Video: Ariane Wu
Read full transcript
In 2002, five years before journalist Chauncey Bailey was murdered by members of Your Black Muslim Bakery, a woman identified only as Jane Doe 1 stepped forward to report decades of sexual abuse, welfare fraud and violence by the bakery’s leader, Yusuf Bey Sr.
She was prepared to hand over to Oakland police DNA from three of her children, evidence that Bey had impregnated her, the first time when she was 12 years old.
Given the history of violence by members of Your Black Muslim Bakery, this was a risky move. But the woman was fueled by a mother’s anger. Her daughter, then 18, alerted her that Bey was trying to abuse her – his own daughter.
Now a devout Christian, Jane Doe 1 has decided she no longer wants to be the nameless whistle-blower. Her name is Kowana Banks and, in her first public interview, she said she made the decision to come forward to help other children trapped in similar situations. She hopes to publish a book about her experiences.
“Abused people go one of two ways: Either they are going to self-destruct or they’re going to make a difference,” said Banks, 44. “I’m going to make a difference.”
The violent saga of Your Black Muslim Bakery is fading into Oakland history, but wounds remain among Bey’s victims and family members. Today marks the fifth anniversary of the murder of Bailey, the Oakland Post editor who had been investigating the bakery’s finances.
The facts behind Banks’ story have been outlined in court proceedings and depositions, but her decision to come forward allows her to detail her unique insider’s perspective as a victim and survivor.
Today, Banks is an optimistic, composed woman who has moved on as best she can. One of her three children by Bey, Yusuf V, 25, is in San Quentin State Prison for his part in the 2007 kidnapping of two Oakland women, one who was tortured, a crime related to the bakery’s demise. The other two children are doing well.
Banks considers the three to be the “blessing out of what happened to me.”
Married for 18 years to a man she met after leaving the bakery, Banks says the bitterness and anger that grew from her childhood abuse dissolved when she fell in love. The couple have two children together.
“But it’s difficult to look back and know I was just a child then and that no one cared,” she said.
Throughout her childhood at the bakery, Banks said she felt abandoned by the social welfare system, invisible even to those at local hospitals where she – and many other underage girls at the bakery compound – gave birth to multiple children while still children themselves.
She delivered the first of three children by Bey at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley at 13. A social worker questioned Banks about the paternity of her son, she said, but under the watchful eye of one of Bey’s “wives,” Banks kept silent. Later, she said she told a child protection worker that she was working long hours and not going to school.
“She told me she would check into it, and I never saw her again,” Banks said.
Bey, a self-appointed minister who gave himself the title of “Dr.,” was formerly a hairdresser. He opened Your Black Muslim Bakery in the early 1970s, espousing black self-reliance and his own interpretation of Islam, which included racist attacks on whites. Nevertheless, in his more than 30 years in North Oakland, Bey gained the support of local business leaders, clergy and politicians eager to align with the underclass.
In 2003, Bey died before facing trial, setting off the struggle for power and control that escalated into mayhem and multiple murders. Banks said she saw the violence coming.
“You cut off the head,” Banks said, “and the body will go crazy.”
Molestations began at age 8
Banks, who was born in the East Bay, said her father, who had a drug problem, met Bey’s followers while doing jail time for drug-related crimes. Banks can’t remember her mother, who she said abandoned her as a toddler, along with a younger brother and older sister.
In 1976, Banks’ father brought the children to live in a house at the bakery compound, where he’d gotten a job. A hive of single-family homes, retail storefronts and apartments clustered on the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 59th Street in North Oakland, the compound housed bakery workers and Bey’s sprawling family of children and women Bey called his wives.
One Sunday night in 1976, Bey invited Banks to spend the night in his apartment, telling her she could play with his baby daughter. Banks was nervous and thought it strange to spend time with Bey, then 41. But her older sister had spent the night there and returned toting candy and new clothes. She said that night marked the first time Bey molested her. She was 8.
Bey told her to tell no one, she said. If she did, she would be killed.
“But he didn’t stop with me,” she said. “He told me he’d murder my whole family, everyone.”
Banks believes her father did not know about the incident, but the family moved away soon after that first molestation. They lived in Hayward for a while, and later, Banks’ father left her and her siblings with a grandmother near Monterey.
In 1978, after another arrest, her father brought them back to the bakery and left them with Bey.
Not long after, Banks said, Bey came into her bedroom above the bakery while she was sleeping, and raped her. She was 10 and remembers wearing one-piece pink zip-up pajamas. After the assault, she sought help from Nora Bey, then 23, one of the minister’s many “wives.” Banks’ father had surrendered his paternal rights so Yusuf Bey could receive welfare for their care; the court appointed Nora Bey, later known as Esperanza Johnson, as their legal guardian.
