There were six of us Temple boys – Johnny Cobb and Mark Cordell, my three brothers Tim, Jimmy, and Lew, and me – who attended Drew Prep on Broderick Street in San Francisco. We were all young teenagers – I was 15 – and the cockiness, obnoxiousness and surliness that often comes with the territory of the age was exaggerated by our connection to the Temple. Kind of like being in a gang. That’s how I perceived us, that is, until we bumped into the real thing.
We were playing basketball during lunch one day, a frustrating game played on a makeshift court, sandwiched between two buildings, the hoop plastered on the side rail of an emergency exit stairway. Most games were frustrating to me because I couldn’t get everything and everyone to go my way.
As it happened, I was going at one of my Temple friends who had probably gotten the better of me, or who had in some other way not performed to my liking. I was being verbally and physically abusive, a regular way of being for me. On this afternoon, a bystander got fed up with me and snapped from the sidelines that he thought I was a punk. I don’t remember what I said in retort, but I did my best “I’m a crazy tough guy” act. Unfortunately, my antagonist was one of a pair of brothers that I always referred to as The Twins. They were identical in every way that I could see: clearly maternal twins, about my age, Chinese American, usually dressed in matching black outfits. He assessed the situation and decided aloud that he would have the Joe Boys take care of me.
The Joe Boys, named for their jailed founder and leader, Joe Fong, were a serious Chinese gang with direct connections to the Chinese mafia. They were notorious for extreme measures and did not mess around with their adversaries. My big mouth had just turned me into an adversary.
The six of us in our suddenly pitiful Temple gang took our situation to Dad. We explained that I, and probably anyone associated with me at the fated moment, were marked for violence. We gave him the details of my anti-social behavior that had precipitated and perpetuated the situation. His instructions to us all were sound: Lay low; go straight to school and return straight home; stay in class during breaks; if confronted, I was to admit my wrong and apologize. I opined aloud that an apology wouldn’t solve the problem, but agreed to comply.
We made it through the next school day without incident. After the last bell, as we headed for the steps to the small building that housed the lockers, we saw about eight Chinese toughs, a few with their shirts off, blocking the doorway. Behind that group stood The Twins. Lew, Jimmy, Tim, Mark, and Johnny, who were all probably more than a little sick of the messes I kept getting us into, held back as I walked up the steps. One of the hoods with no shirt took a step forward and met me face-to-face.
I did my best to look straight in his eyes as I said that I was a hothead, that I was out of line, that they were right and I was sorry. It felt kind of good to do that. I knew it was true. But I also felt embarrassed and ashamed, because I was afraid and it was clear that my contrition arose only out of my desire to save my ass.
No-Shirt smirked and looked over his shoulder at The Twins. When he looked back, his smirk had turned into a gold-toothed sneer.
“Get on your knees.”
I stood there for just a moment before all my Temple brothers, including the one who’d been the brunt of my abuse, stepped up alongside me. I looked square at No-Shirt.
“I ain’t gettin’ on my fuckin’ knees.”
My entire group stood there surprisingly calm and sure. We all knew that if I dropped to my knees, it would get nothing but worse. And I knew then that, however sick my Temple brothers might get of me, they would not let me go down alone. There was a conviction in our stance.
No-Shirt and his boys looked us up and down, swayed from side to side a bit, and clenched their fists. At most five seconds passed before he spit the words, “You’re too big to fight. We’ll shoot your fuckin’ ass.” Then he spun and walked away with his army in tow.
The Twin looked back at me, smirked and shook his head slowly. His arrogant smile was an unnecessary punctuation mark on the threat.
Okay, so now I was on a hit list.
Somehow news of our predicament made it to Johnny Brown. Johnny Brown was a street-wise, honey-colored, green-eyed young man, twelve years my senior, who we always called by his given and surnames. He had quickly made his way to as high a level of Temple leadership as a black man ever had. He might have climbed higher if he’d slept with Dad. I can’t say for sure why that never happened, but I can think of a few reasons: the Black Sexual Prowess Myth intimidated Dad; Johnny Brown showed no inclination toward homosexuality; and he was confident and assertive. Johnny Brown was one of those people who was in the Temple for The Movement and The People, not The Leader.
Johnny Brown set right to work on caring for his own. He was from the Fillmore, the black neighborhood in San Francisco that the Temple also called its home, but his roots went deeper. Through his connections, he made his way to some of the Joe Boys’ leadership who weren’t serving jail time. It wasn’t long before he arranged a meeting to take place at Zim’s restaurant on Geary Boulevard, near Arguello – right on the border separating a black and a Chinese district – for eight on Sunday morning. I will never know how he got them to agree to that.
