books Los Angeles Is Burning
Set the Night on Fire
L.A. in the Sixties
Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
Set the Night on Fire, written by Mike Davis in collaboration with historian Jon Wiener, is a kind of sequel to City of Quartz, the cultural analysis of Los Angeles Davis published in 1990. In the beginning of CoQ, Davis described the focus of that book as “the history of culture produced about Los Angeles.” And that is true for roughly two hundred pages of CoQ, as Davis reviews the work of California historians like Carey McWilliams (he approves) and “the European reconceptualization of the United States” carried out by Los Angeles transplants like Theodor Adorno (he’s torn). Davis also turns his attention to the history of lives lived in Los Angeles. He documents the historical bond between the LAPD, real estate moguls, and the Chandler family, which owned the Los Angeles Times; their collective vision of LA was a blend of mythmaking and militarization. These bitter roots are hardly obscure in 2020, but CoQ came out two years before the Rodney King riots.
In City of Quartz, Davis saw the class war he was writing about as “a continuation of the race war of the 1960s.” That race war is exactly what Davis and Wiener document in Set the Night on Fire. The book rewinds to 1960, slowly and concretely describing the story of political resistance in and around Los Angeles. The findings of the Davis and Wiener book suggest that this period of struggle in the 1960s was simply a variant of the raced mayhem Americans experience today. The combination of an unhinged paramilitary police force and a docile press is not a twentieth-century blip. Set the Night on Fire is appropriate to the now. In 1990, freewheeling theory and rewiring timelines were eye-opening, and there was room to dream. Now, we need to know who was on the ground and how it went. Set the Night on Fire is also part of a new and rewarding trend to revisit recent events, frame by frame. Podcasts like Slow Burn have used the examples of Watergate and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair to demonstrate how pausing, but not for too long, allows an intergenerational bridging. The younger cohort doesn’t know the events being covered, while an existing generation is still alive to talk about their experience to reporters, and to their juniors. Events are close enough to feel while distant enough to properly gauge.
Only three of Davis’s twenty nonfiction books are entirely about Los Angeles—the third being Ecology of Fear, from 1998, a look at the natural disasters now endemic to the city and the surrounding area. Davis’s path into and through writing is nonlinear, to put it mildly. Raised in San Diego—about which he’s also written a book—Davis only became an academic in his thirties, after a long series of jobs including truck driving. As a “less-than-obscure Marxist,” in his words, he became fairly well known in the early ’90s after the publication of City of Quartz, and was even granted a fellowship by the Getty, an institution he’s advocated burning down. His Marxism is usually referenced as part of a compound descriptor—“Marxist urban anthropologist,” “Marxist environmentalist,” or some such. One way to get a long view on Davis is to see Southern California and systemic exploitation as his twin suns. He’s written about borders, famine, disasters, and the relationship of rural to urban. The collision of police brutality and class struggle is especially of interest to him. The car bomb? Bingo, and that’s the subject of an entire Davis book, though a short one—Buda’s Wagon, from 2007. BW follows a template for his recent work, more relevant to StNoF than the esoteric, many-chambered CoQ, which inspired me to rethink what the cultural unit of measure could be (city, film, repressive technology, theory of city, etc.). StNoF fixes on one mission—collate the stories of emancipation struggle in ’60s LA—and runs with it, using document research to complete the job. This is the approach Davis has been using in the twenty-first century, and it works.
According to editor Andy Hsiao, the division of labor went like this. Davis’s chapters “form the backbone of the book, the churning narrative of Black and Brown movements that drove LA in the ’60s.” Wiener wrote the interleaved chapters, which touch on “the wide array of countercultural rebellions across the city,” and the two edited each other’s work. The book proceeds chronologically from 1960, “the birth year of a new social consciousness,” where the “method was direct action, nonviolent but unyielding.” What demanded action was repression on three fronts: housing, education, and policing. “With the benediction of federal lenders and the full complicity of the real estate and construction industries,” Davis and Wiener write, “racially exclusive suburbanization was creating a monochromatic society from which Blacks were excluded and in which Chicanos had only a marginal place.” Excluded from the suburbs, black and brown citizens of Los Angeles were left to fight the cops and local politicians for their safety and dignity. As went civil rights efforts in the South, so went Los Angeles. StNoF is especially good at showing how LA acted as a receiver and transmitter of emancipatory waves, joining in, then leading, as the need arose.
In 1961, LA started sending small groups on Freedom Rides into Alabama. As these interventions and their violent squashing picked up more notice, Bull Connor, the noted white-supremacist Alabama politician, started playing upon what Davis and Wiener describe as “Cold War suspicions of a grand conspiracy to subvert the Southern way of life.” Black folks getting out of hand? Call them Communists, an especially easy smear as time went on, since several radical groups, especially in California, were allied with the actual party. “This fusion of McCarthyism and white supremacy was serendipity for hardline Dixiecrats while allowing groups like the John Birch Society to exploit Northern racism,” Davis and Wiener write. The racist Birchers found a fellow spirit in Los Angeles, Chief William H. Parker, head of the LAPD for sixteen years and the bête blanc of Set the Night on Fire. “Whiskey Bill” had the sulky language of the bully down cold: “I think the greatest dislocated minority in America today are the police,” he said. “There is no one . . . concerned about the civil rights of the policeman.” Along with his primary enablers, Mayor Sam Yorty and the LA Times, Parker was able to convince the public that this was true, for a while.
