Being the change our Jonestown ancestors fought for

Holding candles, the large crowd gathered at the Fillmore Mini Park on Nov. 18 for the second annual Jonestown commemoration. – Photo: Elisha Rochell

by Elgin Rose, Fillmore native

On Nov. 18, I attended the second annual Jonestown commemoration in San Francisco titled African Americans in San Francisco: From Migration to Jonestown. I remember I was shocked when I first learned this tragedy involved people in my neighborhood of Fillmore, San Francisco. The New Community Leadership Foundation does a lot of events at the Fillmore Mini Park, but this one caught my eye when I came across the flyer.

Arriving at the event, the atmosphere amidst a cold, windy, San Francisco night was electric, and I was beyond appreciative that the event was taking place. It felt like the real radical vibe we used to read about from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today it frustrates me why our families and communities do not unite like the days of the past. Instead of addressing the serious challenges facing our neighborhood, it seems like the focus is over you owe me this or that. I know I have been guilty of this divide myself. I used to see only the young guys’ struggle and not the struggle of young women. I had to put my mama’s shoes on to really acknowledge the women’s struggle.

The commemoration event had two key speakers who were both women. I felt honored to be in their presence and meet them after the event: Director Sheryl Davis from the SF Human Rights Commission and Capt. Yulanda Williams of the SFPD. I just heard Director Sheryl Davis speak a few weeks ago at LinkedIn about the demographic disparities in the tech industry. She spoke with passion about her personal struggle to get to where she is in life, and her words were embedded with hope that left a lasting impression with me.

At the candlelight vigil, San Francisco Human Rights Commission Director Sheryl Davis told of the pressure the Jonestown community felt to create change in the world. – Photo: Elisha Rochell

Hearing Director Sheryl Davis speak again at the Jonestown commemoration was confirmation that I was in the right place. In her presentation, she drew from a Maya Angelou. Director Sheryl Davis explained, “I like this ideal and notion of rising … I go to Maya Angelou, the line that says, “Just like moons and like suns, / With the certainty of tides, / Just like hopes springing high, / Still I’ll rise. … Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, / I am the dream and the hope of the slave. / I rise, I rise, I rise.”

Ms. Davis spoke of the memories of Jonestown victims and the pressure they felt to create change in the world. She did not speak in the sense of having pity, but for people to have a clear understanding on why we think how we think, so we can make changes as a community. Director Davis said, “One of the things that I want to talk about is us owning and acknowledging 400 years of slavery and the impact it has on the mind and psyche and this idea that people want to hope and believe in something. And that we cannot fault people for dreaming of something better and looking for utopia and hoping for something.

“And we should recognize and acknowledge that the system is so jacked up that people have to hope and believe and work to create a better world. And I think that people got caught up in creating a better world because the world that was happening in the community was not working for us.” Her message touched the limitations of our toolbag to make progress because of the enduring effect of slavery and the emotional trauma that clearly inhibits our growth as a people. Her dedication to sharing her insights of life showed as she sat with all the other attendees in the cold, half of them wearing Fillmore Rising T-shirts, enjoying the event.

Children at the commemoration drank hot chocolate and soaked up the history of Jonestown, a major part of Black history that is too rarely discussed. – Photo: Elisha Rochell

I write this from the position of being taught very casually and minimally about the Jonestown Massacre. None of the “Fillmoe” stories in my treasure chest mention this tragedy. There are definitely feelings of shame surrounding this tragedy in the Fillmore. Obviously, there is blame, but the blame digs way beyond Jonestown. This tragedy signifies the struggle of our people in Fillmore from “urban renewal,” the “war on drugs,” red-lining, unequal education and lack of opportunities.

How long will blaming the victims be our first option? Now take that sentence and set the scene, candles burning, African drums and a young woman performing an ancient ritual dance as the crowd builds on Nov. 18, 2019, 41 years after the tragedy. Political figures are present, free food for kids and Marvin Gaye playing.

The second speaker was Capt. Yulanda Williams of SFPD, who is a survivor of Jonestown. She spoke briefly that she escaped from Guyana and so much more she didn’t have time to tell us. She said her mom came across the world to pull her from the devil’s teeth. She is now a captain of police in San Francisco and her life is a major Black woman’s story of plight and perseverance. She sat there as a civilian like everyone else, with the same disgust that I was captured by.

Why on earth isn’t this story right here a teaching tool in our communities? She was standing there telling it like it is in broad open, no political restraints on this woman. Capt. Williams explained: “You may ask what has carried me through to the point that I become a police officer this day. And it is because of my responsibility to be a person that is dutiful. I want to be of service to others. Servitude is important to me and I want to give back to others.”

SFPD Capt. Yulanda Williams, a Jonestown survivor, speaks about the dangers of gangs and cults at this commemoration event dedicated to reflection, healing and history. – Photo: Elisha

Not telling our stories might be the biggest crime we in ghetto communities commit against ourselves. Sharing the details of our life decisions is essential. In the case of the Jonestown Massacre, we must open the secret for our people to study. Capt. Yulanda Williams reveals the painful truths of the Jonestown tragedy and the everpresent dangers of gangs and cults today.

“I, like many other survivors of cults and abusive relationships, recall the manifestations of survivors’ remorse and survivorship guilt. There are even survivors who I have spoken with over the years who suffer from what is called the Stockholm syndrome, where they still choose to remain hostages and they continue to bond, identify and continue to justify the sadistic actions of the leaders of cults.”

The adoration I had for Capt. Williams when she shouted, “Power to the People,” was priceless. My neighborhood has gone through various transformations, and I totally wish we lived in the power-to-the-people era. The town hall effect of the event made you feel like there was still a community in Fillmore. This is why I read the old fight-for-justice writings and about the slums people lived in. I ask myself who can live in such oppressive circumstances. Then I look around. Oh yeah, we do.

Triumphant, powerful Black women down for their people is a vision to behold.

I mentioned wondering who had the harder road earlier – young Black men or young Black women. We all had our unique paths, and Capt. Williams’ life story is something we all can appreciate, On the days when we think our life can’t get much worse, seeing the captain still standing at the back half of such a drama filled story felt awesome. She is my own flesh and blood, Black Power!

Dancer, choreographer and teacher Natalya Shoaf performs a praise dance during the candlelight ceremony. – Photo: Elisha Rochell

My 17-year-old daughter is from the hood but naturally isn’t slowing down to smell the attractions, or so I think. I wish she’d come with me to see these powerful Black women. We got a lot of Michelle Obamas scattered, but our collective impact never outlasts our loyalty and trust.

When are we going to convene to change the rules? That’s the hard part. It feels hard to talk to others in the “hood” about solutions, and that reality condemns us. So this atonement signified the ghost of a fight for a solution, but can our spirits tap in and realize that when one of us dies, a part of us dies too. In Jonestown, it was over 900 of us.

Fillmore native Elgin Rose can be reached at newmacel@gmail.com.