We got there early. I was under firm orders to be quiet, listen, follow instructions, and maybe even learn something. I was happy to obey.
Johnny Brown had assembled a small army of very large, mostly black men from the Temple, and dressed them all up in the black Temple security uniforms. He swept in the front door, with his entourage right behind him, and walked straight back to the private meeting room that was available by reservation only. We had no reservation, but management wasn’t going to argue the point. Johnny Brown placed a man every ten feet all the way around the room. Every one of them like stone, hands clasped behind their backs, jaws set, brows furrowed.
Johnny Brown and I were sitting at one end of the large banquet table when the Joe Boys contingent showed up, late and raggedy. The Twins looked as well-groomed and dour as always, but the two bosses looked like they’d crawled straight from their beds. None of them was happy to be there. I had a feeling that nights didn’t end for these guys until the sun put in an unwelcome appearance. Suddenly, Johnny Brown’s strategy was obvious even to me: our Black Muslim-like crispness and severity out-toughed their just-fallen-out-of-bed irritation and confusion.
Johnny Brown asked The Twin what his beef was. He gave a pretty good description of what had happened on the basketball court. When he was through, I told the whole story straight through to the death sentence. One of the gang leaders, who had barely looked up the entire time but had clearly assessed that they had much more than this punk white boy on their hands, asked The Twins if I had, indeed, apologized. They nodded their response. He raised his eyes to glare at them as he said, “Then what the fuck are we doing here?”
Their violence was measured and strategic, even when it seemed extreme and gratuitous. Each act had to have a payoff, and they could see none here. Johnny Brown had understood that, and I did, in fact, learn something.
* * * * *
Johnny Brown stepped in for me (again) when my mouth got me into trouble (again), this time at Hamilton Gym, a public gym two blocks away from the San Francisco Temple, in the heart of the Fillmore District. I was a very rare thing in that gym: Cracker. When we played there, I was as obvious and irritating as a pebble in a gym shoe. I played angry and mean – the word “bratty” comes to mind – to compensate for my insecurity with my pariah status. I was also quick and fluid and had a hell of an eye for the hoop when I was out of my head and on my game. But that only made it worse. A punk white boy with good game was not well received at Hamilton.
On my last visit to the gym, I quickly got on the wrong side of a brother about two years older than my fifteen, and he whopped me good with a blindside palm to the nose. My face blossomed with blood, my vision blurred with the stuff, and I was pretty dazed on top of that. Other players – those who didn’t want my white ass in the gym from the start, and those who’d played with me long enough to be sick of my shit – immediately encircled us. I would have been thumped good if Calvin Douglas hadn’t jumped in.
Calvin was a very athletic young man about my age who had joined the Temple with his mother and sister a couple of years before, and who had been a part of its Brotherhood ever since. He hadn’t seen much from me but narcissism, but I was the son of his leader and one of his Temple brothers. Many of the guys in that gym who wanted me hurt or worse had been a familiar and equal part of Calvin’s world all his life, but he didn’t falter a moment before he charged through their human wall and laid into the guy who’d attacked me. Somewhere along the way Calvin had decided I was his Brother, and to him that was a blood oath. Injury or death, exile or ridicule, Calvin had to save me, and he did. His loyalty and courage are beacons for me to this day.
So, because of Calvin – who sent my disciplinarian running – I got out of that mess with nothing more than a bruised nose and ego. The incident was duly reported to Temple authorities, of course. I don’t know at what point Johnny Brown got involved, but he took over immediately. He explained why we couldn’t let a local kid get away with attacking any of us. If we looked weak, we’d open ourselves up to further attack. Johnny Brown also knew that some in the Fillmore did not welcome the Temple whites. If we let this attack go, we could be opening ourselves up to more violent displays of our neighbors’ disapproval of our existence.
Johnny Brown said that we had to find this kid, to make it known that we were not to be fucked with. I also suspect that this drama provided an opportunity for him to flex his Temple muscle in his lifelong stomping grounds. With Dad’s approval, Johnny Brown assembled another small army to search the blocks closest to our Temple and Hamilton Gym till we found my attacker. I thought it would be like searching for a needle in a haystack, until I witnessed the tenacity and audacity that Johnny Brown brought to each door. I also got the impression that we had an idea of where to start, probably from Calvin, who knew so many of the guys who were at the gym that day.
