Jonestown: An Avoidable Tragedy

Thirty years ago today a tragedy unfolded in the jungles of Guyana. In Jonestown – a commune founded by the charismatic Jim Jones – the best part of a thousand people lay dead, some by their own hand, others killed by those around them.

This week has seen a variety of tributes and memorials. Many of the details, however, remain obscured.

Jones began his mission in Indiana, later moving to California, which remained the centre of his operations until the group moved to Guyana en mass. His message was a mix of socialism and radical Christianity, with a heavy emphasis on opposition to racism and segregation. As time went on, Jones came to attack Christianity, declaring himself to be agnostic (source). In religion he saw a means to motivate others, and in doing so, to pursue his own goals.

In spite of his radical views and authoritarian personality, Jones came to have deep connections with California’s political and media elite. He became involved with politics in San Francisco, gaining support from a variety of Democratic politicians. This 1977 article from New West magazine, entitled “Inside People’s Temple,” gives an insight:

For Rosalynn Carter, it was the last stop in an early September campaign tour that had taken her over half of California, a state where her husband Jimmy was weak. So Rosalynn gamely encouraged the crowd of 750 that had gathered for the grand opening of the San Francisco Democratic party headquarters in a seedy downtown storefront. She smiled bravely despite the heat.

Mrs. Carter finished her little pep talk to mild applause. Several other Democratic bigwigs got polite receptions, too. Only one speaker aroused the crowd; he was the Reverend Jim Jones, the founding pastor of Peoples Temple, a small community church located in the city’s Fillmore section. Jones spoke briefly and avoided endorsing Carter directly. But his words were met with what seemed like a wall-pounding outpour. A minute and a half later the cheers died down.

“It was embarrassing,” said a rally organizer. “The wife of a guy who was going to the White House was shown up by somebody named Jones.”

If Rosalynn Carter was surprised, she shouldn’t have been. The crowd belonged to Jones. Some 600 of the 750 listeners were delivered in temple buses an hour and a half before the rally. The organizer, who had called Jones for help, remembered how gratified she’d felt when she first saw the Jones followers spilling off the buses. “You should have seen it – old ladies on crutches, whole families, little kids, blacks, whites. Made to order,” said the organizer, who had correctly feared that without Jones Mrs. Carter might have faced a half-empty room.

[…]

Jim Jones counts among his friends several of California’s well-known public officials. San Francisco mayor George Moscone has made several visits to Jones’s San Francisco temple, on Geary Street, as have the city’s district attorney Joe Freitas and sheriff Richard Hongisto. And Governor Jerry Brown has visited at least once. Also, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley has been a guest at Jones’s Los Angeles temple. Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally went so far as to visit Jones’s 27,000-acre agricultural station in Guyana, South America, and he pronounced himself impressed. What’s more, when Walter Mondale came campaigning for the vice-presidency in San Francisco last fall, Jim Jones was one of the few people invited aboard his chartered jet for a private visit. Last December Jones was appointed to head the city’s Housing Authority Commission.

The source of Jones’s political clout is not very difficult to divine. As one politically astute executive puts it: “He controls votes.” And voters. During San Francisco’s run-off election for mayor in December of 1975, some 150 temple members walked precincts to get out the vote for George Moscone, who won by a slim 4,000 votes. “They’re well-dressed, polite and they’re all registered to vote,” said one Moscone campaign official.

Can you win office in San Francisco without Jones? “In a tight race like the ones that George or Freitas or Hongisto had, forget it without Jones,” said State Assemblyman Willie Brown, who describes himself as an admirer of Jones’s.

This article, as mentioned above, was published in 1977. In February 1978 – just nine months before the tragedy in Guyana began to unfold, when allegations of problems with the group were beginning to come out – Harvey Milk, City Supervisor of San Francisco, wrote a letter to then-President Jimmy Carter, describing Jones as “a man of the highest character.” A number of other local political figures supported Jones and decried the “unfounded” attacks made against him and his group.


