowed money from the wrong people, that kind of thing. Because that would've been easier to handle than knowing that he'd been killed for writing something someone didn't agree with.
As I walked towards my office, I saw three people--two women and one man--walking swiftly towards the 14th and Alice intersection, urgently talking on their cell phones the way I'd seen the man do earlier. The woman stopped halfway down one block and started crying loudly. I've seen her in the newspaper photos from the scene of Mr. Bailey's killing.
Many of us in Oakland know that Mr. Bailey's death, tragic and insane as it was, is just one of the many murders in Oakland over the past several years. While I don't think any of those deaths are any more significant than any other, it's clear that because of his prominent position in the community and his role as a leading community journalist, Mr. Bailey's death has earned more media coverage and attention than those of the dozens of other Oaklanders who have been murdered. I only hope that, true to his muckraking spirit, his death provokes our city's leaders and residents to take a good, hard look at what can be done to truly end the senseless violence in Oakland, and inspire us to stop blaming each other, pointing fingers at thugs or gangsters or politicians or cops as the sole 'reasons' for the violence. We should all be intelligent enough to know by now that the social and political and economic forces that have created this situation are much more complex than that.
And in the end, I believe that in some way we all contribute to this problem of senseless violence whether it's by not being involved in what's happening in our neighborhood, or by not trying to talk to our neighbors, or by turning our backs on the youth and poor people in our community that, if not provided with the right support, information and guidance, may turn to crime in order to 'get ahead' or just plain survive in a harsh, often hostile world.
I also hope that the other middle-class, relatively new Oakland residents like myself understand and not judge the resentment that those who have been here much longer feel when the only time that crime in Oakland is paid the attention it deserves is when it happens in supposedly 'safer' areas like downtown Oakland or Piedmont Avenue or Lakeshore, or happen to white people. It's a justified resentment, and has everything to do with race and class and the changing demographics of Oakland. I still consider myself a 'new' Oakland resident and I've lived here for the better part of 15 years. But that's still very different than being born and raised in Oakland, so you folks out there that haven't even been here for a year or two better get that straight right away if you want to be part of the solution and not the problems here.
We're all in this together. And it's fitting that National Night Out is coming up this Tuesday, August 7th. There are at least three events happening within a seven-block radius of my house that night, and I'll be attending at least two of them. I think I'll need to go just to witness some of the positive things about Oakland that sometimes are easy to forget when we hear about killings and violence: people of all colors getting to know each other, getting along, trying to make Oakland a better place.
And I hope this night--and other efforts that people living and working in Oakland continue to make to build a stronger and more peaceful community--makes Mr. Chauncey Bailey smile a little, wherever he is now. Thank you, Mr. Bailey, for asking the tough questions and for doing your part in speaking truth to power. You've inspired me, and I know you've inspired many, many others.