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Memorial unveiled for the 900 Jonestown dead

on November 18, 2008


Nov. 18 – On a grassy hillside in Oakland, overlooking the bay, survivors and loved ones gathered this morning to unveil memorial stones to honor the lives of more than 900 people who died in the Jonestown tragedy thirty years ago today.

In 1978 the news from Guyana was unfathomable. A group of people had carved out what was supposed to be a utopian existence in a South American jungle community, and then died all at once, at their pastor’s exhortations, in what amounted to a murder-suicide of epic proportions. Most drank poisoned fruit drink; the rest were shot to death. The images—mothers’ bodies face down, their arms around their children; infants’ bodies bloated in the tropical sun–were both horrifying and mesmerizing.

Today, with an ocean breeze coming across Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery, under, observers sat in folding chairs under the shade of a three-walled white tent, facing sprays of red, white and yellow carnations. Behind the colorful flowers, taped on the tent’s back wall, were the names of loved ones lost. Nearby, newly delivered and ready for assembly into a permanent monument wall, lay the massive granite stones, strewn with more flowers and carved with the hundreds of names of the dead.

Meant as a time to remember and honor the babies and children, the ceremony included scripture readings, singers, dancers and short sermons along with speeches by survivors. The Rev. Dr. Jynona Norwood, who lost her mother and 26 other family members in the tragedy, focused on the children and mothers of the children who died. Calling the Rev. Jim Jones a “false prophet,” she passionately told the crowd that the people of Jonestown, the colony he established in the South American country of Guyana, had been deceived and betrayed by Jones. When she recounted the poisoning of the infants and the struggle and torment of their mothers, her prepared notes failed her.

“Mothers will go down, for their children,” Norwood yelled. She paused and looked down.

“I guess I’m still angry,” Norwood said. “I thought I had healed, but I guess I’m still a little angry.” She smiled and looked around at her friends, her son and her young congregation she had brought with her from her church in Inglewood, near Los Angeles. Her honesty and self-directed humor lightened the somber mood and brought a few chuckles from the audience. But the gravity and enormity of the loss continued to be the prevailing undercurrent, despite 30 years time.

By 1978, Jim Jones had created two realities. On the surface he offered a fruitful, fulfilling life to those who joined his church, the Peoples Temple. Jones had founded Peoples Temple in the late 1950’s, fashioning it after Christian religions that included “healings” and “miracles.” It was built on the premise of social equity, and provided a number of services to the poor and elderly.

During the 1970’s, Jones recruited members from all across the United States, using bus caravans. Peoples Temple had established itself in a number of American cities, most notably San Francisco, where his ability to gather large numbers made him a useful politicians’ ally.

By all accounts, the seeds of madness were present in Jones throughout his life, but as his power as a leader increased, so did his paranoia and domination. His members were isolated from their loved ones outside the church and, as survivor Grace Stoen, said today, members inside “were afraid to talk to one another.”

Stoen fled Jones and Peoples Temple July 3,, 1976. But while inside the church, she gave birth to a son, John. After escaping, she fought for custody and return of her son, but the material and political walls around Jones defeated her attempts. Her six-year-old son John was among those who died in Jonestown. Tears welled in Stoen’s eyes today as she spoke about “losing him.” But when asked about the death of Jones she said she was, “glad to hear it, relieved to know he was dead.” An attractive, neat, lithe woman, she says she would still be afraid to this day if she knew he was “just in some prison somewhere.”

At the time of Stoen’s defection, Jones had become increasingly powerful in the San Francisco political scene. He could muster thousands of supporters in a matter of hours for political events. As more and more accusations and worries were coming to light and as scrutiny from the outside increased, Jones moved to Guyana to establish and run the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project,” which became known informally as Jonestown.

Jones isolated his followers in a foreign country in the middle of the jungle. Survivor Herbert Newell said today, “For people like me, from the country, the work was hard, but it was a good thing we had there.” Newell was 20 years old at the time. His mother, Hazel, who died in the mass suicide, is still remembered as a good cook in the church.

Newell said he was skeptical the whole time he was in Jonestown, and that now he thinks of himself as “ a survivor of a cult,” he said. “That man was false, and I learned to never follow a man blindly.”

Jones perverted the ideal of social equality and betrayed the trust of his followers. The final calamity in Jonestown came during a visit by the California Democratic congressman Leo Ryan and a group of reporters. One member passed a small note to newsman Don Harris. The note was simple: it said they wanted to get out.

When the congressman, his aides and the reporters returned to the airfield with a group of members who wanted to leave, a truckload of armed men came to the airfield and opened fire. Ryan was killed, along with three reporters and one defector.

Back at Jonestown, with Jones exhorting them, hundreds drank cyanide-laced Flavor- Aid. Later investigation would show that needleless syringes were used to poison the infants and children first. The scene played like orchestrated chaos, according to accounts written afterward; protests were met by Jones’ defiant claims that there was no other solution, and members drank the concoction and walked away slowly, falling or lying down among their loved ones.

Until September 11, 2001, the deaths at Jonestown amounted to the greatest single-day loss of American lives ever, outside the context of a war or natural disaster. For those who gathered today, the memorial was bittersweet.

Newell, now 50, steered away from the onslaught of news cameras and reporters. He stood alone most of the time, hovering on the outskirts of the ceremony. At times he could be seen talking with other survivors, just out of reporters’ earshot.

As the crowd moved from the white tent to an area that held to first of two granite panels of the memorial wall, an older man approached Newell from the side.

“Is that Herbert?” the man asked.

Newell recognized the man right away as a friend and member from Jonestown. The immediate handshake turned to an embrace, and the two fell into conversation. They didn’t speak about death, tragedy, poison or gunfire. They spoke about Newell’s mother, Hazel, who was the “best cook,” according to Newell’s old friend.

The two men spoke like comrades who had worked together some 30 years ago and had never had the chance to catch up. They laughed, joked with each other about being older and though they talked about meeting up later at the reception, they didn’t mention anything having to do with Jones or Peoples Temple.

Newell said he doesn’t attend all the memorials, but he had flown up from his home in Los Angeles for this one because he wanted to see a few people before he forgot them.

The granite memorial wall of engraved names will end with a name that stumped the fabricators at Marin Monument. They had been given a list of names of the dead. One was said to belong to a 97-year-old person—but John Cortez, one of the monument fabricators, said that was all they knew. They did not even know whether the person was a man or a woman. Perhaps it was the daughter of a slave, Cortez said they speculated, with an unusual name. As a tribute to the ideals and hopes that the people were seeking when they went to Jonestown and the answers that died with them, they decided to make this name the last one on the wall: Everrejoicing.||||||||||||||||||||||||

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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