Nine days that rocked our city by the bay …
In many ways, very few of them having to do with formal education, I was excited to go to school on Monday November 20th. It was barely fathomable for my 5th grade brain. Somehow, in this place in far away Guyana, things had gone terribly wrong.
Radio and Television reports had been going all day on Sunday. These broadcasts described an unfolding horror in a place they called Jonestown. An ambush at the Port Kaituma airstrip had killed US Representative Leo Ryan, and four others was bad enough, but by Sunday night, it now came to be known that the bodies of more than 900 men, women and children — many of them poor African Americans from San Francisco — had been taken from us. They now lay scattered all over the People’s Temple jungle encampment known as Jonestown.
If you’ve ever heard the expression, “drinking the Kool-Aid” you should know that it comes from this time and place. An unanticipated result of the many, many news stories which referred to cyanide-laced Kool-Aid that the members ingested in their final act of “Revolutionary Suicide.” Even though, as the hapless makers of Kool-Aid have tirelessly protested over the years, it was actually cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.
Our city was fragile. Every media report, every law enforcement and political pronouncement–every thought, it seemed–was focused on the horror at Jonestown and the trail of events leading from San Francisco to the South American jungle. What did my friends think?
We were a bright bunch of fifth graders at Head Royce School. I can recall that the adults did not want to indulge our curiosity. So our concerns and observations were limited to playground discussions during lunch and recess.
The pictures in Time and Newsweek were hard to believe. Harder still to grasp was the general mood of the Bay Area. Adults in their attempts to protect the children seemed to be avoiding the topic. I wonder how they remember this period.
It had been barely two months since PSA 182 had nosedived into San Diego’s North Park neighborhood following a collision with a small plane. At the time the death of the 135 passengers and crew was the worst domestic loss of life in an aviation accident. This had also been the talk of the school yard, and it had just died down after Halloween.
So, you can imagine our shock at what came just nine days later.
On September 27th, Dan White, a former Supervisor, would sneak into San Francisco’s government offices with a .38 revolver. Dan was been angry about Moscone’s decision not to reappoint him to the city board. He shot the mayor first. Then White reloaded his pistol and turned the gun on his rival Harvey Milk. Both lay dead in the aftermath.
One can only imagine what she thought. As a child I found the TV coverage of our future California Senator and then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein addressing a stunned crowd at City Hall to be surreal. “As president of the Board of Supervisors, it’s my duty to make this announcement: Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is supervisor Dan White.”
White, who was caught soon after the murders, pleaded a “diminished capacity” defense, claiming that copious amounts of junk food, combined with distress over the loss of his job, caused him to suffer mental problems. This became known as the “Twinkie Defense.” It was successful. And, I’m pretty sure the people at Hostess were about as thrilled as the people over at Kool-Aid.
Following the murders, what I remember most, was the peaceful candlelight march on city hall that very night. It took place as the city of San Francisco publicly mourned the loss of two of its most cherished and respected civic leaders. It was the most powerful peaceful response to violence I have witnessed in my lifetime.
Gradually the pall lifted from San Francisco. Mayor Feinstein restored a sense of calm and tranquility. Dan White was given a lenient sentence after employing the infamous Twinkie defense, but went on to kill himself soon after being released from prison early. No Peoples Temple hit squads ever terrorized San Francisco.
The mass murder in Jonestown and the assassinations at City Hall still haven’t receded from San Francisco’s consciousness in 40 years. Or mine. In those nine days in November 1978, I became acutely aware that the world of adults was fraught with difficulty. It probably started me thinking in many ways about the impeding end of my childhood and the complexities of the world I would inevitably engage as an adult.
People’s Temple Epilogue: The unidentifiable or unclaimed bodies of more than 400 of Jonestown’s dead, most of them children, are interred in a mass grave at an Oakland Cemetery overlooking San Francisco Bay. Each year a memorial service is conducted on Nov. 18.