Jonestown: A Didactic Reckoning

There is much being said about Jonestown during the 40th anniversary of the massacre and the publication of first reports about it. From rather thoughtless headlines about flavored drinks to inaccurate references to “mass suicide,” it seems many outlets are selective about acknowledging some of its more important aspects.

Tragedy is an accurate term for Jonestown, but this tragic story and its horrific end are about race, class, gender, child and elder abuse, modern slavery, victim blaming and governmental neglect as much as they are about the perils of cult formations.

Jonestown is a story of human rights violations, including human trafficking, and official complicity in crimes committed by a paranoid and megalomaniacal white man who hated the press for its power to expose him and used his privileges and inner circle of primarily white men and women to disproportionately exploit women of color and children. Not unlike the thieving, murderous Reverend in The Night of the Hunter, Jim Jones was a grifter who wowed people with staged faith-healings and big talk. He appropriated the language and values of liberation theology, anti-racism, feminism and social justice to appeal to his target audience, and from the loyal followers he made, Jones confiscated wages and properties and extracted their labor.

Jones’ churches and the Jonestown compound in Guyana were built largely on working class black labor and the taking of black property. In exchange, Jones promised escape from urban ills — crime, drugs, unemployment, which US policy had ensured would plague communities of color — and conjured themes of exodus to the Promised Land free of racism, sexism, poverty and violence. But this was all to enable him to replicate antebellum plantation life in the modern day, replete with labor and sexual exploitation and cruelty to children as objects of discipline.

Jones came up as a pastor in Indiana in the mid-1950s, during Jim Crow and early days of the post-war civil rights struggle against it, attracting mostly African Americans to his racially integrationist congregation, which was considered exceptionally progressive for the time. By the mid-1960s, after followers reported abuse, local media exposed him, but police and officials ignored the story and took no action. Jones moved his church to Ukiah, California, and then opened the People’s Temple locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

After years of their popular characterization as a fringe group, it is shocking to learn about their broad reach, level of respect in the community, and quite normal presence in the Fillmore. From 1970–1977 the People’s Temple maintained a veneer of legitimacy by doing outwardly humanitarian work of all kinds, including soup kitchens, care of mentally impaired children and drug rehabilitation. For this they managed to attract the support of high profile Bay Area residents like former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown (an assemblyman at the time) and publisher and physician Carlton B. Goodlett, as well as prominent racial justice activists like Angela Davis.

Jones ingratiated himself with powerful, influential politicians and professionals in law and law enforcement, medicine and other fields, whose endorsements were put forth as a 25-page packet of their successes when trying to expand their operations and spheres of influence.

Within the church, however, inhumane treatment of followers was reportedly routine: humiliation, beatings, blackmail, coercion, and brain washing into signing over their possessions, including homes, as well as separating family members from one another, closely monitoring them and encouraging snitching to prevent disloyalty to Jones. When the press began inquiring into his abuses, Jones planned to remove his congregation to the remote jungles of Guyana and started building Jonestown around 1973–74 to escape media scrutiny, exposure, and interference with his operation. He convinced black and minority members that if they left the People’s Temple, the US government would round them up into concentration camps. It was in California that Jones and his inner circle concocted the escape hatch of “revolutionary suicide,” which he only revealed to members after their displacement in Jonestown.

Notwithstanding insensitive headlines and characterizations, the passage of time and social change since Jonestown have sharpened some ways of thinking about these criminal actions, collusion and the implication of others, as well as produced important criticisms about blaming and stigmatizing victim-survivors. However, the impression of voluntariness, foolishness or criminality and deservingness of victims’ fate from early reporting has lasted and continues to be projected onto objectifying images of their lifeless bodies.

Because of this it is important to recognize that 1/3 of the victims were babies and children, that dozens of people did not “drink the Kool-Aid” but were forcibly injected with it, and that the fate of those who died or survived Jonestown was similar to those of human trafficking victims, including through the common scheme of bait-and-switch — with the promise of a better life only to realize one’s condition of bondage or false imprisonment when it’s probably too late.

Himself a drug addict, Jones used drugs to force compliance to his demands from community members, including for sex, and conducted mind experiments and cruel loyalty tests, including convincing them that they had just been poisoned to check their reactions. He confiscated their passports and money in Jonestown, deposited millions of dollars in overseas bank accounts, threatened potential escapees with armed guards, and, failing that, poisonous reptiles, predatory animals and mercenaries in the jungle that awaited those who dared attempt the 2-day river journey to the nearest town.

