By Court Haslett
OPINION Five years after the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was decimated and 168 people perished, the Oklahoma City National Memorial was dedicated to the victims. On Sept. 12, 2011, 10 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the 9/11 Memorial was open to the public. By all accounts, both sites are solemn, powerful tributes to the people who died in those tragedies.
Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the record for the most American lives lost in one event, excluding war and natural disasters, belonged to the victims of the Jonestown Massacre, where 918 Americans died on Nov. 18, 1978. While the tragedy occurred in Guyana, the victims were almost entirely from the Bay Area, where the Peoples Temple had operated throughout the 1970s.
Yet here we are, 35 years later, and there is nothing honoring the victims of Jonestown anywhere in San Francisco. There is a memorial in Oakland’s Evergreen cemetery, where over 400 people from the massacre are buried in a mass grave, but San Francisco, the place where the seeds of this tragedy were sown, hasn’t seen fit to honor the victims of Jonestown in any way.
Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple were an integral part of San Francisco’s political power structure during the 1970s. From the Temple’s headquarters at 1859 Geary Street, two doors down from the Fillmore Auditorium, Jones marshaled the bulk of his congregation and rose to power. Key to this rise was the support Jones received from the city’s elected officials, all of whom coveted Jones’s approval for good reason: Jones could mobilize thousands of voters for any given candidate in a moment’s notice.
The 1975 mayoral election was a prime example of that power. By order of Jones, Temple members turned out strongly for George Moscone, tilting a close election in his favor. As Jim Jones Jr. explained to David Talbot in his book Season of the Witch, “We loaded up all 13 of our buses with maybe 70 people on each bus, and we had those buses rolling nonstop up and down the coast into San Francisco the day before the election,” recalled Jim Jones Jr. “We had people going from precinct to precinct to vote. So could we have been the force that tipped the election to Moscone? Absolutely.” Moscone thought so. After the election, he rewarded Jones by appointing him to the Housing Authority.
Moscone was by no means the only elected official who courted Jones. Then-Assemblymember Willie Brown described Jones as “a combination of Martin King, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and… Chairman Mao.” Harvey Milk, perhaps Jones’s biggest supporter, defended Jones until the end, stating, “My name is cut into stone in support of you—and your people.”
Lester Kingsolving wrote a series of articles for the Examiner as far back as 1972, alleging misconduct by the Temple. In 1977, New West magazine published an article by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy detailing many of the horrors that were happening at the Temple, including beatings, sexual humiliation, and financial malfeasance.
The widespread belief that what happened in Jonestown was a mass suicide further underlines the need for a memorial in San Francisco. While a number of people who drank the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid did so willingly, many of the victims only drank the poison to avoid the alternative—a gunshot to the head. It is also unequivocally not the case for the 276 children who were forced to ingest the cyanide.
San Francisco should stop trying to whitewash Jones from its history books. Building a memorial to the victims of Jonestown in San Francisco, the city most responsible and most affected by the massacre, seems the least we can do to honor the 918 people who lost their lives 35 years ago.
Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel based in 1970’s San Francisco. You can follow him on Twitter @courthaslett