Radical Memory and Mike Davis’ Final Work

Against the Current, No. 223, March/April 2023

Alexander Billet

Set the Night on Fire
L.A. in the Sixties
By Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
Verso Books, 2021, 800 pages. $24.95 paperback.

ANSWERING A QUESTION for the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2012, Mike Davis was asked “Title of the book you’re probably never going to write, but would kind of like to get around to?” Davis responded, “Setting the Night on Fire: L.A. in the 1960s.”

A decade later Davis is dead, felled by cancer late last year. But the book about setting the City of Angels ablaze is, thankfully, on bookshelves.

It comes with a slightly different title, and was written with collaborator, fellow historian and KPFK broadcaster Jon Wiener. But as a literary swan song, one could do a lot worse than this thorough, 800-page magnum opus on how the revolutionary period of the 1960s wound through the sprawling mutant city that is Los Angeles.

Mike Davis, as any of his readers will know, had a fascination — sometimes affectionate, sometimes morbid — with the metropolis of his upbringing. Little wonder why. Los Angeles, along with southern California more generally, is a region famously difficult to draw a bead on, a place of sharp contradictions, wild fantasies and bloody histories further complicated by both its role in the colonial formations of American capitalism and its self-professed role as dream factory to the nation and the world.

The sunshine beckons in a region like this, imploring us all to spend our lives getting tan and learning to surf. Only after we learn that American surf culture was essentially popularized by a gaggle of Malibu Nazis — the kind who would burn swastikas into their board fins and terrorize Gidget’s Jewish immigrant father at night — do we start to ask whose dreams the factory is most concerned with.

It’s this dialectic, between fantasy and history, between “sunshine and noir,” per Davis’ famous formulation in City of Quartz, Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1992, Verso republication 2018), that animates Los Angeles.

City of Quartz brought Davis the attention, particularly after the 1992 Rodney King uprising. Its followup Ecology of Fear. Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (1998, Verso republication 2022) gained increasing attention as climate change made the weather and wildfires of California more erratic. And 2005’s The Monster at Our Door already chronicled with such precision the release of deadly pathogens by capital’s destruction of the planet that many could glibly, but plausibly, say that Davis predicted the Covid-19 pandemic.

[An extensive tribute by Bryan Palmer to the life and work of Mike Davis appeared in our previous issue, ATC 222, November-December 2022 — ed.]

History, Prediction and Rebellion

Marxism, as a system of thought that fancies itself a science, has little to do with prophesy, at least in any sense decorated with mystical, new age crap. Mike Davis was without any doubt a Marxist, indeed one of the most rigorous and creative of his generation.

Those who wondered how he could predict the future often failed to ignore that his method was merely that of any good historian: looking at the past. The wonder and outrage he provoked mostly came from the understanding that history isn’t just about the past, but rather how its frictions with the present can create the future.

It is fitting then that Davis did get to write a book like Set the Night On Fire, the book he never thought he’d get to write. Davis and Wiener’s collaboration on the book was a tight and thorough one, seeking to draw together countless disparate stories and figures into a metanarrative of a metropolis rocked by uprising.

According to the book’s editor Andy Hsiao, Davis primarily focused on the stories of Black and Brown resistance that provide the book’s backbone, while Wiener — most recognized for getting his hands on John Lennon’s long-hidden FBI files — wrote the chapters on the various cultural rebellions that weave throughout it. And though the two edited each other’s work along the way, it is nonetheless impressive how effortlessly one’s contribution plays off and compliments the other’s.

The result is remarkably dynamic. Again, this is a book primarily of history, but of history so vivid that we cannot help but see its events as unfinished and bound to re-emerge.

Yes, the vignettes that make up the chapters of this book provide plenty of familiar episodes. The 1965 uprising against police racism in Watts serves as a divider of sorts, a before-and-after for the radical 1960s. Likewise for the massive March 1968 Chicano student walkouts in East L.A, which seemed to be a moment when the radicalism of the city’s decade crystalized.

The murder of Black Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins on the UCLA campus is also covered, as is the rebellion among Chicano high schoolers in East L.A. And of course the movement against the Vietnam War plays an increasingly crucial role in the book’s narration.

These are the moments and movements that just about anyone who knows the broad strokes of Los Angeles history will recognize. Or at the very least, they’re the kind that are likely to have plaques commemorating them, peppering the city from Garfield High to Westwood.

Even these retellings reveal new narratives, though. Davis and Wiener clearly refute the idea that the rebellions of the sixties were just a student thing, more the result of youthful excess than the depredations of racism, empire and capitalism.

This narrative has always failed on its own terms as it is completely unable to explain the rise of groups like the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, or other avowedly revolutionary socialist organizations rooted in decidedly non-academic milieus. Further, as the authors argue, those L.A. campuses most activated during that era tended to be the more working-class in student body composition: L.A. City College, East Los Angeles College, Valley State, and so on.

Reconsidering Watts, Wiener and Davis point out that during those six nights when Black residents battled with cops and the National Guard in 1965, the unrest spread well beyond the neighborhood’s frontiers, reaching into Pasadena, Long Beach, and even into some parts of the San Diego area.

Indeed, one thing that becomes clear in the first section of Set the Night on Fir is in contradiction to another misconception about the 1960s: that the Civil Rights movement by and large didn’t concern itself with what took place north of the Mason-Dixon or west of Texas.

Los Angeles, in fact, had some of the worst segregation of schools, housing and employment outside of the U.S. South, and many of the racist incidents recounted against Black homeowners in white neighborhoods could just as easily come out of Alabama or Mississippi.

Most racists could count on a blind eye from William H. Parker, the drink-sodden sadist who was Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department for more than fifteen years.

