Set the Night on Fire by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener review – the real LA in the 1960s

Blue skies, palm trees ... and a dark heart. This long-awaited study gets behind the myths to detail riots and radical action centring on race, class and sex

To its profit and enduring loss, there is probably no city in human history that has been more promiscuously imagined than Los Angeles. For the better part of the century, most of the planet’s population has seen some version of LA depicted in film and on television: a windblown dream of palm trees swaying within the same cliched confines. A blue-skied neverland of beauty, youth and pleasure alternates with a secret underbelly of corruption and sin in the dialectic of “sunshine and noir”, first described by Mike Davis 30 years ago in City of Quartz, which remains the best book written about LA.

The Los Angeles of popular imagination is a place without history, without politics, and almost entirely without brown people. Except for the freeways and the bright bougainvillea, it bears little resemblance to the vast and vital multilingual, largely working-class, viciously unequal and still painfully segregated city of immigrants that those of us who have lived there have come to love.

Davis, who grew up in the industrial exurbs east of the city, has played a unique role in contemporary scholarship, emerging from outside the academy as a hard-eyed Marxist analyst of astonishing insight and range. His more than a dozen books, invariably as apocalyptic as they are brilliant, include analyses of colonial-era famines and of the global rise of slums, a history of car bombs, and a distressingly prescient account of the pandemic threat of avian flu. Again and again, though, Davis’s work returns to Los Angeles. His latest, Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, co-authored with the journalist and historian Jon Wiener, focuses on a single decade, a transformative one for the city and for its authors, who as young men were active in the civil rights and anti-war movements.

A street in LA in 1965 during the riots.
A street in LA in 1965 during the riots. Photograph: Bill Ray/The LIFE Picture Collection via

In their introduction they classify Set the Night on Fire as a “movement history” – an attempt to gain ground in the battle for LA’s soul by rescuing the city’s past from the strategic amnesia and propagandistic whitewashing that the great LA poet Sesshu Foster calls the “poison alzheimer’s of the apartheid imagination”. The 1960s, after all, have been subjected to the same sort of censorial mythmaking as the city itself, facing, in the authors’ words, a “relentless campaign” to “rewrite history from the standpoint of wealthy white men”, cutting out the black, brown and working-class men and women – and often boys and girls – who are the heroes of this book, along with the feminist, gay and white radical activists who fought alongside them in parallel and often intersecting struggles.

The 60s depicted here depart from the “standard narrative” of the decade that has emerged even on the left, in which university students, predominantly white and middle class, were “the principal social actors”, and protest radiated out from a few large and storied campuses. In LA, by contrast, the major battles occurred in high schools and even junior high schools in the city’s ghettoised black and Mexican neighbourhoods. The flower children who dominate mythic perceptions of the 60s show up here only peripherally, as minor roles in a larger drama, worthy of notice only when they throw their shoulders into the fight.

To their credit, Davis and Wiener do not attempt to squeeze those tumultuous years into a single frame. Their approach is encyclopedic rather than narrative. And at nearly 800 pages, Set the Night on Fire is frankly monumental. It covers, in roughly chronological order, such diverse topics as early desegregation battles, the city’s pioneering gay rights movement, its role in the birth of the Black Power movement, the rise of alternative media, draft resisters, activist nuns and the massive high school “blowouts” that rocked the Chicano east side in the spring of 1968. In this telling, the decade lasted until 1973, when the defeat at the polls of the city’s aggressively racist mayor Sam Yorty (his Washington Post obituary described him as “colourfully cantankerous”) by an African American city councilman named Tom Bradley brought the era of protest and revolt to an end, if not a resolution.

This broad sweep nonetheless circles back to one “issue of issues”: “the dynamic tectonics of racial segregation”. The thousands of African Americans who migrated to Los Angeles from the Jim Crow south had found similar cruel realities awaiting them. Federal housing policies and local white supremacists – elsewhere known as “realtors” – combined to close much of the city to non-whites. The central north-south spine of Alameda Street formed a “cotton curtain” that black people could not safely cross, a divide brutally enforced by vigilante white gangs as well as by the city’s police. Racial segregation in the public schools was, and in many cases remains, almost absolute. In 1964, James Baldwin would write: “There is not one step, one inch, no distance, morally or actually, between Birmingham [Alabama] and Los Angeles.”

A National Guardsman after the Watts riots, August 1965.
A National Guardsman after the Watts riots, August 1965. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Much of this book, then, is devoted to the struggle for racial justice, from the campaigns for housing equality at the beginning of the decade to the mass student strikes in black and Chicano neighbourhoods at the end. The Watts rebellion of 1965, which left 34 dead – most of them shot by police and National Guardsmen – more than 1,000 injured, and a commercial district in flames receives close and careful treatment. It is characterised, refreshingly, not as a blind outburst of rage, but as a rational and even strategic response to a homicidal status quo. Davis and Wiener devote a full chapter to the Watts renaissance, the artistic awakening that emerged from the ashes of the uprising and that included the assemblage art movement that came out of Noah Purifoy’s leadership of the Watts Towers Arts Center, the influential Watts Writers Workshop and the extraordinary jazz collective the Pan African People’s Arkestra.

If it lacks a single hero, Set the Night on Fire features one recurring villain: the Los Angeles Police Department. LA’s police make dramatic appearances in almost every chapter, clubbing peaceful protesters, brutalising activists and killing so many black men, and with such absolute impunity, that Davis and Wiener’s claim that “the Manson gang were bit players compared to the forces of law and order” ends up feeling more than fair. In the authors’ telling, the wanton violence of the police acted as a consistent if unwitting catalyst to historical change: it was the chaos that followed a ferocious LAPD assault on anti-war protesters that added to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968, and the LAPD’s murder of a black Muslim named Ronald Stokes – seven other Muslims were shot in the same incident – that pushed Malcolm X towards a broader vision of black liberation. The shared experience of LAPD violence, Davis and Wiener write, forged a “common culture of resistance” among black and Chicano youth, white hipsters and anti-war activists, and the city’s gay community.

Los Angeles is in many ways a different place from the on it was in the 1960s. A once majority white region is now largely Latino and Asian. The city has become immensely rich, and at the same time, and often on the same streets, shockingly poor. Economic resources – and access to decent housing and education – are still distributed, to a shameful extent, according to race. Police still kill black and brown residents with appalling regularity. For new generations growing up in a city whose very history is rarely acknowledged to exist, Set the Night on Fire is a vital primer in resistance, a gift to the future from the past.

• Ben Ehrenreich’s Desert Notebooks: A Roadmap for the End of Time will be published in July by Counterpoint Press. Set the Night on Fire is published by Verso (RRP £25).


Ben Ehrenreich

The GuardianTramp

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