Blood & Money
Part One: The Violence
Olasunkanmi Onipede should know a little something about torture. An immigrant from Nigeria, he left behind a country that by 1994 had fallen under the iron hand of General Sani Abacha, who unleashed a plague of mass arrests, kangaroo courts, and the practice of lashing political prisoners until their backs were open wounds. But now that he was safe upon the shores of America, Onipede must have thought he would never encounter anything like that again. Then he met Nedir Bey.
On March 4, 1994, Onipede pulled his Hyundai into the courtyard of an apartment complex at 530 24th Street in Oakland. He was here on business: A man named Larry Chin had just bought a house Onipede had renovated, and some of Chin's friends weren't too happy about the markup and asked to meet him for a little talk. Onipede wasn't clear what the problem was -- after all, Chin had never complained about the deal -- but he and business partner Olen Grant dutifully climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of a dingy second-floor unit, located far back from the street, safe from prying eyes. When the door opened, five men in bow ties stared back at them.
The men were Black Muslims, members and employees of the Yusuf Bey "family," a loose collection of entrepreneurs and reformed ex-cons who have built a patchwork of businesses and nonprofits throughout the city of Oakland. Onipede and Grant made their way through the crowd and sat on a couch in the living room. As the two visitors fidgeted on the couch, men walked in and out, talking among themselves. Finally, Onipede later testified, the door opened, and Nedir Bey stalked into the room. Bey is the public face of Oakland's most prominent Black Muslim organization, the man who lobbies the City Council, orchestrates media events, and runs interference for the group's elusive leader, Yusuf. At six feet and 220 pounds, Nedir is a large man with a shaved head, a bow tie, and a glib tongue. But he was in no mood for diplomacy this afternoon.
According to Onipede, Bey took out a Beretta 9mm handgun, slid it into his shoulder holster, and told Grant to follow him outside. Onipede's blood ran cold when Bey allegedly pointed at him and issued his next order:
"He said ... that if I leave that building there, they should break all my bones."
"Here we are, the greatest people that ever walked the earth. Strongest man that ever walked the planet. Everything you see, we are the originators of this."
-- Yusuf Bey, True Solutions, February 2001
Yusuf Bey's Oakland Black Muslims occupy a special place in the city's imagination. From their headquarters at Your Black Muslim Bakery on San Pablo Avenue, Bey and his numerous "spiritually adopted" sons have spent thirty years projecting an image of upright, disciplined self-reliance, reforming ex-cons and building businesses. Bey has nurtured a sense of pride and self-respect among his followers - a commodity that often seems in short supply in Oakland.
Some say they offer hope to the hopeless; others call them racists and reactionaries -- albeit rarely to their faces. Dark rumors of their propensity for violence and menace have always hovered in the margins of city lore, but this only seems to enhance their street credibility. Got a problem the cops can't solve? The Black Muslims will get it done. Drug dealing in the neighborhood? A couple of bow-tied enforcers will take care of business.
But there's another side to the Beys. In their long-standing quest to build a thriving black commercial district somewhere in Oakland, members of the Bey family have cultivated connections in city government, the political establishment, and the press. Although they are the last to admit it, they have a lot of juice, which they've used to build an archipelago of bakeries, dry cleaners, security services, and apartment-management gigs. They also have achieved a remarkable paradox: both ex-con and businessman, underclass and landed gentry, members of the Bey family have managed to simultaneously embody civic respectability and black authenticity.
That veneer of respectability began to fall apart in September, when Yusuf Bey was arrested on charges that, twenty years ago, he forced a ten-year-old under his foster care to have sex with him. At age thirteen, this girl gave birth to a child, and the district attorney's office claims to have conclusive DNA evidence identifying Bey as the father. These allegations have shocked many in the city's black community, and Bey's organization has hunkered down, hoping to weather the storm. The black-owned Soul Beat television station, which broadcasts Bey's sermons every week, has banned any discussion of the charges on the air. But from Adeline Street to the San Leandro border, African Americans throughout the city are wondering what other secrets lie in the heart of the Black Muslim patriarch.