In the Image of Jonestown

In the Image of Jonestown

In our flattened historical imagination, pictures of atrocity and those of progress can coincide in unsettling ways.


At first glance, there does seem to be something a bit out of touch, even menacing, about the scene. A small gathering of white people kneel before a Black man and woman seated on a park bench. Some of the white people appear to be washing the man’s and woman’s feet. A white woman in a red shirt strolls around with a megaphone intoning, “Repent on behalf of, uh, Caucasian people.” She then pulls over three people in what appear to be first-responder and police uniforms, who take a knee in what looks like an act of deep penitence. From the pavement, a man with a British accent leads the group through a prayer. “We stand here confessing…repenting for our aggression, repenting for our pride…for thinking we are better, that we are above.”

The captions tell you that the Black people are “protesters” and the white people are white people, and that this is happening in Cary, N.C., which doesn’t mean much to the vast majority of the audience watching this minute-long clip on their phones. The protests are national, which means this scene could happen anywhere, and what it shows reflects not on specific cities or people but rather on “the movement” as a whole. By the time it becomes clear these are church people and this ritual is a religious tradition and not some inevitable metastasizing of identity politics, wokeness, or critical race theory, the clip has already projected a vision of the future filled with bizarre rites, inversions of the social order, and a multicultural coalition of weird people acting out an expression of white guilt.

The obvious points of comparison here are the icons of the burned-out radical ’70s, whether the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weather Underground, or, most dramatically, Jonestown. In these viral fantasies, the foot washers of Cary become the congregation of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. The water is always Kool-Aid, even when the metaphor doesn’t quite fit.

History on the Internet gets deliberated in two ways: Someone is always telling you that nothing like this has ever happened before, while someone else says that actually, this thing happens all the time. (Right now, I can hear people protesting, “But that’s how history has always worked.”) There’s no reason to litigate whether this compulsion is a good thing or a bad thing—for better or worse, it’s where we are—but we can, at the very least, trace the paths these types of argument take. Whether it was a bizarre ritual or a perhaps clumsy and too earnestly stated commitment to anti-racism, this event has certain symmetries with other things that happened in the past.

Those who say “This is how it’s always been” are right about one thing: The visual history of dissent in America has always been carefully edited. From a young age, we are indoctrinated through images that separate the good—the Boston Tea Party, Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, Gandhi sitting cross-legged in the dust—from the bad. These categories are under a slow but constant negotiation. In my lifetime, Muhammad Ali and Harvey Milk went from being lightning rods for controversy to achieving a type of American sainthood. Their iconography comes in the form of stirring photographs and video clips that gesture toward the ideals we say we hold.

These saints serve a dual, seemingly contradictory function: They personalize political action by showing that you, too, can change the world, but they also build boundaries around the political imagination. In my high school history class, we learned that Harriet Tubman was good and John Brown was bad. No explanation was provided, nor was it necessary. Tubman always looked serene and determined; Brown, wild-haired and seditious. We might not have been able to articulate the difference, but we were taught to know it when we saw it. All of this, of course, predates the Internet.

Nowadays, those litigations seem to take place in real time without any coherence or narrative. Every day, we see some image or footage that convinces us that we have entered a new era, which then triggers demands to see the unedited version, which in turn reveals some truth to someone else. This is not a new phenomenon, but the speed of associations and the manic need to separate good dissent from bad dissent has paradoxically inspired mass acts of forgetting. When everything is just like some other historical thing, nothing is remembered for what it actually was.

Two abstractions battle it out: the world the protesters want, and the equally utopian, thoroughly scrubbed history in which every “good” revolution took place without a drop of blood shed or an inelegant phrase uttered. For the latter, history does not provide context or clarity. Instead, it works as a polemic that obscures anything that does not sync up with the edited reel of saints: Gandhi in rags, King at the March on Washington, John Lewis taking his first steps across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Just months before they set off for the jungles of Guyana, Jim Jones and the congregation of the Peoples Temple stood in front of the International Hotel in San Francisco, a single-resident-occupancy building in what was then called Manilatown. Stripped of context, the images from that night could serve as a type of nostalgia porn for the radical ’70s. The fight to save the hotel and its population of mostly impoverished, elderly Filipino men had been taken up by a coalition of Asian American, gay, and student activists. The Peoples Temple, whose congregation was mostly Black, provided foot soldiers for a prolonged confrontation. When the police finally arrived to evict the tenants, they were met by a multiracial, working-class coalition who put their bodies on the line to save housing for the indigent.

Everyone knows the plot twist at Jonestown. The set-up is assumed: A charismatic leader entices nearly a thousand impressionable young people to follow him into the jungle. The center does not hold. Nine hundred bodies are laid out for the obligatory helicopter shot. All the other gaps are filled in with the assumption that all the things Jones preached, whether apocalyptic gospel, communism, or equality among the races, will go bad when taken to extremes. This may well be the correct way to think about Jones, a mass murderer who led a mostly Black congregation to its death, including members of his own “rainbow family.”

