Set the Night on Fire is a monumental history of radical movements in 1960s Los Angeles, which holds lessons for global resistance movements today, finds Sean Ledwith

Mike Davis and John Wiener, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (Verso 2020), 788pp.

Just over thirty years ago, Mike Davis, co-author of this volume, published a trailblazing radical history of Los Angeles, titled City of Quartz. The 1990 book is a dazzling study of America’s most important city on the West Coast, audaciously combining culture, history, politics and urban theory to generate a richly multidimensional view of the City of Angels.

Set the Night on Fire in many ways serves as a welcome sequel to City of Quartz and similarly fuses multiple perspectives on a city that continues to dominate the American psyche thanks to the films, television and music created there. Davis is one of America’s best-known Marxists and this volume upholds his reputation as a committed scholar who always emphasises the power of socialism from below.

The more recent book has a narrower focus chronologically, concentrating on a decade that arguably was the most important in post-war US history. As the long boom began to falter, resistance to the shibboleths of the American establishment, such as white supremacy and sexual repression, began to burst through the cracks in mainstream consciousness and would send shockwaves around the world.

A new generation of left-wing radicals would surge to prominence, pushing aside the conservatism that had dominated the US in the wake of years of McCarthyite paranoia and FBI surveillance. This was to be one of the great activist waves of the US left, featuring crucial episodes such as the Watts uprising, the Black Power movement, second-wave feminism and the Weathermen underground; all of which are discussed in depth here. Tragically the decades that followed represented a counter-offensive by the forces of reaction as neoliberalism, in its various guises, encouraged a caricature of the 60s as an era of excess and self-indulgence. As the authors put it:

‘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. From Reagan to Trump, there has been an endless hammering away at caricatures of dopey hippies, traitorous peace protesters, bra-burning feminists, dangerous Black radicals, and commissars of political correctness’ (p.638).

Davis and Weiner are explicit in their desire not just to construct an encyclopaedic account of LA in a particular moment of its history, but also to highlight how the featured events and personalities can provide valuable lessons for global resistance movements today.

Experiences of the 60s

This volume has two aspects that set it apart from City of Quartz and make it arguably even more compelling. Firstly, Davis is writing much more here about the events of his own lifetime and how they shaped his impressively resilient American brand of Marxism. He describes, for example, the raw terror he felt the first time he was thrown in the back of an LA police van following a demonstration. Davis’ co-author, Jon Wiener, also participated in some of the dramatic episodes recounted in the book. The writers’ indefatigable commitment to a revolutionary socialist agenda, then and now, lends emotional weight to the book and challenges the reader to be inspired by the heroic nature of the anti-racist, anti-war, women’s and gay-rights movements that rocked the city at that time.

Also, Set the Night on Fire is primarily a study of the city in the 1960s when African American resistance to US racism was taken to another level by charismatic and dynamic figures such as James Baldwin, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. These and many more iconic personalities from the era feature prominently in the book. Last year’s explosive Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the US were hugely influenced by the ongoing appeal of the 60s generation of radical leaders, and so there is much to be gained in our time by studying their strategy and tactics.

If the characters above act as the heroes of the book, there are also vividly sketched villains in the forms of LAPD chief William Parker, Mayor Sam Yorty and Cardinal James McIntyre. These three men acted as a powerful cabal of police brutality, political corruption and religious bigotry that confronted the progressive forces rising in Los Angeles at the start of the 1960s and, in their overlapping efforts, sought to turn the clock back to an era when untrammelled capitalism, racism and sexism had an unquestioned grip on the city. Yorty cynically ensured that federal funds were not used to alleviate urban poverty and McIntyre ruthlessly purged radical elements among the clergy of the city‘s influential Catholic Church. Even so, the most infamous of the terrible triptych was Parker.

Police violence

He was boss of the local police force from 1950 to 1966 and is now probably most familiar as a fictionalised character in the crime novels of James Ellroy, such as LA Confidential. Parker was an unashamed racist who blamed the city’s social tensions on the growing number of Mexican-American immigrants. The language he utilised regarding this section of the population is horribly reminiscent of the baleful rhetoric used by Trump in his presidential campaigning decades later. Parker told reporters in 1960:

‘some of these people are not too far removed from the wild tribes of the district of the inner mountains of Mexico. I don’t think you can throw the genes out of the question when you discuss behaviour patterns of people’ (p.39).

Parker’s experience as a US soldier in the military occupation of post-war Germany somehow led to him believe similar tactics were appropriate to controlling a multiracial metropolis in a democratic state. The brutality of the LAPD became notorious in this era and established a bloody trend that would climax decades later with the savage beating of Rodney King that sparked the 1992 uprising. One of the demands of the protestors during that event was the resignation of Chief Daryl Gates who had actually served as Parker’s chauffeur in the 1960s. In the authors’ words:

‘No other major city outside of the Deep South was subjected to such a fanatic and all-encompassing campaign to police space and control the night. Along with minorities, many young whites were also routinely victimised, leading hatred of the LAPD to grow into a common culture of resistance’ (p.5).

The book is littered with examples of the disproportionate and egregious conduct of Parker’s paramilitary-style LAPD, most decisively when they waded into a peaceful anti-war demonstration at the Century City hotel in 1967. Davis and Wiener cite multiple eyewitness accounts of what happened there on a summer’s night that grimly echo more recent accounts of state violence in Ferguson, Minneapolis, Portland and other US cities:

‘Blood sports. Other cops joined in. The first cop started hitting a girl, about 20, with a baby in her arms. She fell down trying to protect the child, the same cop kicked her in the back. A doctor tried to go to her aid and was beaten down by several cops’ (p.303).

