Jon Wiener and Mike Davis. Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties. New York: Verso Books, 2020.
Reviewed by Ryan Reft
Anyone who chooses to focus on Southern California history must consult the work of Mike Davis. Full stop. Keep in mind you don’t necessarily have to agree with Davis, but you must reckon with his vision of Southern California.
City of Quartz, which turned thirty in 2020, remains foundational and, for many, an inspiration. It birthed “a generation of radical historians and writers, including yours truly,” former OC Weekly editor and current Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote in 2018.
While Davis has inspired multitudes, he’s also drawn his share of detractors—some of them reasonable, others not so much. More thoughtful and considered critics argue that in Quartz Davis’s Marxism overshadows nuance, thereby bludgeoning the city’s history into binaries. “There is a rigorous adherence to this binary: no in-betweenness, no ambivalence,” historian and Los Angeles writer Eric Avila noted in a 2010 essay. “Class war is not a means, but the means of understanding Los Angeles’ history.” Ethnic identity, race, geography, sexuality, gender, and numerous other factors “that mediate social relations are secondary iterations.” For Avila, Davis’s pessimism reigns too prominently: “Lesson: Hope is futile. Mike Davis’s Los Angeles devours our aspirations, consuming our collective dreams along with the desert land.”
Yet, the UCLA professor also acknowledges that Davis sparked a new interest in the city’s culture and past. For decades, critics assailed Los Angeles as a city without a history. Such critiques emanated from individuals who found safe harbor in the City of Angels. During the 1930s, European emigres took refuge in Los Angeles only to deride it as the “crystal ball of capitalism’s future,” an “anti-city,” and “a Gobi of suburbs.” Bertolt Brecht famously compared it to hell.
Whatever one thinks of its arguments, Quartz served as an inflection point towards a new L.A. historiography. By the early twenty-first century, geographer Michael J. Dear could write confidently, “Los Angeles has become, for many, not the exception but rather a prototype of the city of the future. As the volume of academic and popular writings has accumulated, the prospect of an L.A. School of urbanism has also ascended.” Whether Los Angeles had become the city of European nightmares, a dystopian harbinger of American capitalism, or, in contrast, the encapsulation of the American Dream, or some other notion of urbanity between these two poles is left for future discussion.
Since Dear’s 2002 proclamation, numerous historians have added their perspectives to this growing canon: Danny Widener, Becky Nicolaides, Eric Avila, Josh Sides, Natalie Molina, Wendy Cheng, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Max Felker-Kantor, Victor Valle, Rudolfo D. Torres, and Luis Alvarez among many others, all of them rebuilding, reconstructing, and refurbishing Los Angeles’s growing historiography.
Davis, too, has been a participant in this disciplinary remodeling. Ecology of Fear (1998), the second prong in Davis’s “literary double whammy” with City of Quartz, provides a valuable and prescient overview of Southern California’s and Los Angeles’s environmental history, along with the region’s relationship to and responsibility for the various disasters and plagues that have befallen the city. Earthquakes, polluted air, mudslides, flooding, all receive Davis’s attention, as does fire: “fire here has a relentless staccato rhythm, syncopated by landslides and floods.” At the time of Ecology’s publication, fire’s threat had become a very visible problem, but not yet the existential threat embodied by the raging conflagrations of 2020. Davis might have been specifically referencing Malibu in Ecology, but his observations now apply statewide. Once again, Davis functioned as Southern California’s Cassandra.
Magical Urbanism followed in 2000. In it, Davis focuses on the influence of Southern California’s Latino residents, and the book serves as a very useful short text documenting their role in shaping politics, economics, and culture in urban America, a narrative that Davis argues had been ignored, obscured, or downplayed. “For more than a decade, urban theory has been intensely focused on trying to understand how the new world economy is reshaping the metropolis. Yet most of the literature on ‘globalization’ has paradoxically ignored its most spectacular US expression.”
