Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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From Jonestown to Tucson

January 16, 2011

San Francisco Chronicle
By Jackie Speier

See the original piece here.

The news that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot in the head hit me in the stomach - complete nausea. My grief over a fallen colleague and those who died in the gun assault brought back the sensations of a jungle runway 32 years ago, when I lay in a pool of my own blood, covered with ants, expecting to die.

I pray that Giffords will be able to read this soon or that I might have the chance to read it to her. I have much to say.

As a legal aide to Rep. Leo Ryan, D-San Mateo, in 1978, I held idealistic thoughts of what could be done in the name of justice. In November 1978, I joined Ryan on a fact-finding mission to Jonestown, Guyana. We were responding to rumors - ultimately determined to be fact - that relatives of the congressman's Bay Area constituents were being held against their will by a cult leader, the Rev. Jim Jones. Many members of Jones' Peoples Temple wanted to return with us to the United States. The outcome has been well documented in news accounts, books and movies. We were about to board our plane back home when a truck full of Jones' gunmen burst through the thick jungle cover. Shots rang out. I hid behind the wheel of the plane and played dead. Someone shot me five times at point-blank range.

I called the congressman's name. There was no answer. Later I was told he had been riddled with 45 bullets.

My next life started during those 22 hours on my back on the runway, unable to move and barely able to think of anything other than this was how my dreams were to end at the age of 28.

As I prayed I promised that if I survived, I would never waste another minute of life.

I know Giffords will choose to be a survivor, not a victim - she is a person of enormous strength. She will gain the wisdom of knowing the fragility of life firsthand and the importance of doing what is needed now, not at some later, more convenient moment.

I was shot on foreign soil, helping a congressman represent his constituents, but Giffords was shot on American soil, performing the most basic duties by a member of Congress: face-to-face communications with constituents at a public location, a dynamic known as Congress on Your Corner. This crime was in our backyard, and we have the power and the obligation to prevent similar actions from occurring.

Solutions go further than stricter gun control laws. The Tucson gunman took aim not just at Giffords but at our democracy as well. Most of my colleagues and I have recognized this, and we have chosen not to reduce our contact with our constituents.

We won't advance effective representation by erecting more walls around us. To forgo town hall meetings with the public is to give this troubled gunman his twisted victory. The risks that Ryan, I and others took in going to Jonestown were known in advance. But there should be no risks involved in standing outside of a supermarket in the United States of America - this is what Giffords was doing when she and others were shot. This gunman struck at our rights to assemble and to have free discourse with our elected representative. We must, as a nation, recognize that these rights come with a responsibility not to abuse them.

When President Obama addressed Congress last year, one of the members yelled out, "You lie," a message sent nationwide to those watching on TV that civility is for the weak. Last year at town halls held on the president's health care proposal, members of Congress were booed, and many, including myself, received threats triggered by false information stoked by radio talk shows that focused on the "death panels" that were sure to be in place when the bill became law. Both Democrats and Republicans realize that the more outrageous a statement, the more likely it will be featured on TV, and the more that happens, the greater the likelihood that an outraged public will make campaign donations to the purveyors of political venom.

In the end, we, the political leaders, are to blame. I pray that all those injured in Tucson recover and that all who lost their lives will be remembered by those of us who hold dear the right of people - as the Constitution states - to peacefully assemble for a redress of our grievances.

Let the tragedy of Tucson be a time to rededicate ourselves to the civil exchange of viewpoints.

To this end I am proposing that a national Congress on Your Corner Day be established, when my colleagues and I would meet with our constituents in the shopping centers and street-corners of our nation. Let's do it for democracy ... and Gabby!


Jackie Speier represents San Mateo County and portions of San Francisco in the House of Representatives.