“Jonestown fulfilled the most dire warnings of its opponents,” write John R. Hall, Philip D. Schuyler, and Sylvaine Trinh in their book Apocalypse Observed. “After the murders and mass suicide, Peoples Temple became the quintessence of the ‘cult,’ stereotypically portrayed as an organization that drains both property and free will from its members and ‘brainwashes’ them into a ‘group mind.’” There are certainly cults that do these things, but Hall and his coauthors’ scholarship makes an important distinction between Jones, the con-man preacher, megalomaniac, and murderer, and his congregation. The latter “sought to participate in an integrated community that transcended persistent racism in the United States. In a society where the practice of religion is largely segregated from everyday socioeconomic organization and practice, the group infused its members’ working lives and social relationships with new ‘religious’ meaning.”

Religious lessons about loving one’s neighbors and caring for the less fortunate, in other words, had been tangibly expressed by the Peoples Temple. Something similar could be said about the church’s ideas of socialist liberation: Well before Jones ever stood in front of a congregation, the left had sought what, in modern terms, would be called a “multiracial, working-class movement” built on solidarity and shared struggle. What that actually might look like has been clouded by history, in no small part by efforts to cast any type of communal living or emancipatory action as yet another Jonestown. I am not trying to make excuses for Jim Jones here or even to entirely separate the flock from its doomsday apostle—Jones did not act alone in Jonestown, and the killing of children, in particular, had to be carried out by loyal followers. Nor do I wish to argue that Jonestown’s role as a cautionary tale comes entirely from some unfair twisting of its intentions—918 dead are 918 dead.

But I first encountered the photos from the International Hotel a couple of years ago, while doing research for my upcoming book. While I recoiled at the sight of Jones with his dark sunglasses and bouffy hair, these were exactly the types of pictures that work well in the turbine of online historical associations: See? There have been examples of multiracial, working-class solidarity. The association with Jones, of course, made them unusable, but I wondered why there were so few obvious replacements.

The images of good dissent are frequently segregated: Good oppressed people make a good peaceful protest, and good white people make some good difficult decisions. After a hard night of deliberation, Lincoln frees the slaves. The utopian visions that fall under the most scrutiny are always the ones where people from different backgrounds rise up together in the name of a radical reimagining of the world. The paradox is that while the scrubbed-history utopians call for “unity” or “togetherness,” they also quietly disqualify every example of solidarity, whether Harper’s Ferry, the Rainbow Coalition, or the foot washers of Cary.

Last summer, as I watched the police tear-gas thousands of protesters, I wondered what might happen to all the people who had confronted cops in riot gear. There is nothing quite as radicalizing as getting tear-gassed by the police. Most, I imagined, would go home, post heartfelt missives on social media, and return to their lives. But some, I knew, would have their lives changed forever. Would we see a resurgence of the type of radicalism that defined the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a body count to match?

Just before the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, videos, photos, and tweets began to issue from a group calling itself Black Hammer, which claimed to have “liberated” a nonarable 200 acres of land in the mountains of Colorado. They spoke in the dense, comical jargon of academic anti-colonialism, posted video missives in clown makeup, denounced Anne Frank as “amerikan propaganda,” and called for burning copies of her diary. They seemed so perfectly engineered to evoke Jonestown that I wondered, half-seriously, if they might be a deep state operation to freak out the squares and elicit comparisons to the Peoples Temple, which, needless to say, soon followed. Over the next few days, I looked through everything Black Hammer had posted online. While there wasn’t much to like or even understand, I could sense the desperation of young people who had no meaningful pathway into politics. If things go bad for them—and it seems likely they will—Black Hammer will slide into the litany that includes Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate. Little will be said about the conditions that created them, and even less will be written about those who felt the same sense of urgency, imagined something that did not turn the gears of history, and found some separate peace.

We are already in an era of manifestos, separatist cults, and acts of mass violence. But the vast majority of these come from the far right. The historical-comparison machine has coded the participants as “fascists” or “white supremacists,” which they may well be. But for those who lament that the center, once again, has lost its hold, the history of dissent teaches only one lesson: Stay in your lane or watch the bodies pile up. Given the accumulating crises of the past five years, it might seem reasonable, or at least excusable, to reduce everything to a warning.

Today, history itself has become a front in the culture war. Several state legislatures have passed vaguely written laws that effectively ban the teaching of this country’s racist past. Videos of concerned parents screaming at school boards about critical race theory go viral every day. These efforts should be called what they are: an attempt to turn the narrative of last summer from an organic uprising of millions of Americans from all racial and class backgrounds into a conspiracy run by intellectuals, Marxists, and the progressive elite. It’s incumbent on anyone who cares about emancipatory politics to resist these laws and the chaos they will unleash, but if we are ever to get out of these endless culture wars, we must also rethink the space these linear histories take up and ensure that we’re not just replacing one fully determinative, alluringly symmetrical narrative with another. We must stop thinking that the problems of the present can only be understood by finding corollaries in the past. Not everything is Jonestown, including Jonestown.

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