Nor has Davis been confined to discussing only Southern California. In 2001, Davis published Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño, Famines, and the Making of the Third World, which explored “how the policies adopted by the authoritarian governments in the heyday of imperialism exacerbated the famines and made their impacts more severe.” Writing in the New York Times, economist Amartya Sen described it as “gripping” and “illustrative…of the disastrous consequences of fierce economic inequality combined with a drastic imbalance of political voice and power.” At the Radical History Review, historian Michael G. Vann points to Davis’s 2005 work Monster at the Door: The Global Threat of Avian Fluas as one of the “Marxist-environmentalist’s” most “overlooked” yet deftly executed efforts. Matt Steinglass, currently the European correspondent for the Economist, called it a “brilliant, concise jeremiad.”
This admittedly very incomplete history of Mike Davis’s bibliography explains why Verso has an Essential Mike Davis series and why his new work co-authored with journalist Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, has been so eagerly anticipated.
In terms of primary sources, Davis has never been big on digging deep into the archives; this proves no less true in Set the Night on Fire. Instead, Davis and Wiener pour over oral histories, interviews, memoirs (Angela Davis, Dorothy Healy, Bert Corona, and Sal Castro to name just a few), and newspapers – both mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times as well as local publications such as the Los Angeles Free Press (Freep). Wiener and Davis dedicate a chapter to The Freep, transforming its passages into the occasional Greek Chorus. In the end, Set the Night on Fire successfully straddles the line between synthesis and original work, a common feature of Davis’s scholarship.
With some exceptions, such as unincorporated East Los Angeles, Torrance, and handful of other geographic outliers, Davis and Wiener confine the book’s focus to L.A. County. What follows is a sprawling history of the radical movements spawned there: Ron Malauna Karenga and his US Organization, Ralph Bunche and the Black Panthers, the Los Angeles Black Congress, the Asian American publication Gidra, the Peace and Freedom Party, Angela Davis, Johnnie Tillmon and the National Welfare Rights Organization, the United Civil Rights Movement, the Blowouts, the Brown Berets and Gloria Arellanes, Sunset Strip’s Riot Nights, the L.A. Free Clinic, and Tom Bradley’s failed 1969 mayoral campaign, among others.
Disenchanted with five decades of historical revision by conservative forces that caricatured social movements as consisting of “dopey hippies, traitorous peace protesters, bra-burning feminists, dangerous black radicals, and commissars of political correctness,” Set the Night on Fire attempts to correct this record with a “movement history…from the vantage points of its flatland neighborhoods and bohemian beaches where the working class heroes of this story lived.”
To be clear, this history is sometimes doleful, filled with small victories in the moment, followed by the kind of hard stumbles that leave one incapacitated for years. For example, Wiener and Davis explore the history of the Los Angeles chapter of CORE. The local branch contributed to the Freedom Riders movement in the summer of 1961, constituting a “reservoir of volunteers to keep the rides on the road.” Among northern cities, only New York contributed more volunteers. The Los Angeles riders returned with a renewed vigor, “eager to unleash non-violent direct action on a new scale in Los Angeles.” Four years later, CORE stood on the precipice of internal collapse after the passage of Proposition 14 invalidated the fair housing provisions of the Rumford Act, a law only recently passed and which had demanded CORE to lay proverbial siege to the legislature for years.
The more radical Black Panthers feature prominently as the two authors document its demise under the combined the weight of violent and extralegal harassment by the LAPD and internal fratricide fueled by government sabotage. In “sinister fashion, with police frame-ups and internecine murders incited by the FBI, the time of the Panthers ended,” Davis and Wiener conclude, but not before exploring the Panthers’ role throughout much of the book and their relationship to other radical movements in the region. This comparison reveals the kind of nuance that critics argued remained absent from Quartz; the Panthers were actually relatively moderate when juxtaposed with other radical groups of the era. For example, they were one of the only Black Power organizations willing to work with white activists.
