The Courage of Dissent

by Bonnie Yates

“You got to be awful careful about dissent. Dissent better be over something mighty crucial, mighty crucial.” – Jim Jones, Tape Q781, April 1978

To say that dissent was frowned upon in Jonestown is an understatement. Those who dared to challenge Jim Jones and his edicts faced the possibility of the most severe punishments that Jim could exact. These included public berating and beatings at community meetings, intense scrutiny, being ostracized, being put on “learning crew” (a disciplinary crew expected to work harder and faster than other groups, and on harder tasks) and other types of physical assault. For the most serious cases, it meant being drugged and isolated in the infirmary.

Dissent in Jonestown could be passive-aggressive or overt. For the purposes of this article, I shall first go over the passive-aggressive forms of dissent, and then the more overt.

Passive-Aggressive Dissent in Jonestown

Perhaps the most recognizable forms of passive-aggressive dissent in Jonestown were the runaways. Passive-aggressive behavior is defined as “expressing aggression in a non-assertive, subtle way” (Wikipedia). In the time that Jonestown was inhabited, many individuals attempted to run away from the encampment. Tape Q933, recorded in November of 1977, captures the Jonestown community in the middle of a meeting about Thom Bogue and Brian Davis, two runaways who have been caught and returned. Jim Jones and the audience are furious with the two teenagers. In a desperate attempt to dissuade others who are contemplating similar action, Jones tells the teens that there “is a law… making everyone in the country [of Guyana] responsible for returning Temple members to Jonestown.” Jones also tells the assemblage that, “There’s no possible way we can tolerate anarchy… no possible way that we can tolerate people going out and living on their own.” Thom Bogue’s mother, Edith, shows her anger by slapping her son several times in front of the crowd.

The problem of people attempting to run away is tackled in other tapes. In Q380, dated mid-October of 1978, another meeting is being held about how to handle runaways. Jones is quick to reprimand those who have thought about leaving the encampment, reminding everyone that socialists “do not behave that way.” Tape Q265, from October 17, 1978, roughly the same time, sees Jones threatening his followers with what he says are the consequences of running away. He says that the Guyanese Defense Force, or GDF, has “authorized turning our licensed weapons” against runaways. If the dissidents were to get past the guards, Jones adds, they would face the animals in the jungle, such as tigers and venomous snakes. There are also “hired mercenaries” of the Concerned Relatives – the oppositional group of former Temple members and relatives of Jonestown residents – who are “waiting for a weak point.” Should the runaways make it to the border with Venezuela, Jones tells them, the GDF would shoot them because “it’s illegal to cross that border… They’ll shoot ya.” Finally, even if the would-be runaways should make it through 200 miles of jungle to Georgetown and try to get either a clearance from the Guyana Tax Board or a passport from the US Embassy, the Temple’s friends in the government would “let us know if anybody’s trying to get out.” Finally, there is Q217, a third tape from mid-October, recorded roughly one month prior to the visit by Congressman Ryan, in which Jones once again warns his community against running away, saying that “it is illegal to run away and be in the jungle,” and that the runaways will be dealt with harshly, but “not by your comrades” in Jonestown. Instead, Jones threatens that the GDF will simply shoot and kill anyone who attempts to leave Jonestown. Throughout it all, the Temple leader professes to be confused as to why anyone would want to leave the “body of socialism” that is Jonestown.

There is another example of passive-aggressive dissent by Jonestown resident. Heartbroken over a failed relationship and seeing no way out of Jonestown, a teenager named Ricky Johnson attempted to kill himself by drinking three cups of gasoline, in late July of 1978. Jones was beside himself about it, ranting in Tape Q190, that “the suicide of even one person in the community would give aid and comfort to the racists in America.” Jones continues in this vein in Tape Q318, made a few days later, on August 1: “Don’t commit suicide, ‘cause you get your ass in a worse grab bag.… You’ll go back 500 generations. Ten thousand years.” Jones was incensed with Ricky’s attempt, and refused to let it go, raising it on numerous occasions in the weeks to come.

