Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, The Guardian, April 15, 2020
In an extract from Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener look past the sun and surf to a radical fight for equality and justice.
In August 1965, thousands of young Black people in Watts set fire to the illusion that Los Angeles was a youth paradise.
Since the debut of the TV show 77 Sunset Strip in 1958, followed by the first of the Gidget romance films in 1959 and then the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA in 1963, teenagers in the rest of the country had become intoxicated with images of the endless summer that supposedly defined adolescence in southern California.
Edited out of utopia was the existence of a rapidly growing population of more than 1 million people of African, Asian, and Mexican ancestry. Their kids were restricted to a handful of beaches; everywhere else, they risked arrest by local cops or beatings by white gangs. As a result, Black surfers were almost as rare in LA as unicorns. Economic opportunity was also rationed.
During the first half of the 60s, hundreds of brand-new college classrooms beckoned to white kids with an offer of free higher education, while factories and construction sites begged for more workers. But failing inner-city high schools with extreme dropout rates reduced the college admissions of Black and brown youth to a small trickle. Despite virtually full employment for whites, Black youth joblessness dramatically increased, as did the index of residential segregation. If these were truly golden years of opportunity for white teenagers, their counterparts in South Central and East LA faced bleak, ultimately unendurable futures.
But LA’s streets and campuses in the 60s also provided stages for many other groups to assert demands for free speech, equality, peace and justice. Initially these protests tended to be one-issue campaigns, but the grinding forces of repression – above all the Vietnam draft and the LAPD – drew them together in formal and informal alliances.
Thus LGBT activists coordinated actions with youth activists in protest of police and sheriffs’ dragnets on Sunset Strip, in turn making “Free Huey” one of their demands. When Black and Chicano high school kids “blew out” their campuses in 1968–69, several thousand white students walked out in solidarity. A brutal LAPD attack on thousands of middle-class antiwar protesters at the Century Plaza Hotel in 1967 hastened the development of a biracial coalition supporting Tom Bradley, a liberal Black council member, in his crusade to wrest City Hall from rightwing populist Sam Yorty.
In the same period, the antiwar movement joined hands with the Black Panthers to form California’s unique Peace and Freedom Party. There are many other examples. By 1968, as a result, the “movement” resembled the music of LA free jazz pianist Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra: simultaneous solos together with unified crescendos. Historians of 60s protests have rarely studied the reciprocal influences and interactions across such broad spectrum of constituencies, and these linkages are too often neglected in memoirs, but they provide a principal terrain of our analysis.
The 60s in LA have obvious bookends. The year 1960 saw the appearance of social forces that would coalesce into the movements of the era, along with the emergence of a new agenda for social change, especially around what might be called the “issue of issues”: racial segregation. In LA, those developments overlapped with the beginning of the regime of Sam Yorty, elected mayor in 1961. 1973, on the other hand, marked not only the end of protest in the streets but also the defeat of Yorty and the advent of the efficient, pro-business administration of Tom Bradley.
There were also three important turning points that subdivide the long decade. 1963 was a rollercoaster year that witnessed the first: the rise and fall of the United Civil Rights Committee, the most important attempt to integrate housing, schools and jobs in LA through non-violent protest and negotiation. (Only Detroit produced a larger and more ambitious civil rights united front during what contemporaries called “Birmingham Summer”.) In California it brought passage of the state’s first Fair Housing Act – repealed by referendum the following year in an outburst of white backlash.
1965, of course, saw the second turning point, the so-called Watts Riots. The third, 1969, began as a year of hope with a strong coalition of white liberals, Blacks and newly minted Chicanos supporting Bradley for mayor. He led the polls until election eve, when Yorty counterattacked with a vicious barrage of racist and red-baiting appeals to white voters. Bradley’s defeat foreclosed, at least for the foreseeable future, any concessions to the city’s minorities or liberal voters. Moreover, it was immediately followed by sinister campaigns, involving the FBI, the district attorney’s office, and both the LAPD and LA county sheriffs, to destroy the Panthers, Brown Berets and other radical groups.
This is the true context underlying the creeping sense of dread and imminent chaos famously evoked by Joan Didion in her 1979 essay collection, The White Album. If “helter skelter” was unleashed after 1970, the Manson gang were bit players compared to the institutions of law and order. For the past half century, a number of stereotypes have framed our recollections of this age of revolt, but the Los Angeles experience confounds most cliches. In the standard narrative, for instance, college students, organized as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Free Speech Movement (FSM) in Berkeley, were the principal social actors, and the great engine rooms of protest were found at huge public university campuses in places like Berkeley, Madison, Ann Arbor, and Kent. (The exceptions, according to this narrative, were some historical Black colleges and Ivy League Columbia.)
In Los Angeles, however, it was junior and senior high schools that were the principal battlefields, and the majority of protesters were Black and brown. Indeed, as many as 20,000 inner-city teenagers and their white Westside allies participated in walkouts and demonstrations between 1967 and 1970. Members of college radical groups as well as the Black Panther party played significant roles as advisers to these protests, but the “indigenous” teenage leadership was most important. These struggles recruited hundreds of kids to groups like the Panthers and Brown Berets and gave birth to a unique high school New Left formation, the “Red Tide”.
The terrain of college protest in Los Angeles also differed from that of the mainstream. Of the two flagship local universities, the University of Southern California was a citadel of campus Republicanism, birthplace of Nixon’s so-called “USC Mafia” (and, as it turned out, the alma mater of several Watergate conspirators). UCLA, for its part, saw only episodic mass protests, most notably during Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia in spring 1970. The real homes of sustained student activism were the three inner-city community colleges (LA City College, Southwest College and East LA College), along with Cal State LA and Valley State (later Cal State, Northridge).
