Opening his defense of Dan White for the November 1978 San Francisco City Hall killings of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, attorney Doug Schmidt introduced a spooky and evocative rationale to justify a plea of not guilty. Schmidt attempted to connect the dual assassinations with the suicide-murders just days before of more than 900 men, women and children who had followed the Rev. Jim Jones from the Peoples Temple on San Francisco’s Geary Boulevard to the jungle outpost of Jonestown, Guyana.
Almost as shocking as those bloody events was the San Francisco jury’s acceptance of Schmidt’s argument and White’s seemingly ludicrous conviction on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. The explosion that followed White’s sentence rattles us a quarter-century later.
The verdict was a third blow shaking the city to its core; the system was denounced, the jury reviled and City Hall trashed in the White Night riot.
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Twenty-five years have passed since the terrible 10 days that encompassed Jonestown and the Moscone and Milk murders. Maybe now we can find reason and even wisdom in the jury’s decision, which seemed so out-of-bounds then.
But if, as I believe, there has been a moral and political recompense for the City Hall slayings, there is no such salve for the mass extinction at Jonestown. That monstrous, haunting crime, like the site in the Guyanese jungle, lies forgotten, overgrown, with no expiation possible unless it is resurrected, re-examined and truly laid to rest.
At the time, no such distancing was possible between what the White jury, and all San Franciscans, believed in their heart of hearts: That the events of Jonestown and the Moscone-Milk killings were intertwined. Perhaps not in the way that Warren Hinckle or the Bay Guardian sought to tie the events together as a Kennedy assassination-style conspiracy. But perhaps more so than in the way Schmidt connected the two in his opening statement in the White trial, which alluded to “the atmosphere created by the Jonestown Peoples Temple tragedy.”
Without question, however, the strange interregnum that followed what was remembered as the Kool-Aid cataclysm of Jonestown (an inaccurate part of what has become the legend of Jonestown; it was actually Grape Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide) was a time that unhinged all of San Francisco, including Dan White, the recently resigned member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
But it was White who, nine days after Jonestown, grabbed his gun, sneaked through a basement window into City Hall and made his rendezvous with destiny. Part of the connectedness involved the weird coincidences. The White Night riot, named after Dan White, for example, recalled the White Night drills, the exercises at the Peoples Temple at which untainted Flavor-Aid was passed out to followers. The idea was to get them used to the notion that at some point they would be called on to give their all for Jim Jones.
Part of the connection between the events came through media coverage. Each day between Saturday, Nov. 18, and Monday, Nov. 27, new and terrible video, photos and revelations emanated from the jungle retreat where many former San Franciscans had chosen, been coerced or programmed to join the man they called “Father”. Before Sept. 11, Jonestown was the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster.
In the deepening shadow of the then-unimaginable carnage, Dan White’s dopey attempt to reclaim the supervisorial seat he had petulantly renounced the week before spelled something like comic relief. Part of the interwoven nature of the two events derived from the idea that if Jim Jones and Dan White were ideological opposites, they were psychological twins. Jones, a socialist, was a newcomer to the increasingly left-leaning politics of San Francisco. White was a reactionary former cop and fireman, an Irish kid from the neighborhoods who believed that the San Francisco of his birthright was being stolen by newcomers like Harvey Milk and Jim Jones.
The early ’70s were the best of times for Jim Jones and the several thousand members of the Peoples Temple. Many had followed the charismatic preacher from Ukiah to San Francisco in 1972 or had joined after the church set up its headquarters on Geary Boulevard. The 1975 election, which brought liberals like District Attorney Joseph Freitas and Moscone to power, had been a watershed — the first time that the San Francisco left was able to overcome the powerful conservative establishment that had run the city for so long. It had been a close election. In that year’s mayoral election, Moscone won a runoff against Republican real estate mogul John Barbagelata. The perception was that the election had been won through the support of Jim Jones,
who had been able to turn out hundreds of volunteers — well-dressed, polite and seemingly tireless Peoples Temple members who had gone door to door for Moscone. Barbagelata died in 1994, believing that Moscone’s narrow runoff victory had been the work of Peoples Temple members bussed in from out of town.
Moscone was grateful to Jones, appointing him chairman of the powerful San Francisco Housing Commission. Initially, Jones seemed to fit right into the city’s liberal establishment; the Peoples Temple was celebrated as one of America’s truly biracial religious congregations.
But if, by the late ’70s, Jim Jones was insinuating himself in the San Francisco power structure, there were questions beginning to be raised about some of the less savory goings-on inside the Peoples Temple. Throughout 1977, Jones allies in high editorial positions in the local media thwarted attempts to investigate. Nor was it editors and publishers alone who caviled before Jones. Political allies such as Mayor Moscone, Assemblymen and future mayors Art Agnos and Willie Brown, and others worked behind the political scenes to protect Jones and the Peoples Temple.
When he started to feel the heat of scrutiny, Jones was able to move the Peoples Temple to Guyana virtually lock, stock and pulpit. Perhaps worst of all, he was able to escape with hundreds of mostly black children, and the wards of various Bay Area social services agencies initially delighted to turn them over to foster parents within the Peoples Temple. Virtually all shared the fate of their parents and guardians.
The children’s abduction was one of the causes of the November 1978 mission to Jonestown by Congressman Leo Ryan, whose killing at the Guyana airstrip by armed Peoples Temple “soldiers” triggered the White Night suicides.
Nine days later, in the chaotic hour between the city hall shootings and White’s arrest, many police and other officials believed that Moscone and Milk were murdered by spookily named “White Night” hit squads rumored to have been sent by the Peoples Temple to avenge Jim Jones. When authorities went through the personal effects left behind in San Francisco by Jones, they found a hit list with the names of erstwhile political friends and allies like George Moscone and Willie Brown.
It had, however, been Dan White, who had pulled the trigger on Moscone and Harvey Milk. And in the end, despite the howls of anger at the verdict, White’s punishment fit the crime. After a short term in state prison, White left for exile in Ireland. Unable to make a go there, he returned to San Francisco, where his shunning was total. Unable to stand the rejection, in October 1985 White asphyxiated himself in his garage.
Many felt it was a just and fitting end.
Beyond Dan White’s demise, a political expiation of sorts has come out of the Moscone/Milk assassinations. Moscone, had be lived, would likely have suffered the same fate as Freitas, the district attorney brought down by the fallout from Jonestown and the White verdict. Instead, Moscone was replaced by Dianne Feinstein, then politically moribund as president of the Board of Supervisors. But she showed such courage and grace after the assassinations that she steadied a city driven nearly mad by the dual tragedies of November, 1978. Since, she has transformed herself into arguably the most important local political figure of the last half-century.
Harvey Milk, in death, has a place in the pantheon. Perhaps more than he ever could in life, Milk has become a symbol of how the oppressed can take control of their political lives and triumph over sexual apartheid in America. Congressman Leo Ryan’s legacy came in the form of the political triumphs of his aide, Jackie Speier, who was wounded at Jonestown. She is now a state senator.
There has been no grace or forgiveness for the victims of Jonestown. From the grave, they still demand justice and recognition, particularly the children, who would today be in their 30s.
Each year around this time, a dwindling group of those who remember congregates at the paupers’ graves in Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery, the resting place for many of the victims of Jonestown. It’s a symbol of society’s neglect and forgetfulness that the turnout is so meager.
Richard Rapaport is a San Francisco writer and a political commentator on BBC 5 Live.