Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why? (Jonestown, 30 years later)

OK, so I've seen a couple of posts - namely one from Caveat Bettor and another from Out of My Mind which basically make the same point - that the elected officials of San Francisco turned a blind eye to some of Jim Jones' strange activities because they were so happy with the benefits that Jones provided to the elected officials.

Out of My Mind links to Boing Boing:

The [Kilduff/Tracy] investigative report marked a turning point for People's Temple, an arc towards the catastrophic end that would come one year later. Before this exposé was published in New West magazine (because back then, the Chronicle's editor refused to run it), Jim Jones enjoyed what amounted to broad support and protection from news organizations, powerful social figures, and politicians who saw the influential preacher as a "deliverer of votes."

Boing Boing then quotes from the report itself:

While it appears that none of the public officials from [California] Governor [Jerry] Brown on down knew about the inner world of Peoples Temple, they have left the impression that they used Jones to deliver votes at election time and never asked any questions. They never asked about the bodyguards. Never asked about the church's locked doors. Never asked why Jones's followers were so obsessively protective of him. And apparently, some never asked because they didn't want to know.

In case the name "Jim Jones" means nothing to you, here's a summary of what happened after the New West report - and something to think about the next time you hear someone use the phrase "drink the Kool Aid."

During 1977, amid bad publicity, lawsuits, and relatives' complaints, Jones and nearly 1,000 followers--three-quarters black, two-thirds female, almost one-third under eighteen--moved to Jonestown [in Guyana].

Charges that overwork, poor food, harsh punishments, tranquilizers, armed guards, censored mail and phone calls, and Jones's nightly harangues over loudspeakers made Jonestown tantamount to a concentration camp led Congressman Leo J. Ryan to visit in late 1978. The canny, flamboyant California Democrat's entourage included Charles Garry and Mark Lane (Jones's attorneys), eight reporters, and four relatives of Jonestown residents....

Ryan and a reporter learned that a few residents wanted to leave. Ryan decided to process defectors the next day. On November 18, Ryan interviewed persons whose relatives had expressed concern. All decided to stay. However, as word spread that several people planned to leave with Ryan, tension grew, and one resident attacked the congressman with a knife. Lane and Garry saved Ryan's life.

Ryan's party, including sixteen defectors, boarded a truck for the airstrip. Two aircraft arrived, but with insufficient seats, so defectors boarded first. As a small Cessna, loaded with defectors, roared down the runway, a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer, presumably sent by Jones, blocked the plane's way. Most defectors had boarded the larger Otter, while Ryan and the reporters stood aside.

Suddenly, Larry Layton, a false defector aboard the Cessna, began shooting, and men on the flatbed trailer fired at those standing outside the Otter. Layton was overpowered and removed from the small plane, along with two injured defectors, and the pilot took off. By then the gunmen had started back to Jonestown. Ryan, one defector, and three reporters lay dead. Others had fled into the jungle. Nearby Guyanese soldiers did nothing.

Meanwhile, Jones, a pill-popping hypochondriac in declining health, demanded that his followers commit mass "revolutionary suicide." Temple members had rehearsed "white nights" many times. Adults used syringes to squirt cyanide-laced, grape-flavored punch down children's throats before drinking the poison themselves. Although armed guards ringed the gathering, few resisted.

Mark Lane, Charles Garry, and two residents escaped into the jungle. Two elderly people survived. Jones ordered three high-ranking leaders to leave with half a million dollars in cash. These were Jonestown's only survivors. Authorities found 914 bodies. All had been poisoned, including Jones's wife, except three who were shot--Jones, one of Jones's mistresses, and an unidentified male.

Now there are some that attribute Jones' rise to power to a fault in the Democratic Party (for example, this thread entitled Jim Jones and Barack Obama COMMUNITY ORGANIZERS). However, this ignores the Unification Church's influence on the Republican Party, for starters. Or Tongsun Park's ability to work both sides of the aisle.

Frankly, what happened in all of these cases is that politicians were too focused on their own short-term goals to realize that they were getting in bed with people whose long-term goals were diametrically opposed to their own. Some, like Tip O'Neill and Gerald Ford, didn't get sucked into the mess (in this case, with Park). Others weren't so lucky.

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