Jonestown 35 Years Later

To read the whole strip, which is brilliant, follow the link at the end of this post.Thirty-five years ago today,
agents of the Peoples Temple, a tighly knit and deeply paranoid
church that had relocated from San Francisco to Guyana,
assassinated the visiting congressman Leo Ryan and embarked on a
mass murder/suicide that claimed more than 900 lives. The
congregation’s commune was nicknamed Jonestown, after church leader
Jim Jones; the chief means of death was a powdered drink doused
with cyanide. (The drink was probably Flavor-Aid, but it has gone
down in popular memory as Kool-Aid. I’ll bet they’re still tearing
their hair out about that at Kraft Foods.)

Later this week, we’ll be observing the 50th anniversary of John
F. Kennedy’s death. The two anniversaries are linked by more than
just the time of year: Mark Lane,
one of the first and most influential of the Kennedy conspiracy
writers, was in Jonestown when the massacre began, along with
fellow JFK theorist Donald Freed. (In addition to their work on the
nonfiction shelves, Lane and Freed had a hand in writing

Executive Action
, one of the lamer conspiracy thrillers of
the ’70s.) As Jim Jones told his flock that the world was plotting
against them, he incorporated Lane and Freed’s ideas into his
spiel. Later, Lane himself would a featured player in some of the
conspiracy theories that inevitably appeared after the massacre. As
I wrote in
The United States of Paranoia
, Mae Brussell believed
that Jonestown existed

To read the whole strip, which is brilliant, follow the link at the end of this the secret government could
“experiment on black people; mind control; electrodes; sexual
deprivation; fear; mass suicides.” [Larry] Layton, “a robot in the
hands of Jim Jones,” had assassinated Ryan to keep the truth from
coming out, and the mass slaughter that followed had been a part of
the cover-up.

Not every conspiracist shared Brussell’s interest in brainwashing.
In 1975, the JFK assassination theorist Mark Lane allegedly told
her that he’d “never appear with you publicly. People know you’re
crazy. There’s no evidence of mind control in the United States.”
But Lane had a Jonestown connection of his own: He had been one of
the Temple’s attorneys, and he had argued shortly before the
massacre that “American intelligence organizations” were making “a
deliberate effort” to “destroy the Peoples Temple, to destroy Jim
Jones, and to destroy Jonestown.” Brussell could now quote Lane’s
words of praise for the Guyana settlement (“It makes me almost weep
to see such an incredible experience with such vast potential for
the human spirit and soul of this country to be cruelly assaulted
by our intelligence agents”) as she painted her old rival as a part
of the grand machine. “I’m very proud to say that I’ve hated his
guts and tried to expose him for years,” she told her

Next week we get to do this anniversary.It shouldn’t be surprising to
see such speculations after COINTELPRO, CHAOS, and other measures
fanned the Left’s fears of the government. But that wasn’t the only
factor at work. Every subculture accumulates demons, and by the
late 1970s the New Left and the counterculture had plenty of demons
to contend with. If it is possible to discuss “the sixties” in
reference to events that took place in 1978–and culturally
speaking, I think it is–then the deaths at Jonestown, a colony
that until its destruction had presented itself to the world as a
multiracial socialist utopia, marked the end of the sixties, a
moment even more deflating than the Charles Manson murders or the
Rolling Stones’ lethal concert at Altamont. The massacre also came
within a month of the assassinations of San Francisco’s liberal
mayor George Moscone and the city’s first openly gay city
supervisor, Harvey Milk. If there were ever a time when a spirit of
doom hung over the California counterculture, this was it.

Brussell’s grand conspiracy narrative found a way to link Jonestown
to the San Francisco shootings, and it managed to work in the
Symbionese Liberation Army, the Manson murders, the Zodiac killer,
and the sixties assassinations too. As history, it was a
jerry-rigged assemblage of facts, half facts, rumors, and guesses.
But as a mythic translation of a jarring historical moment, it had
a powerful pull. Brussell transformed a collection of free-floating
anxieties into an external enemy with a name.

Where are they now? Lane went on to serve as attorney
for the far-right Liberty Lobby. Freed co-scripted the Robert
Altman film
Secret Honor
. And the massacre itself intensified a moral
panic that cast every small, strange, and young religion as a
potential death cult.

Bonus links:

• Tim Cavanaugh revisits
San Francisco in the age of Jonestown

• Alan Moore and Peter Bagge
interview Kool-Aid Man

• The Jonestown Express, the colony’s in-house funk band, covers
Joe Tex’s “Ain’t
Gonna Bump No More
.” The music starts at :56.

from Hit & Run

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