Such alliances or relationships did not always bear fruit. The Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) scored a historic victory by registering nearly 40,000 voters for the 1968 election and earning the party a place on the ballot. The PFP correctly gauged discontent with LBJ and Vietnam even before the failed Tet Offensive and the Democratic Convention the same year, but its leaders failed to execute its goal of establishing a legitimate left leaning electoral option. Instead, the PFP nominated Eldridge Cleaver as its presidential candidate over Dick Gregory, then allied with the Black Panthers, a partnership that ended poorly. “The outcome was tragedy concealed within farce,” observe the book’s authors. Cleaver threw his support behind Pigasus, the candidate of Jerry Rubin and the Yippies, fled to Cuba and then Algiers, before returning to the United States as a right-wing, bible-thumping conservative several years later. “[F]rom the perspective of building a third party, I reckon we did everything wrong,” one of the PFP’s leaders, Jack Weinberg told Wiener in 2018.
External forces frequently intervene to limit radical organizing. Readers will be unsurprised to learn throughout the book that the LAPD really isn’t much of a friend to most Angelenos, particularly those of color. “They’re rude, overbearing, and they make the simple act of giving you a ticket an exercise in the deprival of your dignity and adulthood,” California Eagle journalist Almena Loman wrote in 1962. The militaristic and extralegal tactics of the city’s police force snake their way throughout Set the Night on Fire.
The book’s activists are not without victories. The Free Clinic, the second of its kind in the nation when it opened in late 1967, became “one of the counterculture’s biggest and most successful institutions in L.A.” Its establishment helped to foment the idea that health care existed as “a right not privilege” while providing health care to thousands of young people dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, pregnancy, and contraception. The Brown Berets, Black Panthers, PFP, and others followed suit with their own health services, expanding health care for undeserved communities and resulting in the creation of the 1971 Southern California Council of Free Clinics.
Often in histories of the era, state universities like Berkeley garner all the attention, but in Set the Night on Fire Davis and Wiener recalibrate to draw readers’ attention to junior high and high school, community college, and Cal State campuses where black and brown activists demanded better educational resources, expanded curricula, and protested for the creation of Black and Chicano Studies Departments.
If in Suburban Warriors Lisa McGirr revealed middle and high schools as a means by which the New Right organized in Orange County, Davis and Wiener excavate the activism of the city’s Black and Latino youth in L.A. County. “In fact the seventh-to-twelfth grade and junior college protests were arguably the most original and populist social movement of the entire decade in Southern California especially when considered in their full multiethnic spectrum.” In particular, the book acknowledges the role these protests played for Black youth, an aspect often ignored or obscured when discussing the high school “Blowouts” of the late 1960s, which often focus on the Chicano Movement.
Protest spilled out in parts of L.A. County where one might least expect it, such as at Valley State in San Fernando Valley, today Cal State Northridge. A 1969 protest led to the largest mass arrest on any campus in Southern California during the 1960s. The protests, the results of white, Black, and Latino activism, eventually led to the creation of both Chicano and Black Studies Departments at the university. However, the authors are also careful to note that though the movement grew out of anti-war protests, race intervened between the largely white SDS members, Black Student Union (BSU) activists, and those belonging to the Chicano MECHa (“El Movimento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlán”) organization. The latter two, argue Wiener and Davis, “didn’t share the SDS goal of transforming the system; instead, they wanted a share of the benefits of the system, which they had never had—a college education that served the needs of their communities.”
The authors do not ignore issues of sexuality and gender in Set the Night on Fire, but they receive far less attention than race and class. Accordingly, the chapters on the latter are stronger and more prominent than the former. Within race, Asian Americans prove they are the exception. They function as a spectral presence throughout, really appearing only in one of the chapters in the book’s final section entitled: “Other Liberations.” At times, the flow of the book can feel too episodic, an additional criticism that some have raised with Davis’s larger body of work.
