Sunday, October 16, 2011

By the skin of our teeth: San Francisco's deadly dance with Jim Jones

It has now come out that Jim Jones, the madman who lured nearly a thousand people into the Guyanan jungle to ultimately face their deaths 33 years ago, was likely orchestrating a 9/11 like attack on San Francisco before his reign of terror came to an end, stopping the plot.  A link to an article which reveals this is posted to the right.

According to reports from a witness to the plan, he had sent a highly placed Temple follower to flight school in Oakland to learn to fly a commercial jetliner, just well enough to steer it after murdering the pilot and taking over the cockpit - but not well enough to land it.  His intent had been to load the plane with some 200 Temple leaders whom he saw as defectors, allowing them to think they were simply on a chartered commercial flight for the day.

Thank God his plot did not have time to hatch, killing potentially thousands along with his own leadership.  Still, more than 900 individual American souls were lost in their place on November 18, 1978, on Guyanan soil.

The 33rd anniversary of the Jonestown murder-suicide tragedy is rapidly approaching. Survivors, family, and friends will gather at a recently dedicated memorial in Oakland to pay respect and remember, and to mourn.  The memorial is a milestone in itself, taking decades to get approved and to build.

Jonestown remains a subject that many don't want to hear about, or read about, or think about.  I am often asked, why on earth did you choose to write a novel with a central plotline that features Jonestown?  Who would want to read such a thing?

Jonestown is remembered largely as a suicide, although more than half of the people present that day were murdered.  More than a third were infants or minor children killed at the hands of their own parents or guardians.  Many more were shot or injected with poison into their backs when they refused to drink from the vats of cyanide prepared for them.  By labeling Jonestown a suicide, in effect we blame the victim.  Why on earth would we want to do that?

Whether we like it or not, we carry guilt, those of us who were nearby and didn't notice what was gravely wrong.  We carry guilt for what happened that day, and in the many dark days before.

We had made the Peoples Temple a part of our Bay Area power structure.  Jones himself was chief of the Housing Authority for the city of San Francisco.  His Temple attorney was a deputy in the City Attorney's office.  Jones rubbed elbows with the soon to be assassinated mayor and Supervisor Harvey Milk, as well as with Willie Brown and Joseph Freitas and Richard Hongisto.  Indeed, he helped them all get elected, with his Temple soldiers managing and manipulating multiple registrations to individual voters sufficient to swing the vote.  With their own attorney in charge of the Voter Fraud unit for the City, an investigation of the matter resulted in not one conviction.

We loved Jim Jones.

Jonestown babies in the nursery
And all throughout that time, his people were hungry, oppressed, corporally abused, even drugged.  They were brainwashed and robbed, taken in from the street as they hit bottom and manipulated into his grip, then harvested of their worldly goods for his gain.  They were taken off to the jungle, unclear any longer on what was right and what was wrong, divested of their passports and social security checks and their jewelry.

Many had been manipulated into signing over their homes to Jones, having been targeted using information he gathered through his position with the city.

l to r, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone,
Jones, and Vice President Walter Mondale
Some of them, mainly the poorest of the poor, had been divested of their children, convinced to sign them over to Jones for adoption.  He corralled many more from the string of foster homes and group homes he ran through the Temple.  The ones most in his control - the ones Jesus would call the least of these - were stranded overseas, hungry, cold, wet, tired, and overworked.  It must have seemed to them as if it all happened in a dream.

What would WE have done in their place?  None of us really knows.  It's ever so much cleaner to remember it as a suicide and call them crazy.  It can't happen here; it could never happen to me.

But guess what.  It DID happen, and it could happen again.  We all bear responsibility for what happened out there.  As an electorate, we are lazy, uninformed, and complacent.  We need to step up and manage our own communities, roll our sleeves up and get in it with our own hands.  This is America.  Our government is supposed to be our own.  We need to own it.

I wrote about Jonestown because as a girl I briefly knew someone who was there, from the early seventies through to the very worst of it.  And I knew her just well enough to know that she meant absolutely the best she was humanly able to mean at the tender age of nineteen.

Jonestown pre-school
She worked herself into the ground trying to improve lives, not end them.  She wore herself out before she was old enough and wise enough to know what hit her.  In a lot of ways she was just like me.  The only difference was the church she landed in.

I knew her just well enough to know that she did not deserve to be demonized, because she did not have the ABILITY as a very young lady to singlehandedly steer the behemoth that was the Jim Jones empire in a different direction.  It was just too late by the time his leaders - handpicked for their lion hearts, their broken lives, and their ignorance of human evil - grew up enough to sort it all out.  Like all victims, she may believe it was her fault.  If so, like all victims, she is wrong.

When children are led by evil, their values fail.  His leadership was comprised of children, and we as a community failed those children by elevating Jones to the highest posts we could offer.  If you think nineteen-year-olds are not children, just remember yourself at nineteen.  Now imagine yourself alone on the street, and a nice pastor offers you a warm bed and something to eat.  You can figure out the rest.

We NEED to think about Jonestown because it could happen again, and because the dead deserve to be remembered with respect.  A Temple survivor I have come to know, Teri Buford O'Shea, has written a book of poetry which she had to self-publish because mainstream publishers wouldn't.  I don't need to tell you why she had to self-publish.  You know why.  You owe it to those who were there to LOOK at it, especially if you were a voting citizen of San Francisco when it mattered, like I was.  There's a link to her website to the right, and I hope you will explore it.  Teri speaks in a 2008 interview for MSNBC below.

I wrote a book with Jonestown as a central plotline because having brushed up next to it, it haunted me, and it haunts me still.  Overall, the book is not about Jonestown, per se.  The book is really about being lost, and being afraid, and finally finding your way home.  It's a book about me, and you, and us.  If you are a boomer, or if you are a survivor of anything at all, or if you want to be a survivor of the state you are in, you owe it to yourself to try it.

My book is blogged below from bottom to top, like blogs are read.  I also urge you to view the 13th Annual Jonestown Report, published by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, linked at the right.  There you will also find - among a depth of outpouring from survivors, family and friends -  my reflections on writing Corners, along with its last chapter.

I want to hear your thoughts about Jonestown.  Do you ever think of it?  Why, or why not?  I hope you take a moment to remember.

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