The images coming out of Alabama were inspiring direct action, thanks to groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As Elysian Park journalist Grace Simons, of the California Eagle, wrote: “The police dogs and fire hoses . . . did more in a day to advance the movement of revolt than had a thousand sermons.” On May 10, 1963, CORE organized a four-mile march from Vernon and Central Avenues in South Central Los Angeles to city hall. James Baldwin spoke to a crowd of two thousand that day and announced that “discrimination against the Negro is the central fact of American life.”
The way that discrimination is expressed in relations between black citizens and the police continues to be the Space Needle of US racism, visible from a mile away. In 1964, in response to decades of pressure from civil rights groups to form a civilian review board, a report on the LAPD “prepared by a blue-ribbon committee appointed the previous June by the County Commission on Human Relations” rejected the need for any such oversight. Davis reports that the defanged report was “applauded” in an LA Times editorial. Dr. Christopher Taylor, leader of the United Civil Rights Committee and the LA chapter of the NAACP, “normally mild-mannered,” fired back immediately. “They have ignored all complaints of the community, and now they can keep on doing the same thing. They can keep right on whipping Negroes, shooting them—and then when a policeman is found guilty, they suspend him for two weeks without pay.” He was exaggerating—suspensions were rare. This free pass for the police was matched by the depressing victory of Proposition 14 in 1964, a repeal of the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963. This, according to Davis and Wiener, “brought the curtain down on the civil rights era in Los Angeles, at least as represented by nonviolent protest and broad coalition building.” As one kind of protest was ending, another took shape. “The shock and demoralization experienced by activists was not unlike what their grandchildren would confront in November 2016,” they go on to write, which sounds emotionally true, although elections and state legislative efforts don’t seem exactly parallel. What came next was not nonviolent and had nothing to do with legislation.
The strictly chronological nature of Set the Night on Fire gives the book a pleasant striation, as pages are devoted to various Los Angeles cells of resistance, some of them related to the main struggle, some not so much. In 1965, LA’s WSP organization—Women Strike for Peace—went to Vietnam. WSP leader Mary Clarke, along with Lorraine Gordon, head of the New York chapter (and co-owner of the Village Vanguard club), “became the first members of the American peace movement to visit Hanoi.” LA’s KPFK, which broadcast Dorothy Healey’s fifteen-minute show Communist Commentary, was responsible for two wildly different legacies, one of which you likely don’t know about. In 1974, the station broadcast a tape that began “This is Tanya” and concluded with “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!” This was the voice of Patty Hearst, paying tribute to six of her “dead comrades,” killed two weeks earlier in a shootout with the LAPD. Less notorious is the launch in 1963 of an event to help fund KPFK, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. That’s right—the renaissance fair, “a countercultural celebration of precapitalist village life,” as Davis and Wiener describe it, was created by a nonprofit, leftist radio station in LA. The brand was bought in the ’90s by a “profit-making corporation.” Fight thee power!
There were no maypoles in the event that holds the book together. The Watts rebellion was a sustained and organized response to relentless pressure from police and racist legislators. As Davis and Wiener write, “Those who painted the whole event as a result of primitive mob urges or irrational anger, the clichés preferred by much of the media, simply failed to visualize or understand the micro-structure of collective action.”
The action was a response not just to punitive traffic stops but to the continued social suffocation of black Angelenos. As reported in the Hard-Core Unemployment report, a study published in 1965 by two UCLA researchers, Paul Bullock and Fred Schmidt, residents of the Eastside, South Central, Skid Row, and MacArthur Park were caught in a bottleneck of joblessness and repression. The LAPD were responsible for “the nation’s most successful negative employment scheme.” As Davis and Wiener write, “While giving low priority to white collar crimes, whatever their impact on society, the department fastened a relentless dragnet on poor Black and Chicano neighborhoods.”
