Jonestown massacre - 25 years later

Daily Journal/November 17, 2003
By Dana Yates

The name alone brings back scattered images of dead bodies in the hot jungle sun, victims of a dangerous cult lured into death. It also conjures up indelible memories of a congressman shot dead while trying to help them.

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Congressman Leo J. Ryan in the jungles of Guyana by followers of Jim Jones and the People's Temple. Ryan was shot at an airstrip and his political aide Jackie Speier, now a state senator, was seriously injured.

It's a story many are familiar with but Ryan's daughter, Erin Ryan, believes the power of her father's message is waning with today's youth. She wants tomorrow's politicians to learn not only about her father's untimely death, but also about his fight for civil liberties and human understanding.

"There's a whole new generation who haven't heard of Jonestown or my father," said Ryan, who now works for Speier. "I don't want them to learn about him being the first congressman to be assassinated in the line of duty. It's his broader career that matters. It's the things he did here as an elected official that were truly outstanding."

On Nov. 14, 1978, Ryan paid the ultimate price for his unwavering quest for the truth. While on a fact-finding mission to the jungles of Guyana, he and a coalition of staff members and press were gunned down on an airstrip near Jonestown by members of the People's Temple.

Speier was then a young staff member serving the congressman. She was one of nine people critically injured and still has a bullet lodged in her body. Ryan, three members of the press and one defector were killed.

That evening, 909 members of the People's Temple along with Jones were found dead at their compound after drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and other poison. The images of the dead were broadcast across the news the next day.

Ryan's daring trip into a dangerous area wasn't his first. For Ryan it was just one of many unorthodox techniques he chose to understand the people he represented.

As an assemblyman, Ryan volunteered to teach in Los Angles during the 1965 Watts riots. He wanted to learn first-hand the issues of racism and inequality that troubled the area. He made no note of his status and requested no special treatment, said Erin Ryan.

Two years later, Ryan's interest in prison reform led him to be the first congressman to be voluntarily incarcerated. He spent eight days on death row in Folsom State Prison - the most dangerous in California at the time.

Among some of his most treasured possessions was a chess set made of toilet paper and toothpaste the prisoners gave him when he was released, said Erin Ryan.

Erin Ryan was 21 and living in Washington, D.C. when her father was killed at age 53.

If he was alive today, Erin Ryan, said her father would likely still be in politics as a United States senator - a long-time goal of his. She also said her father would be disappointed with the direction politics has taken.

"There is so much cynicism in politics now and it's starting to reflect on the type of people who go into politics," said Erin Ryan.

Ryan's career in politics started when he had a beef with the South San Francisco Park and Recreation Department. He decided to become part of the city's decision-making process by running for City Council in the late '50s. In 1960 he lost a bid for Assembly but won two years later. He served as a congressman from 1973 to 1978 before being assassinated.

His outgoing attitude and appreciation for his constituency is an example to everyone of how politics should be, said Erin Ryan.

"He was a pioneer and he was a fighter and a visionary. We don't have many of those in public service now," said Erin Ryan "I would like to think some of our current politicians could take some lessons from my father as well."

Tomorrow's service is open to the public and will be at 2 p.m. at the Foster City Community Center, located at 1000 E. Hillsdale Blvd.

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