“Don’t Be Afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate our life.” – President Donald Trump
“Go home, my darlings! Sleep tight!” – Reverend Jim Jones
After spending time in The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, following a positive test for the coronavirus, the president left his hospital bed to do a drive-by for his adoring fans outside the hospital. In the front seat of the vehicle were two Secret Service agents dressed in medical gowns, face masks, and N95 respirators.
Despite the fact that the president was reported to have taken multiple medications while in the hospital, including a monoclonal antibody cocktail (two lab engineered proteins), Remdesivir (an antiviral drug), Dexamethasone (a strong steroid), supplemental oxygen, Zinc, vitamin D, famotidine, melatonin, and aspirin, he said to the American public: “don’t be afraid of Covid.” Despite alarming drops in his blood oxygen level, his staff still claims he only had mild symptoms.
As of October 5, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center reported that, 210,079 Americans have been killed by the virus in just over seven months and 1,039,120 worldwide. In the midst of this deadly and out of control pandemic, we are being told by the “leader of the free world” to disregard a virus that he claimed to have under control – on multiple occasions – back in February and March.
“The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” (February 24, 2020)
“This is a flu. This is like a flu”; “Now, you treat this like a flu”; “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.” (February 26, 2020)
“And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” (March 10, 2020)
“As a nation, we face a difficult few weeks as we approach that really important day when we’re going to see things get better all of a sudden. And it’s going to be like a burst of light.” (March 31, 2020)
Despite his illness, and the dozen or so others who attended the Rose Garden program announcing his Supreme Court selection on September 26, people are still saying that the virus is a hoax on social media. Now he is telling people, after he was rushed to the hospital in Marine One, that the virus is not a big deal.
We are approaching the anniversary of one of the worst tragedies in American history that in some ways reminds me of what is going on today. On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones and more than 900 members of his People’s Temple committed mass suicide in Guyana by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. That tragedy led to the expression about “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” when people blindly believe something someone tells them that could lead to their doom.
That tragedy in the jungle of South America was reported to be the largest loss of American civilians in a single event prior to the 9/11 attacks. The images of the carnage shocked the world. Bodies strewn across the ground of men, women, and children is still difficult to look at today. The San Francisco-based cult called the People’s Temple followed their leader Reverend Jim Jones to their deaths.
The story is one unknown by many young people today. For those of us old enough to remember, it was shocking. I was in middle school at the time and recall how the news could not convey the real depths of the tragedy. Dozens of books, movies, documentaries and articles have been written about it over the years.
Most of the parishioners of the People’s Temple were Black and their minister was a white man who preached about socialism and supposedly progressive ideas about finding a place to build a perfect society outside of the United States. The church was famously supported by many in San Francisco, including former Mayor Harvey Milk and activist Angela Davis – according to contemporary reports of the Temple in local papers. At its peak there were thousands of members.
As the media in San Francisco interviewed people who had become disenchanted with the People’s Temple and left, Jones became exceptionally paranoid. He convinced many to move to Guyana and build a town named in his honor, Jonestown. It was supposed to be an agricultural settlement where no one would have to worry about food or housing. The so-called utopian community would be troubled from the start.
One third of those who drank the Kool-Aid and died were children. Jones had adopted several children of color and was a strong advocate for social justice in the 1960s. He had fought for integrated churches, neighborhoods, hospitals, movie theaters, and restaurants – building a strong following in the Black community.
Jones promised to build a “rainbow community” according to one of the survivors, Teri Buford O’Shea. She fled Jonestown three weeks before the mass suicide. His appeal crossed racial and class lines. O’Shea described his appeal for The Atlantic.
“He was very charismatic and attracted people who were feeling vulnerable or disenfranchised for whatever reason. Most of them were African-American, but there were also white people, Jewish people, people of Mexican descent. There were religious Christians and communists. If you wanted religion, Jim Jones could give it to you. If you wanted socialism, he could give it to you. If you were looking for a father figure, he’d be your father. He always homed in on what you needed and managed to bring you in emotionally.”
In the aftermath of the events that November, many questioned the intelligence and common sense of his followers. His constant paranoia should have been a warning sign, according to many who criticized the victims. O’Shea said he held suicide practice sessions regularly that he called “White Nights.”
“There were loudspeakers all over the compound, and Jim Jones’s voice was on them almost 24/7. He couldn’t be talking all the time, but he’d tape what he said and then play it back all day long. And the rule was that we couldn’t talk when Jim Jones was talking. So on the loudspeakers, he’d suddenly call out, “White Night! White Night! Get to the to the pavilion! Run! Your lives are in danger!” Everyone would rush to the pavilion in middle of the encampment. Then he would tell us that in the United States, African Americans were being herded into concentration camps, that there was genocide on the streets. They were coming to kill and torture us because we’d chosen what he called the socialist track. He said they were on their way. We didn’t know this at the time, but he’d set up people who would shoot into the jungle to make us feel as if we were under attack. And there were other people who were set up to run and get shot — with rubber bullets, though we didn’t know it at the time. So there you were, in the middle of the jungle. Shots were being fired, and people were surrounding you with guns. Then a couple of women brought out these trays of cups of what they said was cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, or Flavor-Aid — whichever they had. Everybody drank it. If we didn’t drink it, we were forced to drink it. If we ran, thought we’d be shot.”
