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!"