But the larger issue is suicide. In instructions given to the Jonestown community on October 16, 1978, Jones rattles on about why the residents should never consider it, stating, “Suicide is silly and it is a waste of your own potential. Your whole potential. Think of what you could do if you would not internalize that violence by self-destruction and think towards the enemy… You’re not thinking, you’re not caring, you’re feeling too sorry for yourself.” He invites anyone who is feeling suicidal to notify him of their feelings in a note, at which time they will be given medication to bring them out of their depression. “You will not be brought on the floor,” he promises. (Many times in Jonestown, and prior to that, in the United States, people who had committed transgressions against Jones and/or members of Peoples Temple were “brought up on the floor”: that is, they were singled out in front of the entire community and forced to stand directly in front of Jones, who would then verbally attack them before meting out punishment for their misdeeds. Punishment could be as simple as verbal berating, or as vicious as spankings, beatings or, in Jonestown, being put on Learning Crew). We see in the numerous tapes from mid-October 1978 that Jones was extremely distressed by the idea that some of his community might attempt suicide as a form of protest against him and his policies.

The Dissent of Stephan Jones (Aided by Marceline Jones)

Stephan Jones, Jim Jones’ son, often showed dissent towards his father in Jonestown. Stephan’s dissent was both passive-aggressive and overt, i.e., “open to view or knowledge; not concealed or secret” (Dictionary.com). Stephan’s feelings towards his father had been soured long before they went to Jonestown when Stephan learned that his father had several relationships – some long term, some short term – with a number of women. Stephan was very close to his mother Marceline, so close, in fact, that in Jonestown, they often stood together in opposition of Jones. It was Stephan’s dissent (often backed by his mother) that ended many “White Nights” (Reiterman 425). Stephan and Marceline’s bloc of dissent was considered so subversive by Jones that he had both of them watched so that he could “put a stop to anything serious that might happen” (Reiterman 399). Indeed, it was during an early “White Night” in Jonestown that Stephan told his father to stop, stating, “You’re putting people through unnecessary pain” (Reiterman 391).

According to Raven, Tim Reiterman’s history of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, Stephan even contemplated killing his father or doing something to remove him from power. “Stephan knew it would be physically easy to remove Jones, but a blatant power grab or coup would never go over with the loyalists” (Reiterman 456).

Stephan also engaged in some passive-aggressive dissent towards his father. For example, Stephan built a basketball court in Jonestown against his father’s wishes. Jim Jones felt that sports were a part of capitalist society, and unworthy of the socialist group in Jonestown. Stephan built it anyway, for the enjoyment of himself, his brothers and his friends.

Stephan’s final act of dissent towards his father was a powerful one. When Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown, Stephan and a handful of other young men were in Guyana’s capital for a basketball tournament. Worried about what would happen when the congressman arrived, Jim Jones got on the HAM radio in Jonestown and called the Georgetown headquarters, ordering his son and the rest of the basketball team to return to Jonestown post-haste. Stephan refused to do so. A few days later – on the fateful day of November 18, 1978, as the people in Jonestown were dying – Jones sent out a last set of frantic orders to his son, ordering Stephan and the others on the basketball team to “get revenge” on the enemies of Peoples Temple there in Georgetown before they themselves committed suicide. Stephan did not get to speak directly to his father at that moment, but he again went against his father’s wishes. Stephan not only countermanded the final order, he also contacted the Temple members in San Francisco and told them not to do anything unless he said so. It was a message he repeated throughout the night. In taking a stand against his father’s final wishes, there is no doubt that Stephan saved many lives.

Group Dissent During A “White Night”

Tapes Q641 through Tapes Q644 document a “White Night” in February of 1978 in which Jones tells the community that it is under threat of attack. He asks the people of Jonestown to make a decision as to what they all should do. Jones is upset because they cannot get a license for their doctor, Larry Schacht, to practice medicine in Guyana, they cannot get Jones made a marriage officer in Guyana, and the members of the Guyanese government who are friendly with Jonestown are out of the country. Due to these “emergencies,” Jones advocates “Revolutionary Suicide,” that is, that they take poison and die quickly. He does, however, give his people three other options. They can 1) stand firm in Jonestown and possibly fight whatever soldiers might invade; 2) attempt to emigrate to a friendly country, such as Russia or Cuba; or 3) go out into the jungle and attempt to survive as a group in the bush.

In general, however, the people of Jonestown disagree with their leader’s preferred option. Even those who argue for Revolutionary Suicide see it only as a last resort, not as the first or immediate solution to the problem.

Overt Dissent in Jonestown

Beyond these general examples, there are three other documented instances of overt dissent in Jonestown.

The first is a memo written by Harriet Sarah Tropp to Jim Jones in August of 1978. Although rising in the leadership ranks during Jonestown’s last year, Harriet may have felt strong enough to dissent or was willing to jeopardize her role – or both – when she wrote a memo on “the uglification of Jonestown.” Filmmaker Don Freed is on his way to Jonestown, and the residents are trying to follow Jones’ orders to make the community more visually appealing, but the attempt fell far short of what was envisioned.

