‘The City Has Gone A Little Insane’
When I was 10, I learned about human darkness courtesy of the right-left haymakers that hit San Francisco in November of 1978.
On November 18 of that month, 918 people were killed in the jungles of Guyana during the infamous Jonestown People’s Temple incident that is typically pegged as a mass suicide. It was the largest loss of American life in single deliberate incident until 9/11.
The People’s Temple was a powerful force in San Francisco at the time and nearly all those killed were from the Bay Area.
Last week, a friend of a victim had this perspective in a Washington Post piece arguing that the use of the phrase “drinking the KoolAid” is offensive:
“The first news reports made it sound like those who died in Jonestown did so by mass suicide, drinking cyanide-laced drinks (hence the offensive expression). It’s not true. The first murdered at Jonestown were senior citizens, children and babies; the poison was squirted into their mouths. Others thought they were participating in a drill.”
The same piece provides more context on how that day happened…
Jonestown was the demented brainchild of huckster Jim Jones, a self-appointed charismatic pastor who founded the Peoples Temple in San Francisco. The Peoples Temple attracted poor city-dwellers (particularly African Americans), and young white kids from the suburbs, like my childhood friend Maria.
By the 1960s, the Temple had become a political force in San Francisco, turning out busloads of volunteers to walk precincts for favored politicians. Jones was so powerful that Vice President Walter Mondale and first lady Roslyn Carter met with him. Gov. Jerry Brown and Willie Brown, who would become the Assembly Speaker and a mayor of San Francisco, appeared at an honorary dinner.
But Jones’s world was about to crash. Reporters began investigating the Peoples Temple over allegations of abuse and intimidation. Increasingly paranoid, Jones fled with hundreds of his followers to Guyana.
Relatives of those at Jonestown contacted U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) with reports that their loved ones were being held against their will. Ryan went to Guyana, taking with him a small party of aides and journalists, including Washington Post reporter Charles Krause. Also in the party were relatives, including two brothers of my friend Maria.
That fact-finding mission quickly turned catastrophic.
As the Ryan party toured Jonestown, residents secretly slipped them notes begging for help. One of Jones’s henchmen tried to stab Ryan, and then Jones ordered the deaths of his followers — and Ryan’s party. Harangued by Jones, the residents at Jonestown had rehearsed a mass-suicide for weeks, and now Jones ordered his followers to carry it out. Some ran into the jungle, others hid under beds, but most were intimidated into drinking the poison.
Nine days later, tragedy struck again. San Francisco’s popular mayor George Moscone and the groundbreaking gay icon supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by another supervisor — Dan White.
KTVU news anchor Dennis Richmond covered opened a broadcast this way:
“Good evening. To outsiders and even to some San Franciscans, it must appear that the city has gone a little insane. Just as everyone has come to grips from the mindless murder-suicide of over 900 members of the San Francisco-based People’s Temple, word screams out over the radio, the television and the newspapers that another tragedy is upon us.”
These words were pulled from the following five-minute excerpt of the excellent Harvey Milk documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk.” It gives you a tangible sense of what it felt like to be living in the city at the time.
Randy Shilts’ 1982 book “The Mayor of Castro Street, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” takes you further inside what happened that tragic day.
Part of the collection: “Lots of Crazy Things Have Happened in San Francisco. You Should Know About Some of Them.”