As we scuttled from house to house, I was mortified by the image of me – this skinny, snotty white kid who seemed to look for trouble and who hightailed it back to his daddy when he found it – peeking over the burly black shoulders to rat out some guy. I felt like I’d look even more like a wimp than I did when I was pawing at my bloody face while trying to keep my assailant at bay. Still, I trotted dutifully behind as we meandered along a seemingly aimless path through the neighborhood, skipping houses and entire blocks, probably following the clues extracted from those questioned along the way.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to finger anyone. Calvin was ready, willing, and probably more able. But my memory of that night 30 years ago is that Johnny Brown found the young man on his own. He just went from house to house, interrogating teens, telling all of them to put the word out that Peoples Temple members were off limits… until one of them fingered me. The guy actually volunteered that he’d made a fountain out of my nose, at which time Mr. Brown let him know that nobody messes with anyone from the Temple. He made it clear that this would be his only warning and that he should pass the hands-off message around.
Then he told the young Brother that our doors were open to him.
Johnny Brown brought his street ways to Peoples Temple. He brought his savvy, his loyalty, his courage, his brashness, and his protectiveness. He also brought a streetwise brutishness that he cultivated and called upon when necessary.
Don’t fuck with my own.
This I can still relate to.
But there was also a meanness that Temple life and philosophy tapped into. We were dejected, rejected, outraged, and frustrated by an attachment to how it ought to be. Our brutality was a direct result of the warped existentialism that made flesh, this life, our existence all there is. If I am separate and distinct from you, I can close my heart to you. This removal from and denial of universal spirit makes any abuse possible – perpetrated and suffered. The creed of “Every man for himself” which had found its way into the consciousness of so many of us had an appeal for the arrogant teenager I was, but it shredded my chances for survival. Johnny Brown taught me that, too.
* * * * *
By the time Johnny Brown made it to Jonestown, his membership seemed to be mostly about his status within the Temple and his relationship to its people. I’m clear that the same blood oath that dictated Calvin’s actions came into play with Johnny Brown, and applied to Dad – perhaps with an added dose of deference – along with the rest of us. But a rift had opened between Dad and Johnny Brown, and grew rapidly in Jonestown. One of my strongest and fondest memories of life in Guyana is of me and Johnny Brown standing in the shadow of the Radio Room, watching the activity that often droned about the main pavilion. Dad was railing over the loudspeakers about the horrors of the United States, which was hurtling toward fascism if you believed “the news” he was slobbering on us throughout the day, usually from his bed, determined to keep our audience and control our thinking even when we weren’t assembled – or dragged – in front of him for one of our almost daily marathon meetings. His voice had become the garbage truck in the early morning to us – obnoxious and rank, but familiar and unavoidable. We stood numb and angry against the tongue and groove sides of the Radio Room, a couple of cons with their backs to a perimeter wall of a prison yard.
Johnny Brown had recently split with his wife, Ava Cobb-Brown, Temple princess to his prince. And he’d had the nerve to start up with another woman. It wasn’t long before Dad’s propaganda session slid into his next favorite address: the dismantling of someone’s character through lame innuendo and thinly veiled anonymity. He’d never say your name while he disparaged your character, but he would offer just about every bit of common knowledge of you as a description of the person he was sending a “private” message to over our most public medium. “To the green-eyed leader of our planning committee…who shall go unnamed…” or something pathetic like that. So Dad ran Johnny Brown down over the loudspeaker, decrying his weakness and selfishness for breaking from a union sanctioned by god (Dad) and “distracting himself” with a another woman when the work of the revolution was at hand…and blah and blah and blah. I stood next to Johnny Brown, in the heart of town, in stark view of hundreds of our people, and I watched him. He didn’t flinch, smile, or scowl. He gave us – he gave Dad – nothing but a straight ahead stare till Dad’s voice trailed off to Barbituania, then returned on a different subject. At that moment, Johnny Brown bumped himself up off the Radio Room wall, hawked up and spit a good one hard at the ground, and said, “I’m gonna go relax at cottage 54.”
Which is where his new lady lived.
I’ve read and have been told that Leo Ryan’s party saw Johnny Brown as an enforcer. He showed Leon Broussard the same face when Leon expressed his discontent with Jonestown life and then escaped. I don’t justify this, but offer some understanding when I say that with both Leon and the congressman’s party, Johnny Brown was defending his people – his community – from outside threat and intervention. “It may not be good here, we may need fixing, but that’s up to us. Do not stick your nose in our business. Do not threaten us. These are my people. All of them. Do not fuck with us.”
I also suspect that my dear Brother Johnny Brown, like so many of us, was doing whatever was necessary to defend the choice he’d made, and the years and spirit he’d poured into it.
(Stephan Jones is a frequent contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this edition are Ankles and Assholes, Death’s Night, and Reunion. He was also a speaker during the Griot Institute of African Studies lecture series entitled Jonestown: 35 Years Later at Bucknell University; his presentation appears on this page (scroll down the videos). His earlier writings for this website appear here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)