“I hope this doesn’t sound like an ‘I told you so’ document, but here goes,” Harriet begins, then goes on to describe the attempts at beautifying Jonestown as a “fiasco.” Guyanese natives gave the people of Jonestown good advice about altering the landscape, but their advice was ignored because “Dad (Jim Jones) wants it done” and “there must be a way” to complete the work as Jones wants it. “We have created more ugliness in the attempt to beautify, simply because we went against all the experience and sound advice regarding such projects being attempted in the rainy season.” She follows this with a bold and pointed statement: “I think the above [ways in which Jonestown was made ugly] serves to highlight a problem we have in decision making. That is, if you (Jim Jones) say you want something done, we ignore any advice we’ve been given and we go against our own judgment, and go ahead.” Almost as if repeating the obvious to a stubborn child, she continues, “The cardinal objective condition in the tropics is the weather. You can’t fight it. I’m sorry if any of this sounds intemperate, but I am extremely upset at the ugly mess I see we’ve made of this project, especially with guests coming. And it was all unnecessary, if we’d just followed advice [italics in original].”

Her concluding remarks are even more challenging to her leader. “I think the essence of the problem, or at least one aspect of it, is that no one is willing to oppose your opinion in certain matters. And I frankly think that some times you are wrong, and no one is willing to say so. I realize that this is quite a volatile statement, but I think it is one factor in the dynamics of how this organization functions that gets us in trouble.”

With this one memo, Harriet is truly placing herself – her leadership role, her position in the community, maybe even her physical well-being – on the line. Disagreeing with certain policies, etc, was one thing, but this is a direct criticism of Jim Jones. Although we do not know whether Harriet was punished for her memo, one can imagine that it must have led Jones to at least consider it. As we will see in the case of Eugene Chaikin, such dissent was not tolerated in Jonestown.

The next example of overt dissent in Jonestown is that of Eugene Chaikin. Gene was Jim Jones’ personal lawyer in Jonestown, dealing with such legal matters as the custody battle over John Victor Stoen.

Gene’s dissent was sparked by the “Six Day Siege” of September 1977, during which Jones ordered the residents of Jonestown to take up primitive and makeshift weapons – including farm tools such as shovels and hoes – and encircle the encampment in order to protect it, and, ostensibly, him from the threat of arrest. Periodically during the ordeal, Jones would get on the radio with the Guyanese and threaten mass suicide if he could not be guaranteed sanctuary and freedom in Jonestown.

Gene had been dealing with Jones’ trials and tribulations firsthand for a long time, but when he saw his two children, Gail and David, standing with other members around Jonestown, holding machetes and “waiting for an imminent attack,” he lost it. As a trusted member of the inner circle around Jones, Gene had access to his passport – the vast majority of Jonestown residents did not – and used it to fly out of the country. From the relative safety of separation from the jungle encampment – but mindful that his wife and children were still there – he wrote Jones a scathing letter. “I left because I am no longer willing to live in a situation of weekly or biweekly crisis, and the atmosphere of anxiety, hysteria and depression that exist with it… I feel that the crisis environment is to some extent created and maintained by your state of mind and methodology.” Commenting on the John Victor Stoen custody crisis, Gene states his belief that if Jones would have waited out the situation and not threatened their host country, their friends in the government would have taken care of the problem. “A relatively modest and ultimately controllable incident was made, by you, into a catastrophe of major proportions… This whole thing has been handled in a hysterical and destructive fashion [italics in original].”

Gene initially ended his letter with the observation that “I have substantially lost confidence in your leadership because of this type of thing.” But after re-reading it, he added the following, “In summary: I think you have gotten so ‘uptight’ that you use bullets to kill bumblebees, but that you only have so many in your pocket and when the tigers come, you will have none left to fire at them. I think that this has become reactive on your part… I think that to some extent you use the ‘crisis mentality’ to get positive reinforcement and approval.”

“I detest being lied to and manipulated,” the letter concludes. “You have, over the years, done a lot of both…. How would you feel if I had ever (and I never have) knowingly gave false factual reports or false legal opinions to you in order to manipulate your behavior? Would you find that conduct acceptable in me on the grounds that: (1) my goal was pure (2) the ends justified the means (3) I understood the situation better than you? Hell no you wouldn’t – you would be totally pissed when you found out…You leave me very few choices. Phyllis [Gene’s wife who agreed with how Jones handled the situation] will come in tonight and I suppose we will talk… but I think you and I now have very little to say to each other.”

