Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




August 3 , 2007

Some years ago, while I was working for an African-American newspaper in South Carolina called the Charleston Chronicle, a local Black attorney tried to get me to ride down with him to a country community near the Georgia border to talk with some people he was representing. George Payton was a self-promoter who had run for public office several times and would probably be running again, and an incessant talker as well, and the idea of spending a day with him—including four hours alone in a car—just so he could get his name in the paper didn’t appeal to me, so I begged off.

I should have gone.

The people George Payton was representing were African-American rural landowners, farmers, and the community they lived in was on an island named Hilton Head. Their families had come into possession of the land in the middle of the Civil War, through Union General William Sherman’s famous Special Field Order No. 15 written at the conclusion of his March to the Sea, the origin of the 40 acres and a mule promise, which declared that “the islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice-fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”

Those lands had been kept in Black hands on Hilton Head Island until developers had come in during the early 1970’s with a remarkable idea, to turn these steaming, swampy seaside cotton lands into an exclusive resort, one that would include a world-class (and in this case, the term is not obligatory) golf course. These developers put enormous pressure on the Black families to turn over their land, some of that pressure less than scrupulous, and George Payton had inside information from the families themselves, and wanted our paper to do a story on it.

I never got the chance to do the story. Not long after I turned down the Hilton Head trip, someone walked into George Payton’s law office in the middle of a busy Black Charleston business district, in mid-morning, put a gun to his head and shot him dead, and then walked out again, past the receptionist. The killer was never caught, and though the receptionist saw him clearly both going in and out of George Payton’s office, he was never identified.

Speculation raced for weeks throughout Charleston as to the motive and reason for George Payton’s brazen, daylight assassination. Much of it centered around the Hilton Head connection, and the belief that the financial stakes were high, enormously high, and Mr. Payton was bringing things to public light that the speculators dearly wanted kept under wraps. But George Payton had other involvements, personal and professional, that might have also led someone to take his life, and so no-one, ever, could be sure.

What caused his death remains a mystery, to this day.

As of the time of the writing of this column, barely a half a day has passed since the daylight murder of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey in downtown Oakland, and the mystery surrounding that murder is just as deep as that of George Payton some 30 years ago, and a continent away. Because of the circumstances of the shooting, early reports from the Oakland Police Department express the belief that Mr. Bailey was specifically targeted.

And so, just like in the case of George Payton, speculation centers around whether the murder of Chauncey Bailey was motivated by personal concerns, or whether it was something he had written, or was intending to write, that caused him to be a target.

But that brings us to a dilemma, at least as far as this column, or any published story, is concerned.

It is normal—and proper—for individuals in Oakland, or with ties to Oakland—to try to come to terms with the death of Chauncey Bailey by trying to figure out its source. But what is proper to speculate upon in conversations all over Oakland and the East Bay—and probably in many parts of the country—is both improper and irresponsible when you talk about putting something into print or online, or broadcasting it on the air.

And so, I will simply said that it is credible and possible that Chauncey Bailey’s murder was an assassination, and that he was killed to prevent him from publishing a story, or stories, that he was working on. On the other hand, given the available public evidence—which is sparse, at this moment—it is also credible and possible that Chauncey Bailey was killed for entirely personal reasons, by someone with some personal beef.

And though the difference between the two, unfortunately, have absolutely no bearing on his death itself, and cannot change it, they do have vastly different implications for the city of Oakland, and for those of us who live or work here.

It immediately raises two questions. Is this a case of someone being silenced for trying to disseminate information? Or is this the beginning of another period of assassination of public figures, one feeding on the other, with no immediate end in sight? For those of us who lived in the last period—beginning with the assassination of President John Kennedy, and including the shooting death of Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Marcus Foster on and Oakland street—it is a ghastly, awful thought.

That being said, the first and most immediate burden is now on the initial investigative agency, the Oakland Police Department. There will be enormous pressure on OPD investigators, in the next couple of weeks, to identify the killer. If not, the speculation of who killed Chauncey Bailey, and why, will immediately devolve into speculation that the police department is participating in a cover-up, and that there are people in high places who do not want Mr. Bailey’s killer found.

That is what happened after police in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, respectively, failed to identify the killers of rap stars Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.

There is problem in such speculation as well, however.

It would be naïve, indeed, to believe that there are some cases that police do not investigate vigorously, for whatever reason, and that killers go free because police did not do a good job of trying to find them.

The problem is, the fact that a killer is not identified and caught is not evidence that the police are not trying. It is only evidence that a killer has not been identified and caught. Police can be trying their asses off—they can be working double overtime, they can be following every lead, they can be shaking every bush—and still not be able to solve the case.

One can only hope, then, that in the investigation of the murder of Chauncey Bailey, the Oakland Police try. One can forgive a failure. But if the police do not try, or if they fail to follow key and important areas of inquiry, and if that ever comes to public light, it will be a stain upon Oakland that a hundred years will not erase, a memory that will last far beyond the recent “bad publicity” that we think we’ve been having.

Meanwhile, our thoughts return to Chauncey Bailey.

Being fellow journalists, I saw him on many occasions over the past few years, press conferences and meetings and the like. The last time I saw him was at the City Hall press conference that announced the end of the Waste Management lockout at which Mr. Bailey, as always, was the first to ask a question, even before Mayor Ron Dellums could finish asking if reporters had any. But we never socialized, and I never saw him outside of a working setting, but once. One late afternoon, last winter or early spring, I saw him while I was walking down 14th Street on my way to a Peralta Community College District Board meeting. I have no idea where he was coming from or going to, but he gave the impression that he had reached the end of a busy day, and was going somewhere to relax. He was talking about plans to travel to Vietnam to do a series of stories. I thought it unusual, since he had not been to Vietnam during the war—he was a war resistor, he told me—and without that type of relationship, Vietnam is not the usual place where an African-American might make a connection. I never found out why he thought it so important, but he was enormously excited about the project, and talked about it most of the way.

He stopped on a corner to turn to his destination, wherever that was, and I continued on towards the lake. He was standing there as I turned and waved to him, and he was smiling and thinking about his Vietnam project, I presumed, on the corner of 14th and Alice streets, where someone pulled out a gun this morning, and shot him dead.