The gratuitous nature of the beatings they inflicted on a conspicuously middle-class and white protest played a crucial part in transforming the campaign against US involvement in Vietnam from a marginal to a pivotal issue in national politics. A few months later, President Lyndon Johnson took the unprecedented step of deciding not to run for a second term due to the polarisation that the war had triggered in US society. Johnson’s resignation in 1968 was one of the great achievements of the radical left at this time and reminds us that not even the most powerful capitalist politician is untouchable if a movement from below has sufficient momentum and public backing.

Toppling President Johnson

Johnson had founded his ascent to the Presidency four years earlier on the promise of the so-called Great Society, a major commitment by the federal government in Washington to the eradication of poverty in the US and the construction of a substantive welfare state, funded by the massive tax revenues the state was accumulating during the long boom. One of the most dramatic indicators that Johnson’s Great Society would ultimately turn to ashes was the Watts uprising in Los Angeles in 1965. Right-wing commentators, then and now, like to refer to this event as a ‘race riot’ but, as Davis and Wiener explain, it should more usefully be comprehended as a multiracial working-class insurrection. In their words:

‘the August rebellion was not primarily a race riot since Mexican neighbours were for the most part left undisturbed … there were few, if any attempts to actually murder whites, apart, perhaps, from attacks on the police’ (p.211).

The South-Central suburb known as Watts, covering almost fifty square miles, was the principal black ghetto of the city and had been the scene of decades of economic neglect by white politicians and arbitrary harassment by white police officers. Eighty thousand people were crammed into congested public housing with sub-standard educational and healthcare infrastructures. The proportion of local black boys not completing schooling was running at 70%. Male unemployment was 30% at a time when the US was supposedly enjoying an economic golden age. Female unemployment in Watts was double that (p.208). A few months before the ghetto exploded into violence in August 1965, the great Malcolm X had presciently predicted that such an event was imminent:

‘1965 will be the longest and hottest and bloodiest year of them all … I spend my time out there in the streets with people, all kind of people, listening to what they have to say. And they’re dissatisfied, they’re disillusioned, they’re fed up, they’re getting to the point of frustration where they are beginning to feel: What do they have to lose? (quoted on p.203).

When the insurrection erupted, it was inevitably the black community that bore the brunt of the violence. The 34 deaths and over one thousand major injuries were overwhelmingly sustained by the residents of Watts. The five days of urban chaos began in grimly familiar fashion when a young African American man, Marquette Frye, was pulled over by the cops for an alleged traffic violation. When Frye resisted arrest, he was whacked in the face with a police baton. His mother and sisters were also on the scene and they promptly found themselves pinned to the hood of patrol cars.

The powder-keg of urban deprivation detonated over the next few hours and days as the LAPD lost control of the situation and the National Guard had to be sent into what Chief Parker himself described as ‘very much like fighting the Vietcong’ (quoted on p.220). The federal force horrifyingly treated the citizens of Watts as enemy combatants. Davis and Wiener’s description of this episode draws chilling parallels between how US armed forces were behaving in their own cities and in Vietnam at exactly the same time:

‘No one could have selected a worse unit to send out into the streets of South-Central LA. They soon showed their mettle by killing two innocent people … Meanwhile the unleashed LAPD was slaughtering unarmed looters and bystanders: ten shot dead Friday night and early Saturday morning’ (p.219).

Johnson, of course, was the Democrat President who simultaneously oversaw both the crushing of the Watts uprising and the escalation of the Vietnam war. His failure to see the contradiction between the squalid conditions of African Americans in LA and other major US cities with the multi-million dollar expenditure of the conflict in Southeast Asia doomed his administration and helped pave the way for a new breed of extra-predatory Republican politicians in the forms of Nixon and Reagan.

It was the merciless state response to Watts, along with similar insurrections such as Detroit in 1967, that prompted two black Californian students, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to create the Black Panther Party in 1966. Davis records how the Panthers displayed undoubted courage and tactical innovations in their battles with the LAPD and FBI but were ultimately overpowered by the ruthless deployment of firepower by the US state. The LA branch of the Panthers did not go down without a fight, however, and in 1969 heroically defended their HQ in what a local newspaper described as ‘one of the biggest shootouts in American history’ (quoted on p.466).

Davis and Wiener conclude by mourning the passing of the 60s golden age of American radicalism. However, they also note that the battles fought by the oppressed on multiple fronts in Los Angeles in that era live on in the memory of their children and grandchildren today. On the day of Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the largest demonstration in the city’s history took place as 750 000 participated in the Women’s March against the accession to power of the orange abomination. Two years later, Latino high school students walked out of classrooms in solidarity with their red-shirted, striking teachers (p.637). The authors’ commitment to revolution in the US is undimmed by the temporary ascendancy of high priests of reaction such as Reagan and Trump.

Set the Night on Fire is a truly monumental achievement by Davis and Wiener and it is unlikely it will ever be surpassed as a multifaceted account of LA at this time. It represents a fitting tribute to the countless Angelinos of all colours who stood up to the armour-plated forces of the US state when it was seemingly at its most powerful. They finish this massive volume on a fittingly optimistic note:

‘the Sixties in Los Angeles are best conceived of as a sowing, whose seeds grew into living traditions of resistance. Movements rose and fell to be sure, but individual commitments to social change were enduring and inheritable’ (p.636).

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters