Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid on Jonestown
Thirty years ago today more than 900 followers of Jim Jones committed “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid.
“I just want to say something to everyone that I see that is standing around and are crying. This is nothing to cry about. This is something we should all rejoice about. We can be happy about this. They always told us that we should cry when you’re coming into this world, but when we’re leaving and we’re leaving it peaceful … I tell you, you should be happy about this. I was just thinking about Jim Jones. He just has suffered and suffered and suffered. He is the only god and he don’t even have a chance to enjoy his death here. (clapping and voices in background)… I wanted to say one more thing. This is one thing I want to say. That you that’ve gone and there’s many more here. He’s still–the way, that’s not all of us, that’s not all yet. There’s just a few that have died. A chance to get … to the one that they could tell … their lies to. So and I say I’m looking at so many people crying, I wish you would not cry, and just thank Father, just thank him. I tell you about … (clapping and shouting) … I’ve been here, uh, one year and nine months and I never felt better in my life. Not in San Francisco, but until I came to Jonestown. I enjoy this life. I had a beautiful life. I don’t see nothing that I should be crying about. We should be happy. At least I am. Let’s all be the same.”
This comes from an unidentified woman on the FBI death recording from Jonestown, Guyana. Within minutes, she would be dead. For anyone familiar with the National Socialists’ “night of the long knives” or the Soviet Socialists’ show trials, replete as they were with a socialist dictator’s victims professing their love and allegiance for that dictator in the moment of death, the pathetic hosannas to Jim Jones by the people of Peoples Temple plays as a disturbing socialist deja vu.
On November 17, 1978, Jim Jones was a hero to American leftists. On November 18, 1978, Jones orchestrated the killings of 918 people and strangely morphed in the eyes of American leftists into an evangelical Christian fanatic. An unfortunately well-worn narrative, playing out contemporaneously in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, of socialist dreams ending in ghoulish nightmares, then, conveniently shifted to one about the dangers of organized religion. But as The Nation magazine reported at the time, “The temple was as much a left-wing political crusade as a church. In the course of the 1970s, its social program grew steadily more disaffiliated from what Jim Jones came to regard as ‘Fascist America’ and drifted rapidly toward outspoken Communist sympathies.” So much so that the last will and testament of the Peoples Temple, and its individual members who left notes, bequeathed millions of dollars in assets to the Soviet Union. As Jones expressed to a Soviet diplomat upon upon his visit to Jonestown the month before the smiling suicides took place, “For many years, we have let our sympathies be quite publicly known, that the United States government was not our mother, but that the Soviet Union was our spiritual motherland.”
Jim Jones was an evangelical communist who became a minister to infiltrate the church with the gospel according to Marx and Lenin. He was an atheist missionary bringing his message of socialist redemption to the Christian heathen. “I decided, how can I demonstrate my Marxism?,” remembered Jones of his days in 1950s Indiana. “The thought was, infiltrate the church.” So in the forms of Pentecostal ritual, Jones smuggled socialism into the minds of true believers–who gradually became true believers of a different sort. Unless one counts his drug-induced bouts with self-messianism, Jones didn’t believe in God. Get it–a Peoples Temple. He shocked his parishioners, many of whom certainly did believe in God, by dramatically tossing the Bible onto the ground during a sermon. “Nobody’s going to come out of the sky!,” an excited Jones had once informed his flock. “There’s no heaven up there! We’ll have to have heaven down here!” Like so many efforts to usher in the millenium before it, Jones’s Guyanese road to heaven on earth detoured to a hotter afterlife destination.
The horrific scene in a Guyanese jungle clearing could have been avoided. Thousands of miles north, for years leading up to Jonestown, San Francisco officials and journalists had looked the other way while Jones acted as a law unto himself. So what if he abused children, sodomized a follower, tortured and held temple members at gun point, and defrauded the government and people of welfare and social security checks? He believes in socialism and so do we. That was the ends-justifies-the-means attitude that enabled Jim Jones to commit criminal acts in San Francisco with impunity. The people who should have stopped him instead encouraged him.