That dragnet met its counterforce on August 11, 1965. After stopping the Frye brothers, Marquette and Ronald, for allegedly driving drunk, a California Highway Patrol officer called for backup. Twenty-six cars and motorcycles responded, sirens wailing, and six days of chaos began. “Watts Uprising” feels like a better way to characterize the events of 1965, which were equal parts decline and rebirth. The community in and around Watts blossomed several arts organizations, including Horace Tapscott’s Underground Musicians Association (and their house band, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra) and Dr. Alfred Cannon’s theater collective, the Inner City Cultural Center, which still exists. This community growth was being matched by some rare federal funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), run by Sargent Shriver from 1964 to 1968. One reason this federal assistance came and went was that “the astronomical costs of the war in Vietnam gave Congressional Republicans lethal ammunition with which to attack the OEO.” That kind of intermittent aid creates a disillusionment distinct from that generated by police brutality, which was likely not surprising to anyone in LA, even the white teens on the Sunset Strip being busted during the summer of 1968 for simply, well, existing. And one of the big reasons that Angelenos, across the board, stopped finding police cruelty surprising was the Century City Police Riot of 1967. On June 23, a remarkable crowd of ten thousand mostly white antiwar protesters converged on the Century Plaza Hotel, where Lyndon Johnson was staying for the night. (One consistent theme of Set the Night on Fire is that white activists, with a few exceptions, were mostly only willing to put their bodies into the play of direct action when protesting the Vietnam War. The daily plight of their black peers didn’t generally warrant a trip into the streets.) As they had done in Watts, and with an even less plausible story, cops simply went berserk—even though the protesters had a police permit. Cops started swinging truncheons and beating men, women, and children, chasing some of them for several city blocks. As Davis and Wiener write, “Two years after Watts, white liberals on the Westside had suddenly experienced firsthand the brutality of the LAPD that Blacks had been protesting against for years.” This experience had no effect whatsoever on the police’s manic love of violent suppression. Several months later, under the guidance of a young officer named Daryl Gates, SWAT made its debut. The LAPD has been one of America’s most prolific ghostwriters. The 1033 Program, established in 1997, allowed the transfer of military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. A tacit fulfillment of the idea begun by Gates with SWAT, 1033 was rolled back by Obama in 2015 and put back in place two years later by Trump.
The black community’s response to state violence fell to two groups in particular—Ron Karenga’s us Organization and the Black Panther Party. As much as the two groups accomplished, in both establishing community cohorts and protesting police killings like the shooting of Gregory Clark (in the back of the head), they were counterbalanced by the persistent, and successful, efforts by COINTELPRO and the FBI to tear them apart. COINTELPRO damaged relations within us and the Panthers “by releasing forged documents, anonymous accusations, and a storm of scurrilous rumors.” The FBI—original blend—were right there with their brothers in COINTELPRO, trying to intimidate Stokely Carmichael’s mother with a phony telephone warning saying that “the Panthers were going to kill her.”
These infiltrations culminated in the UCLA murders of two Black Panthers in 1969, by members of us. The shooters escaped, and nobody has ever entirely figured out who turned whom against whom. Karenga became entirely paranoid and went into hiding, torturing two of his own associates with electrical cords and caustic detergents when he suspected (without evidence) that they’d betrayed him.
StNoF goes into its last quarter with fantastic sections on Gidra, a radical Asian American newspaper started at UCLA; the Free Clinic; and Wattstax, the “Black Woodstock concert,” subject of a phenomenal movie that blends live performance and documentary interviews like nothing else of the time. (If any of the events here feel culturally distant, look up Wattstax on YouTube. Even on a laptop, Richard Pryor, Rufus Thomas, Kim Weston, Jesse Jackson, Isaac Hayes, and dozens of unnamed Angelenos will send the wind of truth through your house.) The figure who manages to sum up much of this moment, as well as the thrust of Mike Davis’s work, is the other Davis—Angela. If the LAPD was the poison that spread through America, Davis is the antidote, possibly more important today than she was then. Her biography was already platinum-level good by the time she got to California in 1967. Raised in Birmingham, she went on to study with both Adorno and Herbert Marcuse before joining the Communist Party. When she was hired by UCLA in 1969, she had her first celebrity scandal. Outed as a member of the Party, Davis earned an enemy in Governor Ronald Reagan, who tried to press the university into firing her. This only gained her wide public support, and eventually Davis taught her class, “Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature,” and received standing ovations. She bought and licensed weapons that were later used by a teenager named Jonathan Jackson in the kidnapping of a judge and a lawyer, to protest the imprisonment of the “Soledad Brothers,” one of whom was his actual brother, George. Jackson and three others were killed in a shootout with police, and Davis became a fugitive. The resulting brouhaha made her first tangle with Reagan look minor. She was defended by James Baldwin in the New York Review of Books and immortalized by the Rolling Stones in “Sweet Black Angel.” If you want to know how one person could inspire such a broad base of support, watch her in The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, a 2011 documentary that used footage shot around the time of her trial. Davis is as calm and collected as she is polymathic and fearless, an American template for the revolutionary life.
Some of the pressure that built in Los Angeles during the ’60s was released in the moment of Davis’s flight and subsequent acquittal. Her widespread popularity represented a turn in opinions about the police and the justice system. None of which ensured any long-term relief, in the black community, from police pressure, but all of which changed the nature of consciousness around these issues, laying the groundwork for a new audience, like the one that greeted Mike Davis in 1990. Everything is still on fire, and more people can see that now.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village.