Parker serves as avatar for L.A.’s particular iteration of American racism in much of the book, and rightly so. This was, after all, a man who ordered officers to spy on Angelenos participating in the Freedom Ride, terrorized the Black Muslims, and allowed the John Birch Society to infiltrate his department’s ranks.

It was clearly necessary that organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had such active chapters in Los Angeles.

The People, the Movements

Then there are the people, the movements, the events, that have no plaque and don’t make it into most general Los Angeles histories. It is often overlooked, for example, that the protests against police raids at the Black Cat Tavern — then a well-known gay bar in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood — predated the Stonewall Inn rebellions by more than two years.

Most histories of the antiwar movement tend to similarly ignore its early years in groups like Women’s Strike for Peace, whose Los Angeles chapter was its most militant and left-wing, even sending representatives on solidarity trips to Hanoi.

Other stories provide neglected context for some of modern life’s more ubiquitous images. LOVE, the four letters stacked on top of each other, one of the most recognized works of the pop art era, showing up in sculptures in city squares around the country and on U.S. postage stamps, was painted by Sister Corita Kent.

This Catholic sister and art teacher was, through the 1960s, increasingly allied with the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, as many of her works from that decade reflect. It seems far-fetched to those of us so used to the Catholic church as a bastion of reaction, but this was a time when many rank-and-file clergy were swayed by the times.

The widening gap between them and the most stubbornly conservative sectors of the Catholic hierarchy came to a head when Sister Corita’s order, Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, was broken up by the right-wing Archbishop of Los Angeles, James McIntyre, who despised her art and her politics.

Aided by in-depth research and breezy storytelling, these kinds of revelations fill Set the Night on Fire. Some are downright humbling. How many of us, even those of us proud in our knowledge of left history, can claim to know much about the radical Asian American publication Gidra? Or the full-on cultural renaissance that flourished in Watts in the uprisings aftermath, culminating in “L.A.’s Black Woodstock,” the Wattstax music festival?

How many have heard of the radical left weekly L.A. Free Press, which managed to pull in a quarter-million readers every week?

Would we be willing to believe that such a rag published the likes of Susan Sontag, Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Paul Sartre and Herbert Marcuse, and sponsored free concerts from Frank Zappa and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, all while simultaneously boosting the antiwar, feminist, and Black Liberation movements in its pages?

Then, Now and Sowing the Future

These are the kinds of stories that move most of us into wide-eyed wonder when we first learn of them. “How can we remake that now?” is the inevitable, impatient refrain. When they don’t, the frustration mounts, compounded by the sights of a growing unhoused population in the tens of thousands and a Southern California wildfire season that gets worse every year.

The map of Wiener and Davis’ Los Angeles could not feel further from what we see in front of us on the streets of East Hollywood, Crenshaw, or Downtown L.A. today. But then, no American city — with the possible exception of Las Vegas — seems to have such a haphazard approach to its own landscape, such wanton disregard for its true history, as Los Angeles.

But then, as always, there are cracks. Set the Night on Fire’s epilogue is called “Sowing the Future.” Wiener and Davis, clinging hard to their faith in future generations, ultimately leave the interpretation and applicability of their book’s events up to the readers.

This of course is not to say they aren’t fiercely partisan in delineating where and how the events of the sixties matter. To them the most profound echo is to be found in the ties between labor and community that emerged during the Los Angeles teachers’ strike:

“(T)he 2019 teachers’ strike was perhaps the most dramatic example of the renewal of activism. A coalition of the classroom and the community, it focused on the same issues of overcrowded schools and educational disinvestment (now aggravated by the drain of resources to charter schools) that contributed to the student uprisings in 1967-69. Moreover, thousands of the Latino students who boycotted classes and joined teacher picket lines were proudly aware that they were following in the footsteps of Sal Castro, Gloria Arellanes, Bobby Elias, Carlos Muñoz and all the others who had made time stop in March 1968.”

We might add more recent examples. L.A. has an impressive tenants’ movement, capable of making life difficult for slumlords and successfully fighting evictions. The unionization drives at Starbucks have found their way to Los Angeles, as has the Amazon Labor Union to the warehouse in nearby Moreno Valley.

The same Hollywood Boulevard once again stacked with cheap tchotchkes designed to make a quick buck off tourists was, just two years ago, choked with fifty thousand Black Lives Matter protesters. If the similarities between Angeleno racism and the rhetoric of Old Jim Crow perennially raise their head, then the good news is that resistance to it can almost always be expected.

 Last year’s leaked tapes of L.A. City Council members coordinating to gerrymander council districts and using explicitly racist speech provoked a strong backlash; hundreds of protesters invaded city council meetings demanding their resignation. Some resigned, others didn’t, though the furor also buoyed insurgents’ city council campaigns.

After the votes were counted, a police abolition activist and longtime hotel union organizer — both members of Democratic Socialists of America — had beaten entrenched incumbents backed by the local Democratic machine. Whatever the pitfalls of electoral politics, and there are many, there is a clear hunger in the city for real, substantial change.

This, setting aside all other embellishments and praise, is what Mike Davis knew how to illustrate.

He had no time for the idea that the staid, sometimes moribund, often imposing artificial environments of American life — the houses and freeways, the studios and office buildings, the myriad segregations de jure and de facto, the wheres and hows of our lives — are somehow immovable. Far from it, they are moved by history. The next question, persistent as ever, is whose history.

March-April 2022, ATC 223

1 comment

  1. It is truly a wonderful book and tragically it was only the second Davis I had read. It also helped explain some of the more obscure references my late wife made as she went to usc for a brief period in the early 60s before she fled to Berkeley after watching Operation Abolition at the Baptist student center and subsequently became a sncc and core organiser at Berkeley .

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