The two authors have also attempted to infuse more cultural history into the book than is usual for a Davis text; the history of The Freep, Ash Grove, Gidra, KPFK, and the cultural resistance in Watts that followed 1965 all receive coverage. Ultimately, though Davis and Wiener cling to a certain Marxist outlook, Set the Night on Fire clearly engages the issues that Avila and others have raised with Davis, notably the greater focus on place and more prominent role attributed to culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors that mediate and impact people’s lives.
In regard to the book’s concluding section, one wonders if the final chapter on Wattstax, or “L.A.’s Black Woodstock,” in 1972 is meant to close the narrative loop or insist that no such closure exists. It ends with a beginning, as Davis and Wiener describe the opening scene from the concert film, which features a group of Black men debating Watts’s fortunes since the 1965 unrest. Near the end, an older man provides his own conclusion. “They’ve changed some for the best; in an awful lot of cases, for the worst and some they have not changed at all. There’s no difference in Watts now than Watts ’65.”
A fitting coda for a book that seems as much about the possibilities and long term contributions of radical Los Angeles as it is the difficulties and struggles it encountered, overcame, or in many cases to which it succumbed. To Davis and Weiner these movements planted the necessary seeds, or as the quote attributed to former Doors drummer John Densmore opens the book: “They are big seeds. Maybe they take fifty or a hundred years to reach fruition. So stop complaining, and get out your watering can.”
As this opening aside suggests, if Davis has been accused of pessimism over the years, Set the Night on Fire feels different. Perhaps it’s the moderating influence of age, the collaboration with Wiener, a combination of both, or a set of wholly unrelated factors that explain the optimism that closes this book. Undaunted by historical revisionism, the two authors point to a new generation of activists who remain unbowed by conservative historiographies. They suggest that the book exists, in part, to unite the activism of today with that of the past or as they put it: “To keep that circle unbroken…” Published just months before George Floyd and the national protests that followed, Davis, once again, seems to write the future even as he and Wiener dive into the past.
Ryan Reft is a historian for the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division where he oversees its collections regarding domestic policy (Congress, law, journalism, and LGBTQ holdings) and curated the 2017-2018 exhibit: Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I. He is also senior co-editor with Avigail Oren of The Metropole and writer for KCET. His work has appeared in the Journal of Urban History, Boom California, California History, Southern California Quarterly, and Souls among others. Along with Romeo Guzman, Carribean Fragoza, and Alex Sayf Cummings, he co-edited and contributed to the edited volume East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (Rutgers Press, 2020).
Featured image (at top): Miracle Mile in the early 1960s. Postcard of Wilshire Boulevard, ca. 1960s. Ellis-Sawyer, Wikimedia Commons.
Gustavo Arellano, “Revisiting Mike Davis’ Case for Letting It Burn,” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2018.
Eric Avila, “Essaying Los Angeles,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010), 187-188.
Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Verso, 2006), 47, 51.
Michael J. Dear, “Preface,” in Chicago to L.A.: Making Sense of Urban Theory, ed. Michael J. Dear (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), vii.
Gustavo Arellano, “Revisiting Mike Davis’ Case for Letting It Burn,”Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2018.
Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage, 1998), 97.
Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the City (New York: Verso, 2000), 8.
In the interest of brevity, I’ve ignored numerous other works such as Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Will Never See (2003) written with Jim Miller and Kelly Mayhew, Planet of Slums (2006), and about ten other non-fiction works either written or co-authored by Davis.
To their credit, Davis and Wiener also mine recent dissertations by Emily Strauss, Alisa Kramer, Rebecca Theresa David, and Andrea Gibbons among others, several of which have since been published as books. Established historians get their due as well—Vicki Ruiz, Mario T. Garcia, Lillian Faderman, Stuart Timmons, Laura Pulido, and Rudolfo F. Acuño—as do newer authors such as Widener, Jean Paul De Guzman, Daniel HoSang, and Shana Bernstein among others.