Mayor George Moscone, who would be assassinated days after the Jonestown tragedy, appointed Jones to the city’s Housing Authority in 1975. Jones quickly became chairman, which proved beneficial to the enlargement of the pastor’s flock–and his coffers, as Jones seized welfare checks from new members. One of the Peoples Temple’s top officials becoming an assistant district attorney, a man so thoroughly indoctrinated in the cult that he falsely signed an affidavit (ultimately his child’s death warrant) disavowing paternity to his own son and ascribed paternity to Jones, similarly enhanced the cult’s power base within the city. How, one wonders, did victimized Peoples Temple members feel about going to the law in a city where Jones’s henchman was the law?
Going to the Fourth Estate was also a fruitless endeavor, as San Francisco media institutions, such as columnist Herb Caen, were boosters of Jones and his Peoples Temple. When veteran journalist Les Kinsolving penned an eight-part investigative report on Peoples Temple for the San Francisco Examiner in 1972, his editors buckled under pressure from Jones and killed the report halfway through. Kinsolving quipped that the Peoples Temple was the “the best-armed house of God in the land,” detailed the kidnapping and possible murder of disgruntled members, exposed Jones’s phony faith healing, highlighted Jones’s vile school-sanctioned sex talk with children, and directed attention toward the Peoples Temple’s massive welfare fraud that funded its operations. “But in the Mendocino County Welfare Dept. there is the key to Prophet Jones’ plans to expand the already massive influx of his followers–and have it supported by tax money,” Kinsolving wrote more than six years before the tragedy in the Guyanese jungle. “The Examiner has learned that at least five of the disciples of The Ukiah Messiah are employees of this Welfare Department, and are therefore of invaluable assistance in implementing his primary manner of influx: the adoption of large numbers of children of minority races.” Unfortunately, four of the series’ eight articles were jettisoned after Jones unleashed hundreds of protestors to the San Francisco Examiner, a programmed letter-writing campaign, and a threatened lawsuit against the paper. The Examiner promptly issued a laudatory article on Jones. A few years later, after Jones had moved operations from Ukiah to San Francisco, California, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle penned an expose on the Peoples Temple. A Chronicle editor sympathetic to Jones spiked that piece, which ultimately made its way to New West magazine and so alarmed Jones that he hastily departed San Francisco for his agricultural experiment in Guyana.
By virtue of producing rent-free rent-a-rallies for liberal politicians and causes, Jim Jones engendered enormous amounts of good will from Democratic politicians and activists. They allowed their political ambitions to derail their governing responsibilities. Frisco pols like Harvey Milk never seemed to care how Jones could, at the snap of his fingers, direct hundreds of people to stack a public meeting or volunteer for a campaign. City Councilman Milk just knew that he benefitted from that control, and therefore never bothered to do anything to inhibit the dangerous cult operating in his city. Instead, he actively aided and abetted a homicidal maniac. It wasn’t just local hacks Jones commanded respect from. He held court with future First Lady Rosalyn Carter, vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale, and California Governor Jerry Brown.
A man who killed more African Americans than the Ku Klux Klan was awarded a local Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award and won the plaudits of California lieutenant governor Mervyn Dymally, state assemblyman Willie Brown, radical academic Angela Davis, preacher/politician Jesse Jackson, Black Panther leader Huey Newton, and other African American activists. From Newton, whom Jones had visited in Cuban exhile in 1977, Jones got his lawyer and received support, such as a phone-to-megaphone address to Jonestown during a “white night” dry run of mass suicide. This was appropriate, as it was from Newton whom Jones appropriated the phrase “revolutionary suicide”–the title of a 1973 Newton book–that he used as a moniker for the murder-suicides of more than 900 people on November 18, 1978. “We didn’t commit suicide,” Jones announced during the administering of cyanide-laced Flavoraid to his flock, “we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” Newton’s comically idiotic slogan boomeranged on him, as several of his relatives perished in the Kool-Aid carnage.
It’s worth remembering that before the people of Peoples Temple drank Jim Jones’s Kool-Aid, the leftist political establishment of San Francisco gulped it down. And without the latter, the former would have never happened.