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Chauncey Bailey: Paying the Price for Free Speech

Chauncey Bailey

Chauncey Bailey

Last week, investigative reporter Thomas Peele  gave a talk at my library (Holy Names University) about his book, Killing the Messenger.

I re-read the book this weekend to remind me of the details. In doing so, one of the key ‘details” that made my reacquaintance was the life and death of Chauncey Bailey.

Bailey wasn’t a perfect person. Gunned down at 57 while walking to work in Oakland, his best years as a reporter were behind him.  After a solid career at several major dailies, he’d had a few reversals of fortune before ending up at the tiny community newspaper where he was editor-in-chief.  If Bailey had been murdered for anything less than being the first U.S.  reporter in over thirty years to be intentionally silenced in the line of duty, none of us might remember him.

But in 2007, Bailey was still in the saddle, doing his best to speak truth to power — to unveil the decades of crime and dysfunction inflicted on Oakland by Yusef Bey and his cotillion of  thugs, sycophants, and wack-jobbies.

Killing the Messenger isn’t a perfect book. (Nota bene: there is no perfect book. Books are by people, and people are imperfect.) I agree with the Columbia Journalism Review that the first three chapters unnecessarily sensationalize Oakland.

But after that, the book hits its stride. We move back in time, to the origins of the splinter group of the splinter group once loosely associated with Islam. We see the great migration to the North and the great disappointment of African-Americans who learned that racism was endemic in our culture, not just the South. We see the movement westward. And in bits and pieces we learn about Chauncey Bailey.

I connected with Chauncey Bailey’s story. I know what it’s like to be 50-something and not be at the best place in my life. Right now I’m in a redemption curve. I’m the director of a incredibly small university library and we’ve done some great stuff. Chauncey didn’t get that opportunity, but in the right scenario, it might have played out that way.

Chauncey also reminds me of Warren, a smart and knowledgable contractor we worked with in New Jersey who was in his line of work because his high-powered industry began laying off 50-something men during a lean phase–and if you aren’t young, you don’t know what it’s like to be aging and jobless (a male friend of mine, turning 50, commented that he now knew what it meant to be female). Warren did well with his life — he died a few years back playing tennis, God rest his soul — , but I assume Warren had more than a few days when he woke up wondering what the hell happened.

After I finished re-reading Killing the Messenger, I played the what-if game for a while. What if the Oakland Post hadn’t spiked the story he wanted to publish. What if his killers had a different timetable. What if he had taken a different route to work that morning.

But in the end, there were no what-ifs. Chauncey was murdered. Thankfully, eventually, his death was brought to justice. With the help of his peers, he was able to file his last story.

I work in a small religious institution, which gives me latitude. At the beginning of our talk, I began with a moment of silence for Chauncey as well as for journalists everywhere. Not just to honor their deaths, but their lives. As we paused, the library filling with our breathing and our silences, I thought about Chauncey, putting on his suit, grabbing his coffee, walking to work. May we all live lives so righteous.


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