Jonestown

by Kara Graves, SUNY Cortland, December 4, 2008

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November 18, 2008, marks the 30 year anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre. Jonestown was the name created for the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project,” a California based cult created in Guyana and led by Jim Jones. In November of 1978, 918 people died of cyanide poisoning in a mass suicide. Until September 11, 2001, this was the largest non-natural disaster death toll of American civilians.

The Peoples Temple was originally founded in Indianapolis, Indiana in the early 1950s. Founder, Jim Jones’s main purpose was to get people to recognize and practice “apostolic socialism-a detailed version of communism.” After receiving much criticism for his ideas, Jones moved his practices to Redwood, California. The group bounced around to many different areas in California until moving its headquarters to the already politically involved city of San Francisco. Within months, Temple follower George Moscone was elected mayor and appointed Jones, Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission. Once accepting this position, he became friends with many active politicians to help get his word around.

In 1974, the Temple leased over 3,800 unoccupied acres from the Guyanese Government as it was considered a “socialist paradise and a “sanctuary” from media scrutiny. Members from the Temple began constructing a commune called Jonestown as a safe haven for cult members and for black socialists in the predominantly black/ English speaking country. This made both cult members happy as well as Guyanese people and Government officials. Once the commune was finished, hundreds of Temple members moved to Jonestown to escape the American media and by 1978, the population grew from 50 to just less than 1,000 residents. This lead to overcrowding of this small area.

At first arrival, many members had been convinced that they were going to live in a Utopia. They were very wrong. Life for a Temple member was very strict and structured. The people worked 6 days a week from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm with only an hour for lunch. After work, they had classes in socialism where they listen to Jones speak while he used mind controlling tactics borrowed from famous communist leaders. He would also read commentaries from a microphone that would be heard throughout the entire commune. There was ZERO contact with the outside world. Members of the community would live in overcrowded communal houses and ate meals that prisoners would look at with disgust. They were lucky to get a slice of meat or an egg once a week. Although there was said to be no such thing as punishment or prisons, they would have “torture holes” for any rule breakers. These people would either be put in a plywood box or at the bottom of a well upside down for an entire night. Children were only allowed to see their parents for a short while at night, and everyone in the commune had to call Jones “dad,” no matter what age. Although the treatment of these people from my perspective is looked at harshly, not one of the 77 social security recipients said they were being forced to stay, therefore the U.S. government granted Jonestown $65,000 a month in welfare. The commune’s wealthy eventually exceeded 26 million dollars.

Everything seemed to be going well in Jonestown, but on Saturday, November 18th 1978, the settlement took a turn for the worst. The settlement became a “destructive cult.” A total of 918 people died as a result of activities of the Temples’ members. Before the mass suicide had happened, some members had shot and killed five people and left another 10 badly wounded. These people, Representative Leo Ryan, NBC reporter Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and Peoples Temple defector Patricia Parks, were departing from a nearby airstrip to return back to the United States. The assassins then returned to the cult to commit suicide with the rest of the members. The group suicide had been very carefully planned for years. A quote from a member states, “And I just like to thank Dad for giving us life, and also death. And I appreciate the fact of the way our children are going. Because, like Dad said, when they come in, what they're gonna do to our children -- they're gonna massacre our children. And also the ones that they take capture, they're gonna just let them grow up and be dummies like they want them to be. And not grow up to be a person like the one and only Jim Jones. So I'd like to thank Dad for the opportunity for letting Jonestown be not what it could be, but what Jonestown is. Thank you, Dad.” [Applause]

On the day of death, nurses mixed a brew of cyanide and tranquilizers. People were either injected with the mixture or drank a concoction made with the deadly poisons. A few members slit the throats of people who wouldn’t participate and then shot themselves. 85 members were left to live.

Today members will say that they were never forced to do anything. Sadly, the people of this cult were just brainwashed fanatics.

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