Jones was devastated by the letter, but Gene’s campaign didn’t end there. He went on to the Temple headquarters in San Francisco, where he would repeat his concerns regarding Jones’ leadership to practically anyone who would listen. It was serious enough that Jim’s wife Marceline Jones relayed Gene’s disgruntlement to her husband over the two-way radio. Gene’s dissent would come to be known as “the Chaikin crisis.”

Jones wanted Gene back in Jonestown as soon as possible, and sent Phyllis out to get him. It probably wasn’t necessary. Gene could not stomach the idea of leaving his children behind in Jonestown and passed on his last opportunity to defect from the Temple. Almost immediately upon his return, he was drugged: his food was spiked with Thorazine, a powerful sedative. Jones also ordered that Gene be kept under surveillance. In his 2008 article, “From Silver Lake to Suicide,” Barry Isaacson notes, “Gene spent much of what remained of his life heavily sedated and was for some of this time confined to the ‘Extended Care Unit,’ which housed dissidents being ‘resocialized’ — in the room next to where Phyllis worked as nurse administrator of the medical staff.” This was Gene’s punishment for standing up to Jones.

The drug regimen was not constant, though. Occasionally, up until the last day in Jonestown, Gene was seen working with his beloved horticulture in the community, or doing some light legal work for the Temple, but if dignitaries visited from the outside – such as the Russian Embassy, for example – Gene was nowhere to be found. Neither was he around on November 17 and 18, when his friend, Charles Garry – a San Francisco lawyer who had represented the Temple for a number of years – looked for him. He was likely in the Extended Care Unit.

The most overt dissent in Jonestown is that of Christine Miller, whose disagreement with Jim Jones was caught on Tape Q042, the so-called “death tape.” This tape captures the final moments in Jonestown as the murder/suicides are about to begin. Jones has assembled his community in the pavilion and leads the discussion of revolutionary suicide. “So my opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece,” Jones says, “and step over quietly, because we are not committing suicide. It’s a revolutionary act. We can’t go back. They won’t leave us alone. They’re now going back to tell more lies, which means more congressmen. And there’s no way, no way we can survive.”

At this point, Jones makes a tactical error: he invites anyone who has a dissenting opinion to speak up. Christine Miller seizes the opportunity and attempts to save the people of Jonestown. As Jones tries to convince his people that it is time to die, she asks, “Is it too late for Russia?” (Jones had previously mentioned to the group that they might be able to leave Guyana and live in the Soviet Union.) Jones is quick to reply that Russia is not an option, then proclaims, “I’ve been living on a hope for a long time, Christine, and I appreciate– You’ve always been a very good agitator. I like agitation, because you have to see two sides of one issue, two sides of a question.”

If this is an attempt to buy her off, it doesn’t work. Christine continues to argue with him. “I think that there were too few who left for twelve hundred people to give them their lives for those people that left.” The interplay continues back and forth until Christine says, “I still think, as an individual, I have a right to– to say what I think, what I feel. And I think we all have a right to our own destiny as individuals.” Jones says he agrees with her, at least in the abstract, but by this point in the tape, Jones’ supporters are furious with her. Numerous women can be heard putting her down, until finally, Jim McElvane tells her that she “is only standing here because of him [Jones].” Eventually, with only hostility coming her way – and no sign of support – Christine relents, and no more is heard of her on the tape. Even though she decided to die with the community, her dissent, at such a critical moment, is an incredible testament to her character.

The Meaning of Dissent in Jonestown

The dissent in Jonestown, both passive-aggressive and overt, tells us something. It tells us that the residents of Jonestown were not brainwashed, as some would have us believe. Even though doing so was extremely risky, there were people who dared to disagree with Jones. When we acknowledge that there was dissent in Jonestown, we have to acknowledge that the people there were human beings who had courage to face adversity, people who were brave enough to stand up and buck the system that Jim Jones had designed to crush them.

Yes, there was a tyrant in Jonestown, but there were also heroes.

References

Isaacson, Barry. “From Silver Lake to Suicide.”

Reiterman, Tim, with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982; reprinted by New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2008.

(Bonnie Yates is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition is Eugene Chaikin: A Story from Jonestown. Her previous writings are collected here. She may be reached here.)

Last modified on November 14th, 2013.
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