The latter was the site of a 1969–70 uprising by the Black Student Union and SDS that was quelled by police batons, mass arrests, and a staggering 1,730 felony charges against Black students: repression on a scale that rivaled or exceeded the more famous battles at San Francisco State.
Historians and political scientists have generally conceded that the one hundred or so ghetto insurrections of the 1960s should be regarded as genuine protests, but they have usually described them as leading to mere chaos and demoralization. Conventionally, “rioters” have been portrayed as the opposites of organizers and builders. This does not describe events in Los Angeles.
The 1965 explosion unified and energized a generation of young Black people, ended gang conflict for a number of years, and catalyzed the extraordinary “Watts Renaissance”, the city’s most important arts and literary movement of the decade. “Black Power” became an aspiration shared by thousands, and in 1967 this grassroots unity found expression in the emergence of LA’s Black Congress – the more radical successor to the United Civil Rights Committee. It included SNCC, the Black Student Alliance, the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party, the Black Panthers, and the powerful Us organization (or Organization Us) led by Ron Karenga. (The congress would later be destroyed by a violent conflict between Us and the Panthers, instigated and fueled by the FBI’s secret Cointelpro program.)
Contests over public space were also extraordinarily important in Los Angeles. In part this was the legacy of earlier decades when the LAPD’s notorious Red Squad had been the enforcer of the anti-union “open shop” doctrine, and when city hall supplied draconian anti-picketing and anti–free speech ordinances. The 60s saw a renewal of this unsavory tradition.
The LAPD, aided by the LA county sheriffs, conducted an unending siege of bohemian Venice, tried to drive “teenyboppers” and hippies off Sunset Strip, regularly broke up peaceful “love-ins” and rallies in Griffith and Elysian Parks, suppressed lowriders on Whittier Boulevard, harassed kids selling the “underground” LA Free Press, raided coffeehouses and folk clubs, and invoked “obscenity” as an excuse to crack down on artists, poets and theater groups. 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 victimized, leading hatred of the LAPD to grow into a common culture of resistance.
The cops, however, had a formidable opponent in the ACLU of Southern California, the national organization’s most hard-charging and activist affiliate. When national ACLU director Roger Baldwin and a majority of the national leadership publicly embraced anti-communism in the late 1940s, AL Wirin, ACLU SoCal’s legendary chief counsel, pointedly challenged the ban on representing Communist party members in trial proceedings, taking on several cases in private practice.
Moreover, in 1952, the local branch chose as its new director Eason Monroe, a state college professor from San Francisco who had been fired for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. A decade later, Monroe charted a novel course for the affiliate by not only defending the local civil rights coalition in court but also joining in its leadership. Significantly, it was an ACLU team, led by UCLA professor John Caughey and his wife LaRee, that launched the legendary 1963 lawsuit to force integration of LA’s de facto Jim Crow school system – an effort that would reverberate for three decades. No other ACLU branch claimed such a large role in the decade’s protest movements.
Understanding Los Angeles in the 60s also requires rewriting the histories of gay liberation and the women’s movement. Indeed, New York City was not the origin and center of everything. Los Angeles had the first gay street protest in America – over police raids on the Black Cat Bar in Silver Lake, two years before the Stonewall uprising; it had the first gay church – the Metropolitan community church, now the largest gay institution in the world; and it had the first officially recognized gay pride parade – on Hollywood Boulevard in 1970. LA also witnessed the nation’s first police raid on a women’s health clinic, following which the organizers were tried for “practicing medicine without a license”.
Finally, the course of events in Los Angeles challenged the myth that the “Old Left” was irrelevant in the 60s and that the New Left had invented itself ex nihilo. The Communist party, for its part, never appears in the standard narrative except as an unattractive corpse. But in Los Angeles its most unruly and dissident branch remained very much alive under the charismatic and eventually heretical leadership of Dorothy Healey.
Despite the party’s devastating losses following Soviet secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 Crimes of Stalin speech, Healey was determined to resurrect what she could of the 1940s Popular Front and to reach out to the new radicals on campus, in the ghettos and in the barrios. Still under the threat of a prison sentence, she found a niche at KPFK, the new 75,000-watt Pacifica Radio FM station, in 1959, where her Communist Commentary impressed even hostile listeners with its intelligence and wit – although it almost cost the station its license. In 1966 she ran in the primary for county tax assessor and received a staggering 85,000 votes. By then the local Communist party had confidentially rebuilt many of its links with progressives in the Democratic party and had assumed an important role in the Peace Action Council. Its youth members, relatively unconstrained by a party line or adult control, played innovative roles in the early 60s, including participation in Southern Freedom Rides, and later, more influentially, as the Che-Lumumba Club – which would become the political base of Angela Davis. For two generations Healey defined radicalism in the public eye.
This is a “movement history” of Los Angeles that looks at the city from the vantage points of its flatland neighborhoods and bohemian beaches where the young heroes of this story lived. We have tried to give human faces to social forces, to understand rebellion as a constant debate about goals and tactics, and to recall the passions of struggle, especially the power of love. It was also important to describe in some detail the machinery of racial oppression that kept good schools, well-paid jobs and suburban homes out of the reach of people living inside the city’s ghettos and barrios.
At epic moments in the long decade – the United Civil Rights campaign in 1963, the Watts uprising in 1965, and the wave of high school revolts from 1966 to 1969 – the movement tried mightily to break through to the other side, only to face the batons and drawn guns of the LAPD. By 1973, repression had dug nearly 100 graves and put more than 10,000 protesters in jail or prison. An enormous effort has been made to trivialize the 60s and to bury its dreams in a pauper’s grave. But its unruly ghost, like that of the 1930s, still shakes its chains in the nightmares of elites.
Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener (Verso), is out now