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No Time to Wallow in the Mire

Mike Davis and Jon Wiener's history of Los Angeles in the 1960s can sometimes feel as long as the decade itself, but is a monumental and moving tribute to a heroic, violently suppressed moment of possibility.

On the 1990 publication of his landmark LA story City of Quartz, the activist turned academic Mike Davis described himself in an interview with Jon Savage as having “a decentred vision”. Thirty years later, Set The Night on Fire – a “movement history” of Sixties Los Angeles, co-written with Nation contributing editor Jon Wiener – finds this former Students for a Democratic Society and trade union organiser returning to the closest thing he has to a motherlode. 

 To say that the terrain on which Davis won his radical spurs continues to be fiercely contested would be putting it mildly. Set The Night On Fire’s unarguable concluding contention that “For more than half a century, The Right has waged a relentless campaign against the goals and achievements of the Sixties’ movements for racial, social and economic equality” is counterpointed by the more idealistic assertion that “this rewrite of history from the standpoint of wealthy white men has had minimal impact on the social consciousness of the young people of colour who are Los Angeles’ future”. To see how much work the word “consciousness” is having to do here, try substituting the word “reality” and letting that sentence run into its own buffers. That the authors have more than one dog in this race is obvious – to the extent that they sometimes make EP Thompson look like Dominic Sandbrook – but no-one could accuse Davis and Wiener of starry-eyed optimism in the main body of the text. In fact, one of Set The Night On Fire’s most impressive achievements is its willingness to keep holding the multifarious gazes of the many-headed hydra of reaction which reared up to menace anyone with the temerity to challenge the Southern Californian status quo of white supremacy and patriarchal bullying. 

From the gay patrons of the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake, to the middle class babies in prams at what started as a family day out and became the Century City police riot, to the embattled Black Muslims of the 21st temple, to the teenage denizens of Sunset Strip, to the self-motivated Chicano students of the School Blowouts, even the the most disparate of protesters were united in the inevitability of falling prey to at the very least the rough side of the LAPD’s night-sticks and at worst, on a sickening number of occasions, a murderous blast of gunfire. “The police”, John Shabazz – formerly The Eagle’s jazz correspondent Johnny Morris – testified of the unprovoked gun attack of April 1962 which left Malcolm X’s friend Ronald Stokes dead and fourteen members of the Nation of Islam arraigned on felony charges,  “were looking for an excuse to kill us”.    

Those seeking succour from a present-day landscape of (on both sides of the Atlantic) heavily militarised policing and client media apologists for bungling proto-fascist super-villains will not find it in this book. Looming largest in a memorable pantheon of establishment perfidy is LAPD chief William H. Parker (a beyond problematic figure whose enduring hold on the public imagination is somewhat cattily credited here to “James Ellroy and other pulp writers”), with the LA Times’ remorselessly bigoted proprietor Norman Chandler perched on his right shoulder like a pirate’s parrot. One sub-headline taken from the Times’ infamously one-eyed coverage of events at Century City in 1967 – “Police say they suspect many persons who claim to have been seriously hurt by police were faking”- is so craven it could be a tweet from Laura Kuenssberg herself. 

A no less colourful – albeit considerably more sympathetic – gallery of characters are arrayed on the other side of the barricades. From cabaret star Lena Horne, whose response to being racially abused by a drunken white businessman at the Luau Restaurant in Beverley Hills in February 1960 was to throw an ashtray and a lamp at the perpetrator; to Sister Corita Kent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, whose globally recognised talent for polemical pop art won her a place on the eternal shit-list of LA’s notoriously right wing cardinal, Francis McIntyre; Davis and Wiener’s judicious, albeit sparing, applications of showbiz stardust offer the reader welcome respite from the hard work of hacking through forests of organisational acronyms. I think my favourite of Set The Night On Fire’s occasional Hollywood vignettes is the revelation (at least it was news to me) that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry fuelled his powerful engine of liberal guilt by working as part of William H. Parker’s formidable PR machine. However the case made here for the perpetually inebriated police chief having supplied the inspiration for the Vulcan paragon that was Spock is not unanswerable. 

On the subject of those who boldly went where no man – or woman – had gone before, it is impossible not to be moved by the bravery of those who sought to unravel the cat’s cradle of discrimination in which non-white Angelenos were enmeshed throughout their lives. Like the black psychologist who dared to try to move into the all white San Fernando Valley and whose modest aspirations to participation in the American dream was met with a blizzard of racial hatred, among its toxic snowflakes the graffiti’d slogan “black cancer here – don’t let it spread” on the walls of what he hoped would become his home. “Torrance has no negro problem” – the mayor of one of too many “Sundown towns” (where any black person found after nightfall would automatically be arrested) opined confidently – “we only have three negroes in the city”. Such segregation was not merely ‘de facto’, but was applied with equal severity in housing, education and employment, and was enforced with all the seemingly infinite reserves of brutality at the disposal of the long arm of the law or the even longer arms of a white community that pushed back against the Rumford Fair Housing Bill by voting in overwhelming numbers for the explicitly racist Proposition 14. 

If this attritional struggle for territory – physical, emotional, spiritual – has a leitmotif, it’s “one step forward, two steps back”. Set The Night On Fire is a long book (almost 800 pages with footnotes and index) and not one of those long books that can be said to fly by. In fact, there are points when the decade it describes seems to be playing out in real time. And yet you’re never more than a few pages from a LAPD officer murdering a black teenager only to be acquitted by an all-white jury. Arguably the climax of this decade-long campaign of violent racial suppression comes with December 8th 1969’s extraordinary assault on the Black Panther office on Central Avenue. Four days after the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, LA riots police chief-in-waiting Darryl Gates leads a full scale SWAT team assault on 13 mostly teenage Panthers.  Several hours later, 19 year-old Renee “Peaches” Moore emerges from the rubble waving a white flag. At the trial which follows, police provocateur James Jarrett is unable to testify because the CIA have despatched him to help train Israeli commandos (In the light of recent events leading to the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, it’s important to note that this line of communication always went both ways).   

From Sophia Wyatt, a genteel stalwart of early 60s anti-nuke pioneers Women Strike for Peace (“I changed into a respectable dress, hauled my one and only hat out of mothballs and put on gloves…”), to the more streetwise welfare mothers campaigner Johnnie Tillmon (who memorably defined US state assistance as “a supersexist marriage where you trade in A man for THE man”), via canny local Communist party leader Dorothy Healey (tenderly described by Davis as “the major and enduring intellectual and moral influence in my life”), Set The Night On Fire is very good on front-line female participation. So its disappointing that the one chapter in this book which feels slightly tacked on towards the end, isolated from the narrative’s otherwise inexorable forward thrust, is “The Many Faces of Women’s Liberation”. Back in 1961, Women Strike For Peace organiser Dagmar Wilson had run rings around the House Unamerican Activities Committee by asserting that not only was her movement entirely run by volunteers, but nobody in it was controlled by anybody. “This is something”, Wilson observed wryly, that she found “very hard to explain to the masculine mind”. Her message of decentralised hope is echoed in Set The Night On Fire’s introductory contribution from John Densmore, the drummer of The Doors – whose “Light My Fire” supplied the book’s title (and it’s nice to see that band back at the forefront of LA  counter-culture where they belong, rather than consigned to some phallocentric naughty step, like idiots say). The seeds of freedom planted in this decade, Densmore argues, “may take fifty or hundred years to reach fruition. So stop complaining and get out your watering can”.