U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November to check on the welfare of his constituents. While at the airport, Ryan and four others were murdered under the orders of Jones. Several members of the temple had fled with Ryan as he was preparing to fly back to the United States.
Just after that, Jones ordered his followers to drink the tainted Kool-Aid. The first to be forced to do so were the children. People who refused were shot to death and many fled into the jungle to escape the mass suicide.
Survivor Laura Johnston Kohl remembered years later “We – all of us – were doing the right things but in the wrong place with the wrong leader.” The roots of the tragedy that would befall nine hundred Americans thousands of miles from home can be traced to the early years of Jones’s life. As a child growing up in Indiana Jones is said to have been very manipulative and performed ritualistic experiments on animals and held mock funerals for them as well. A childhood friend and neighbor Chuck Wilmore told the makers of a 2006 documentary that he thought Jones was strange. “He was obsessed with religion; he was obsessed with death. A friend of mine told me that he saw Jimmy kill a cat with a knife.” He thought Hitler’s suicide was a courageous act according to Wilmore.
The People’s Temple began in Indiana, but Jones moved it to California in 1967. He warned his followers that a nuclear attack was imminent and Eureka, California was one of the safest places to be. Jones was paranoid, and his style was that of a bully when confronted by those who disagreed with him. He had a strong desire to control those around him, and became angry and belligerent when people betrayed or abandoned him.
Jones forced a couple in the temple, Tim and Grace Stoen, to claim Jones was their son’s father. The father even signed an affidavit to that effect. Later the husband and wife both fled the temple and filed a suit to get their son back. By then, the six-year-old boy – John, had already been taken to Guyana. A court awarded them custody of the boy, but they never got him back. He ended up being one of the 304 children to die in the tragedy.
After more than 900 members of the Temple fled to Guyana with Jones, Congressman Ryan wrote a letter to Jones demanding that he be allowed to visit. Along with several journalists and family of temple members, Ryan flew to the settlement to investigate some troubling reports by former members. The trip would be a bad decision for Ryan, and others.
After several members of the temple told Ryan they wanted to return home with him, Jones was incensed. He ordered members of the Temple to go to the airport and stop them from leaving. They opened fire killing Ryan and four others. In the meantime, Jones ordered his followers to prepare for suicide.
Jones told Temple members that because they had killed Ryan, the Guyanese military would come to arrest them and take all of the children. Contrary to early media reports they did not drink Kool-Aid, but a similar brand of powdered drink called Flavor-Aid. The drink was laced with cyanide and all together 918 people died that day, 909 at the settlement. One hundred fifty were ten or younger. One hundred eighty-six senior citizens died. Nearly half of all those who died were Black girls and women. Seventy-one percent of those who died altogether were Black. Only 87 members survived. San Diego State University reported on who the victims were.
“This was not a group of single young adults, but rather a network of interconnected families made up of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, guardians, foster parents, siblings, and adoptees who knew each other intimately.”
Ever since Jonestown the term “Drinking the Kool-Aid” has been used to make fun of people, but survivors find it highly offensive. “I thought, ‘How can these people trivialize such a horrific event as the mass suicide/murder of over 900 people,” survivor Mike Carter told the author of Dear People: Remembering Jonestown.
Several members of the Temple escaped that day, including a dozen members who walked nearly forty miles to safety claiming they were going to have a picnic. Jones died of a gunshot wound to the head, along with his nurse Annie Moore. Many have speculated that Moore shot Jones and then took her own life.
Even though it has been generally referred to as a mass suicide, armed members of the temple stood by and shot those refusing to drink the poison. As a result, survivors say it was mass murder. Tim Carter told Rolling Stone magazine “Jones was going to kill everybody, no matter what. There were so many lies that Jones told to people to create a state of siege mentality in the community, that even those that were making ‘a principled stand of revolutionary suicide’ probably were influenced a lot by the lies that he was telling them.”
We are living in a time when lies from those in the highest places in our government have become so commonplace that its impossible to tell when we hear the truth. A president who has downplayed the virus and admitted later that he did so, put the nation in a precarious state, and needlessly risked millions of lives. How many preventable deaths have been the result of his horrible response to the pandemic?
We are seeing the power of the voice of someone who has so much control over his followers that they refuse to wear masks, and then storm into the streets with long guns to prove that no one can make them do so. It is truly amazing what people will do when they believe in a person or an ideology so strongly.
“If a man is convinced that he is safe only as long as he uses his power to give others a sense of insecurity, then the measure of their security is in his hands. If security or insecurity is at the mercy of a single individual or group, then control of behavior becomes routine. All imperialism functions in this way.” – Howard Thurman
Tia Dufour / The White House