Jim Jones with California Governor Jerry Brown.

Allegations of mistreatment within the People’s Temple – including physical violence and intimidation – surfaced long before the tragedy in Guyana. However, local media consented to the cult’s bullying and declined to print a number of articles critical of the group.

As with most cult leaders, Jones had an intense fear of exposure. A number of investigate journalists attempted to write articles on the People’s Temple after being contacted by former members and relatives. As pointed out by the (frankly excellent) Jonestown Apologists Alert:

Imagine if, just once, the San Francisco Examiner came clean about their cowardice in not standing up to Jones and his threats to sue because of the paper’s exposes in 1972 (half of which were shelved by those editors.) Imagine, too, if the San Francisco Chronicle at last gave us an accurate retrospect of what they did and didn’t do to save the Temple cult members from their hellish captivity and ultimate destruction

Imagine.

Maybe this could be made into a song. Call it “Imagine II.” Much less sanguine than the first.

As it is, the Chronicle’s series, “Ten Days That Shook S.F.,” kicked off yesterday, bringing on an added dimension to the world of media whitewash.

Imagine (sorry, the thought keeps poppin’ up) the public’s reaction if the Chronicle revealed how their “Institution”, the late, great columnist Herb Caen, had been in virtual cahoots with Jim Jones. Caen did all kinds of shimmering plugs for the cult; just a little over a year before the November, 1978 mass murder, Caen claimed Jones was the “target of a ceaseless media barrage” and was actually “doing the work of the Lord” in Guyana.

Oh, but of course, Herb. The “work of the Lord”, …..

In spite of the cult’s intimidation attempts, New West Magazine published an article in 1977, entitled “Inside the People’s Temple” (see above.) Following its publication many called for the cult to be investigated. Local authorities refused. The article describes the cult as told by ex-members:

Based on what these people told us, life inside Peoples Temple was a mixture of Spartan regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation. As they told it, the Sunday services to which dignitaries were invited were orchestrated events. Actually, members were expected to attend services two, three, even four nights a week – with some sessions lasting until daybreak. Those members of the temple’s governing council, called the Planning Commission, were often compelled to stay up all night and submit regularly to “catharsis” – an encounter process in which friends, even mates, would criticize the person who was “on the floor.” In the last two years, we were told, these often humiliating sessions had begun to include physical beatings with a large wooden paddle, and boxing matches in which the person on the floor was occasionally knocked out by opponents selected by Jones himself. Also, during regularly scheduled “family meetings,” attended by up to 1,000 of the most devoted followers, as many as 100 people were lined up to be paddled for such seemingly minor infractions as not being attentive enough during Jones’s sermons. Church leaders also instructed certain members to write letters incriminating themselves in illegal and immoral acts that never happened. In addition, temple members were encouraged to turn over their money and property to the church and live communally in temple buildings; those who didn’t ran the risk of being chastised severely during the catharsis sessions.

It was shortly after the article was published that Jones and, later, the rest of his followers would move to Guyana. Later, reports came out of mistreatment within the group, both in Guyana and in the United States; these reports, combined with the testimony of the father of former member Bob Houston who was found dead in suspicious circumstances in 1976, led US Congressman Leo Ryan to form a delegation to travel to Guyana and investigate Jonestown firsthand. His assassination by People’s Temple agents as he tried to leave with a group of Jonestown refugees would be the catalyst which, hours later, left nearly a thousand people dead – the greatest single loss of American life before the 11th of September, 2001.


The aftermath

Reports on the Temple had surfaced many years before the Jonestown tragedy. Yet media silence combined with political maneuverings to ensure that nothing would be done until it was too late.

Jonestown, then, is a double tragedy. The first is the tragedy itself. The second it that it was so utterly, utterly preventable.

Further information:
Jonestown Apologists Alert
Alternative considerations of Jonestown and People’s Temple
Wikipedia.
Freedom of Mind

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