Regardless, this did not deter many who struggled to free themselves and their children. For example, Leslie Wilson, who was recruited at the age of 13, birthed a child into the cult and escaped with him at 21, went onto write Slavery of Faith about her experiences and courageous acts. Her son Jakari reflects that, “The first example I had in my life of my mother’s love was when she looked in my eyes as a toddler, down in the jungles of Guyana in Jonestown, and made a decision to get me out of there.” Inspired by Harriet Tubman and determined to report Jones’ abuses, she wrapped her baby onto her back and escaped on foot through 30 miles of jungle.

By the time of the massacre, lies, false threats, starvation, demoralization, mid-sleep drills, meetings and radio announcements had reportedly broken many captive residents down. Others believed that life in the US would be no better for them, especially by that point.

US Embassy cables in the summer preceding the massacre show reason for concern for the population of Jonestown, but report that the Guyanese government was uninterested in an apparently self-contained community of US citizens with no contact with the Guyanese population; not to mention Jones had bought off local officials in a position to act. The US government failed to appreciate the danger and threat Jones, his inner circle and security force represented when Representative Ryan of San Mateo, his aide at the time Jackie Speier, and members of the press, including from the San Francisco Chronicle, went to investigate whether people were being held against their will, and were shot by Jones’ guards.

Particularly striking about the role of the US government is how Jones was allowed to thrive in the years of COINTELPRO and its aftermath, during which Hoover’s FBI deemed threatening and actively pursued a “black messiah” like Fred Hampton as well as other leftist figures labeled dangerous. Yet Jones, fronting as a “white messiah” with similar, albeit false, values and promises operated for over two decades, moving across state and international lines.

In life and death, Jonestown reproduced the same social hierarchy that members had sought to escape. Only about 12 percent of residents survived Jonestown. Of the approximatey 1000 Jonestown residents, about 1/3 were children. They were the first to be killed, and only about 10 percent of them survived. Smaller children and babies (aged 0 to 9) fared the worst, as only 5 percent survived.

Over 2/3 of Jonestown residents were black, many of whom had migrated from the Deep South to California in the 1930s and World War II era to escape Jim Crow, seeking safety and employment in the North and West. However, with structural racism in its leadership, Jonestown was not a culturally representative black institution. 2/3 of Jonestown residents were female, with black females comprising the largest group of residents (45 percent). Only 1/3 of survivors were black females. Three-quarters of elderly residents were black women, and it was their social security checks that financed Jonestown in the months prior to the massacre.

Human trafficking is best understood as the shape shifting of slavery — as retaining some core aspects of previous forms of servitude such as chattel slavery and indenture — while adapting to economic, cultural and political changes. Jones was a human trafficker able to utilize updated economic, cultural and political means to subject to modern forms of enslavement people whose ancestors had survived legal slavery and who themselves attempted to transcend its legacy.

Yet victim blaming has been a longstanding feature of Jonestown reportage. Despite the struggles and survivorship of many, injustice to Jonestown victims continued posthumously due to their stigmatization as a sheepish “cult of death,” easily led to their slaughter along with their children. As a singular example of belittlement, their bodies were abandoned for four days to tropical heat, and the US government wanted to have the Guyanese government bulldoze them into a mass grave, but Guyana refused to do what it saw as America’s dirty work. No American cemetery would accept them other than Evergreen in East Oakland, where nearly half are now interred. Survivors were also mistreated upon return, “penniless and distraught…[they] were turned away from welfare and food stamp offices; employers wanted nothing to do with them. They were deemed monsters, deserving of their fate.”

In this age of “post-truth,” powerful grifters with similar penchants to Jones, along with their inner circles, in charge of entire state apparatuses, commit wrongs greater in scope. They love and use the media to self-promote, hate it when they’re exposed, and denounce legitimate criticisms as lies. Contrary to their intentions, they tell people what they want to hear, and rewrite the social contract as a murder-suicide pact of racism and white nationalism, misogyny, extraction and exploitation, and cruelty to children as objects of discipline to deter people of the world from seeking refuge. As democracies are on the decline across the globe, increasingly being reorganized as autocracies, with their attendant human rights abuses and false promises, the scalable lessons of Jonestown are evermore crucial.

In a personal reflection, Jonestown survivor Jack Arnold writes, “It seems like there will always be a market for tyrants in this world. The fuel that sustains them are those of us who need someone to reassure us we’re okay–who will take emotional care of us, who will make decisions for us–while slowly taking over our lives with lies…I’m hoping that all of mankind has benefited from all of the lessons we’ve lived through.”