Monday, November 18, 2013

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Thirty–five years ago today, the world was shocked to learn of what was being dubbed the "Jonestown massacre" in the South American nation of Guayana.

I have always thought it was misleading, though, to use the word "massacre" because, while there were some people who resisted, the available evidence suggests that most of the 918 people who died took their lives willingly. But you can still find those who will argue that what happened in Jonestown was mass murder, that the victims were coerced into drinking the poisoned Flavor–Aid (yes, that is what it was called. I guess I always assumed it was some sort of generic equivalent of Kool–Aid).

To a degree, I suppose, that was true. Ironically, apparently there were those who drank the Flavor–Aid against their will. Still, all available evidence suggests the vast majority of those who drank it did so willingly, giving birth to the pop culture cliche "drinking the Kool–Aid," which is generally understood to mean blind, unquestioning acceptance of something.

(I often wonder how many people who use that phrase but weren't born when Jonestown happened know how it came to be.)

The Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple Agricultural Project (aka "Jonestown") was a planned socialist community established in the South American nation of Guyana.

Originally, Jones, a charismatic leader similar to David Koresh, formed the People's Temple in his home state of Indiana not long after he started attending Communist Party rallies in the 1950s. He was active in local pro–integration politics and adopted several children who were at least partly non–white.

By the 1960s, Jones apparently had his eye on South America as a safe place to be in the event of a nuclear war, but instead he told his congregation that they would find their garden of Eden in California. And the People's Temple migrated west, where it enjoyed considerable success in its endeavors. Jones became an influential figure in the San Francisco area, rubbing elbows with important Democrats, both local and national.

By the mid–1970s, they had relocated again — to South America — and formed, under Jones' guidance, the People's Temple Agricultural Project.

And some of the relatives of Temple members were concerned that, among other things, no one who was part of what Jones called a "model of socialism" was permitted to leave.

There were other complaints, some from within. There was talk of long workdays and six–day work weeks followed by hours of study and lectures on socialism. Jones was said to have had sex with most of the women in the community and to have fathered several children.

Jones held what he called "White Nights" — simulated emergencies involving the CIA or some other investigatory agency that sometimes included Jones' call for "revolutionary suicides." Members would be given cups of a red liquid to drink. They would be told that the liquid was poisoned and that they would die within 45 minutes.

When the members realized that the liquid they drank was not poisoned after all, Jones told them it had been a loyalty test.

Thirty–five years ago today, it was not a test. It was the real thing.

Jonestown was being investigated again — a familiar experience for the People's Temple and its corrupt/paranoid leader. A U.S. congressman was leading this one, though, and that definitely was not a familiar experience.

The congressman was Leo Ryan. He represented a portion of San Francisco, and some of his constituents were former Temple members or relatives of Temple members. They had contacted him about their concerns over conditions in Jonestown. And they were denied access to Jonestown for the first couple of days following their arrival in Guyana.

When Ryan and his party were finally allowed into Jonestown on Nov. 17, 1978, the Temple members put their best foot forward, but some of the members who wanted to leave managed to contact the visitors, and the facade began to unravel.

And then, 35 years ago today, Ryan and others were gunned down on the airstrip at Port Kaituma as they tried to leave. Back at Jonestown, Jones announced what had happened and issued another call for "revolutionary suicides." This time, there was cyanide in the Flavor–Aid, and, before long more than 900 Temple members lay dead around the compound.

Jones died that night, but he did not die from poisoning. His body was found with an apparently self–inflicted gunshot wound to his left temple. I don't think it has ever been established whether Jones shot himself or he was shot by someone else.

The Guyanese coroner who examined him said the wound was consisted with a self–inflicted wound.

I have seen few articles on Jonestown's milestone anniversary.

Rachel Sheeley writes, in the Palladium–Item, the newspaper in the small east–central Indiana town of Richmond, where Jones attended high school, that the town was unprepared for the massive media attention that came its way after the events in South America.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian took the opportunity of the anniversary to call for the establishment of a memorial to those who died.

"San Francisco should stop trying to whitewash Jones from its history books," writes Court Haslett, equating what happened 35 years ago today to two more recent tragedies, the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Talk about drinking the Kool–Aid.

1 comment:

Charles said...

And to think many American Blacks think the term "Kool-Aid drinker" as some racist term in reference to poor black people not being able to afford anything more expensive than Kool Aid to drink! I've always told my kids and other, misinformed individuals about the Jonestown massacre victims being those after which this term is named.