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Making Los Angeles

Mike Davis and Jon Wiener's new book 'Set the Night on Fire' chronicles the social struggles that shaped 1960s Los Angeles, from the Watts Rebellion to the Black Panther Party.

Los Angeles has a special place in our shared consciousness because it’s where American myths are made, in the form of Hollywood films. But for Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, it’s also a city of rebellion, where the brutal reality of US capitalism has been consistently contested by vibrant grassroots campaigns. Their very readable but meticulously detailed account has relevance far beyond its time. As the foreword says, quoting The Doors, the ’60s were a period when seeds of social justice were sown. 

The book’s structure is a year-by-year account of a decade that shaped politics for half a century. One of its great achievements is to describe how different struggles were linked across the US. The fight for civil rights in the Deep South informed and inspired movements on the West Coast. As James Baldwin put it “(there’s) no distance between Birmingham and Los Angeles.” LA was at the vanguard of enduring social movements, demanding not just an end to racism, but violent policing, war, homophobia, sexism, environmental destruction, restrictions of public space and discriminatory housing and education. 

Davis and Wiener introduce us to a fascinating range of heroic characters, many of whom are usually omitted from similar histories. They also chronicle the fluctuating – sometimes confusing – fortunes of the Left and its many tributaries. One of my few criticisms of the book is that it doesn’t include a table of abbreviations, useful for any study of the US labour movement, where organisations and acronyms proliferate. But the authors give an honest assessment of victories and defeats, a constant tide that was particularly stark in ’60s Los Angeles, but remains relevant today. 

The most vivid and shocking example of progress and reaction was the battle against LA’s history of discrimination and segregation in housing. In 1963, California passed the Rumford (Fair Housing) Act, outlawing the common practice of white homeowners and developers refusing to sell to black people. The year after, a motley coalition promoted Proposition 14, a referendum to repeal Rumford. Davis and Wiener describe how “white supremacists seemed to emerge from under every suburban rock” and comfortably won a vote that sanctioned organised racism. 

Against this background, it becomes much easier to understand the origins of the Watts rebellion in August 1965. The authors devote a chapter to the uprising, offering a daily account of events that suggests they weren’t far from the action themselves, although another strength of the book is that Davis and Wiener avoid putting themselves in the picture, instead giving a voice to activists who too-often go unheard. As well as housing conditions, Watts was the product of pent-up frustration with a political system that had betrayed African-American communities, leaving them in an “economic flytrap,” where deep poverty mixed with the constant menace of the LAPD – whose racist and violent methods were established long before Rodney King experienced them in 1991.

Martin Luther King’s reaction to Watts was that people were “destroying a physical and emotional jail.” But Set the Night on Fire illustrates how the people of Los Angeles rose again, both culturally and politically. Budd Schulberg, who wrote On the Waterfront, helped set up the Watts Writers Project and the Watts Prophets emerged with a blend of music and poetry that directly inspired hip-hop. The Black Panther Party and similar Black Power groups began to turn away from nationalism, towards alliances with other working class organisations, before being viciously suppressed by the FBI and state forces. In the late ’60s, Latino LA school students staged huge walkouts in protest against their under-resourced education, and there was a community campaign against official attempts to control and sanitise the diverse uses of public space at Venice Beach.

In the closing chapter, Davis and Wiener record how more recent movements have built on LA’s radical tradition. In May 2001, half a million people marched through the city in defence of immigrant rights; in January 2017, a quarter of a million took part in the Women’s March following Trump’s election; in 2019, LA teachers were part of the wave of militant strikes across the US. The authors conclude with a message of hope, arguing that LA’s future will be shaped by a generation whose “own experience of nativism, discrimination, sexual harassment and blocked mobility ensure that they will be genuine successors to grandmothers and grandfathers who so long ago raised their clenched fists and demanded power to the people.”