“ ‘I need you to help me because he’s trying to do things to me,’ ” Banks recalls telling Nora Bey. “And her comment was, ‘Oh, girl, he’s not going to do anything to you that he hasn’t done to anyone else.’ ”
Living in various bakery-owned homes, Banks was kept out of public school. She was smart, though, and soon became an integral part of the bakery, which sold pies and sandwiches from its San Pablo Avenue storefront. She learned bookkeeping and taught basic math and reading at the bakery’s school. Her life was regimented; she baked from 4 to 8 a.m., taught in the bakery’s combined school and day care until 6 p.m., and then wrapped bakery products until 10 p.m.
It was not until several years later that Banks even received a wage, just $25 per week.
At the time, Banks remembers not understanding why those living in the compound all were so isolated from outsiders, why they were punished for sneaking out once to see a movie, “The Wiz.”
“But as an adult, I understand now,” she said, “because he had secrets, and he didn’t want those secrets to get out.”
Learning Bey’s doctrine
In the bakery’s school, Yusuf Bey’s doctrine was drilled into the children. Girls were taught to cover their heads; everyone was addressed as “brother” or “sister.” Bey preached the superiority of men over women and of blacks over whites. Whites, he said, were “the devil” and responsible for all the world’s problems.
“The men were the ceiling, and women were the floor,” Banks said, quoting Bey.
She, however, was hardly subservient, growing into a feisty and hardheaded young woman, often chastised for speaking out against unfair treatment.
“I was known for saying whatever was on my brain,” Banks said.
Once when Banks complained about the long hours of work, she said she was forced to get up even earlier. When one of the other women found Bey with Banks in his bedroom late at night, the woman’s questions were silenced with a beating. Banks was then given a beating herself.
Banks said Bey tried to turn others against her and, because her mother was white, called her “nobody but the devil.”
But he continued to rape her repeatedly. At 13, she gave birth to the first of the three children she would have with Bey.
All the while, Banks said, Bey received – and kept for himself – welfare payments and food stamps intended for Banks, her siblings, others and eventually the children born as a result of the rapes. Bey was said to have more than 40 children and called up to 100 women his wives.
The atmosphere of fear was total, Banks said. In 1986, a young man, Peter Kaufman, who’d spoken out about having seen Bey rape a boy in the bakery’s bathroom, turned up dead on a nearby side street, shot in the head. Beatings – for both women and men in the bakery community – were commonplace.
Bey, Banks said, was a persuasive man who used intimidation, violence and a flashy lifestyle to control his mostly down-and-out followers, many of whom were parolees. There were cameras in the bakery and microphones in every room to monitor conversations. Among the women, the abuse was ubiquitous and unspoken. It was some time before Banks realized that Bey was molesting her sister, too.
Banks said she was instructed by Nora Bey not to identify him as the father of her children on their birth certificates. And Banks wasn’t allowed to choose names for her kids. Particularly painful to Banks was that her second son was named Yusuf by Nora Bey.
Banks said she had nowhere to turn. She blames racism, fear and a hands-off attitude for the lack of oversight by welfare officials and police.
“They were fed Brother Bey’s line that he was doing a lot for the black community,” she said. “No one wanted to intervene.”
Escape from bakery life
For years, Banks dreamed of leaving. But under the constant threat of violence, she waited. She planned to leave at 18, but was again pregnant. In 1988, then 20, she became romantically interested in a man her own age who she met at the bakery. Bey caught wind of this and held a meeting at which he directed the other women to teach Banks a lesson by beating her.
Warned of her impending punishment, Banks made her escape that night, Aug. 28, 1988. A cousin on her father’s side agreed to pick her up. As she was collecting her children, Bey confronted her and threw her belongings at her.
“I picked up as much as I could that he threw at me and packed it into the car,” said Banks, laughing at the memory. “I don’t think he realized he was helping me.”
At first, she “felt so free” in a world outside the bakery, but soon she began to live in fear that Bey would send someone to harm her.
“My fear was a stranger that I didn’t even know would walk up to me and do something, because of course they had pictures of me,” she said.
Moving forward with her life was difficult, and keeping hold of the children she had with Bey ultimately proved too much of a challenge. Banks found work at restaurants as a server, but money was always tight. Bey wouldn’t pay child support, and the welfare she received never seemed to be enough.
“I was just a child when my kids were born,” she said. “It would be different if today I was having children, or even 20 years ago.”
Since 2001, reporter Louise Rafkin has run a martial arts studio called Studio Naga on the same North Oakland block where Yusuf Bey Sr.’s Your Black Muslim Bakery compound was located. But during her reporting for this story, Rafkin discovered that Studio Naga is in the very space that formerly housed Bey’s school, where abuse victim Kowana Banks took care of his children.
“This is where it all happened,” Banks said when she entered Rafkin’s studio.
With the bakery’s retail storefront just two doors away, Rafkin over the years was a firsthand witness to the violence and mayhem leading up to the Oakland police raid in 2007.
This story came from a chance meeting with “Jane Doe 1” and her therapist at UC Berkeley, where journalist Thomas Peele was reading from “Killing the Messenger,” his recent book on the murder of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, who was investigating the bakery’s finances.
Because of privacy concerns, the therapist – who is helping Banks write a book on her experiences – never revealed Banks’ contact information. She was present to provide Banks with support during all of the interviews.
Soon, Bey, exerting his power, sent for the kids, and they returned to the bakery. The boys spent most of their childhood there. Banks said her daughter, despite spending some time at the bakery and with foster families, mainly grew up with her.
At the bakery, Bey tried to turn her kids against her, Banks said, telling them she wanted them only for their welfare checks. While still a child, her oldest asked why she didn’t live with them at the bakery, like the parents of the other kids. Banks explained to him that “it wasn’t a good place” for her.
“I felt it was a better environment for men than it was for women,” she said, noting that at the time, she assumed Bey would not molest his own children.
In 1989, she met her husband through an acquaintance. The couple had their two children in the ’90s.
More than a decade passed. Banks took community college classes, found work in restaurants, earned her GED diploma and occasionally visited her boys at the bakery. There was constant intimidation; she feared retribution for leaving and was always looking over her shoulder.
Concern for daughter prompts action
Banks never told her kids about her abuse. It was hard to watch her boys be lured in by Bey’s flashy lifestyle – a Mercedes or Cadillac was always parked curbside – but Banks held out hope that she had been right, that it really was a better place for boys than it was for girls.
In June 2002, her 18-year-old daughter, who was working at the bakery but living elsewhere, told Banks a story that suggested Bey had tried to molest her. Banks was devastated, unable to even ask her daughter for details.
“I prayed, asking God who was going to stop him,” said Banks, then 34. “And then, suddenly, I knew it was me.”
With DNA testing available, she could prove Bey’s paternity. It offered the proof she had always hoped to find. In an angry phone conversation with Bey, she told him her plan.
“You, sir, are a rapist and a child molester, and let me tell you what I’m going to do to you,” she recalls saying. “First, I’m going to go to the police, and I’m going to press charges against you, and then, when I’m done, I’m going to sue you and I’m going to take all your money. And then I won’t have to ask you to help your children, my children, with anything else, because I’m going to have all your money.”
Bey, she said, told her she’d soon be “floating in a river.”
To show Bey her determination, she called him again from a phone at the Oakland Police Department. “He knew from that day forth that it was over for him,” she said.
Three months later, Bey was taken into police custody. With DNA test results in hand, Banks pressed felony criminal charges of rape and assault. Bey posted bail, but died in the hospital a year later before facing the criminal trial.
Banks was disappointed that Bey never faced a trial but took pleasure in knowing that he had at least faced the charges.
“He lived a long life of getting away with it,” she said. “By the grace of Jesus, I know he’s boiling in hell.”
Another Jane Doe revealed
Along with two other women, Banks also filed a civil suit, alleging that Alameda County did nothing to protect them. The county eventually settled with Banks and the two other Jane Does, admitting no liability.
Another of the Jane Does in the suits, a former foster child who worked at the bakery between 1994 and 1996 and was raped by Bey, also has decided to publicly identify herself for the first time.
Malikha Hardy said she reported her abuse on three occasions to a county social worker, to a guidance counselor at juvenile hall and, in 1996, to the Oakland police. No one followed up until seven years later, she said, when an Oakland detective working on Banks’ case turned up at her door.
“The people feared Bey,” Hardy, now 32, said in a recent phone interview. “He had people who would do anything for him.”
To protect the two women, California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, is not providing information about their current whereabouts or employment. During multiple interviews for this story, a family therapist was present to provide support.
Having wrestled with low self-worth, nightmares, and other aftereffects of childhood trauma, Banks is writing a book about her life with the therapist’s help. She credits her conversion to Christianity with making it possible for her to smile again.
“I’m resilient, and I’m positive,” Banks said. “I say, ‘If people are preying on you, God has chosen you.’ ”
Banks remains in contact with her son Yusuf V, who is imprisoned at San Quentin and serving a 10-year sentence as part of a plea agreement in the kidnapping incident.
“I’m trying to reform my son’s way of thinking,” Banks said. “Him sitting in one spot is the best time for me to do it, because his mind is open.”
During a recent visit to the former bakery compound, Banks said she thinks the reign of terror is now over. Many of the buildings have been sold or renovated; little is left to indicate what went on, outside or inside. The old bakery is a beauty supply store. The former school is a martial arts studio.
As Banks walked through memorable rooms and haunted hallways, she recounted stories both benign and horrific.
“I’ve seen stuff here,” she said, “that will scare me for the rest of my life.”
The reporter can be reached at Louise@LouiseRafkin.com. This story was produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting in collaboration with The Chauncey Bailey Project.
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.