Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties 
by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener.
Verso, 788 pp., £25, April 2020, 978 1 78478 022 7
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Los Angeles​ is often imagined as a place where fun and culture happen but politics doesn’t. Since it first became a big city in the early 20th century, only a few of its political events have received global attention: the city’s deadly riots in 1965 and 1992; the formative years spent in southern California by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and the region’s postwar conservative movement, which greatly influenced their presidencies; and last year’s protests over policing and racism, which were among the largest in the US. The rest of the time, you might suppose, Angelenos have been busy surfing, or sunbathing, or skateboarding, or making escapist movies. The endlessly told story of America’s turbulent 1960s usually leaves LA out of its list of politically important cities. New York, Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC, Birmingham, Alabama and the very different California of San Francisco and Berkeley: these are where the key confrontations are said to have happened. When LA gets a mention in histories of the decade, it’s usually for its flowering of pop music, from the pastel melodies of the Beach Boys to the dark anthems of the Doors; or for Hollywood’s hit and miss attempts to reflect the times, with uneven films such as Easy Rider; or for the murders committed in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson. Those could be seen as political – one of the motivations was to provoke a race war – but the horrifying character of Manson and the celebrity of some of the victims were what caught most people’s attention. The fascination with the episode has left the sense of 1960s LA as an apolitical place largely undisturbed.

With Set the Night on Fire, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener attempt to change that. The book documents a whole world of interconnected, often forgotten rebellions that took place on the streets, on campuses, in schools, on beaches, in churches, at workplaces, in radical newspapers and journals, in temporary political headquarters across the immense grid of the Los Angeles conurbation: from its generally richer, lusher west, near the Pacific (the LA of the popular imagination), to the generally poorer, dustier inland suburbs of the north, south and east. These rebellions went on throughout the 1960s. They included school walkouts and demonstrations by tens of thousands of African American, Hispanic and white pupils; ‘the first gay street protest in America’; anti-Vietnam protests so intense and disastrously policed that they helped persuade Lyndon Johnson not to stand for re-election; extensive activism by the Black Panthers and other Black Power groups; and the 1965 riots, which Davis and Wiener describe as an ‘uprising’ – led like the others by ‘working-class heroes’.

The city against which these heroes revolted often comes across as more like somewhere in apartheid South Africa – a northern Cape Town, complete with a beautiful coast and mountains, enviable climate and extreme inequality – than the mellow paradise of southern Californian myth. By the 1960s, decades of economic growth and a long influx of people from less booming places had made LA one of the most multiracial cities in America. But a white ascendancy was maintained through a mass of official and unofficial segregation measures, in housing, schooling, employment and, above all, policing. Davis and Wiener quote a former officer of the Los Angeles Police Department:

Black people could not venture north of Beverly [Boulevard] or much west of La Brea [Avenue] after dark without a strongly documented purpose. In Hollywood Division, a Negro was an automatic ‘shake’ or field interview with the resultant [arrest] warrant check or match-up to some vague crime report … If there was absolutely no way to arrest the suspect, he was told to start walking [home].

The LAPD also suppressed perceived challenges to the status quo from more privileged groups. During the 1960s, the police

conducted an unending siege of bohemian Venice [Beach], tried to drive ‘teenyboppers’ and hippies off Sunset Strip, regularly broke up peaceful ‘love-ins’ and rallies in Griffith and Elysian Parks … 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 theatre groups. No other major city outside of the Deep South was subject to such a fanatic and all-encompassing campaign to police space and control the night.

The LAPD was barely accountable to the city government, or anyone else. Police misconduct was investigated internally, and the chief of the department held the job for life. The city’s mainstream newspapers backed the police largely unquestioningly, with the Los Angeles Herald Examiner publishing ‘an annual LAPD supplement lauding the chief and his men’. The rare LA politicians who criticised the police or tried to curtail their independence were blackmailed into silence. The LAPD bugged and spied on them, and kept dossiers on any business or romantic irregularities. Sam Yorty, an increasingly conservative Democrat who was mayor of LA from 1961 to 1973, was a typical case. He entered office as something of a liberal, warning the LAPD’s tyrannical chief William Parker to ‘stop making remarks about minority groups’. But then he received either a package or a personal visit from Parker – accounts vary – and switched to backing the police chief and his officers for the rest of his mayoralty. Since the 1960s, such shadowy goings-on have provided rich material for ‘James Ellroy and other pulp writers’, as Davis and Wiener sum up LA’s long line of novelist-historians. They themselves take a more sober approach, describing the city’s labyrinthine municipal politics not with relish so much as clarity and distaste.

Their enthusiasm is reserved instead for the rebels. They divide LA’s insurrections into three rough phases: an attempt in the early 1960s to integrate the city through peaceful protest and negotiation; a more militant phase in the mid 1960s; and then a proliferation of radical campaigns, and of efforts to crush them, at the end of the 1960s and into the early 1970s. Few of these stories have a happy ending. Occasionally, the book feels like a purely archival project – recognising and detailing defeated campaigns, mainly for the sake of their participants – rather than a narrative, but the greater part of the book is full of life and relevance. One focus is the endless effort by teenagers of all races to get round the restrictions on their ability to congregate, especially after dark, which conservative LA had placed on them ever since the 1880s. ‘Postwar California motorised youth rebellion,’ Davis and Wiener write:

A culture of cars, high-speed freeways … and featureless suburbs generated a vast ennui among bored but mobile teenagers. Any hint of excitement on a weekend evening might draw kids from anywhere in the hundred-odd-mile radius of local AM radio … When one rock station incautiously advertised a party at Malibu Beach in 1961, nearly twenty thousand teenagers showed up – and then rioted when sheriffs ordered them to leave.

On the Strip, a short section of Sunset Boulevard with a string of cafés and nightclubs, teenagers from across the city came to hear the new bands, or just to mill around, be part of the scene. Since the 1940s, when the police tolerated gangster-run gambling there, the Strip had been one of the places where LA let its hair down. But the visibility, youth, shagginess and sheer scale of the new crowds was seen by the authorities as unacceptable: a break with a tradition of indoor, relatively discreet transgression. Between 1966 and 1968 the police repeatedly tried to clear the Strip on weekend nights, arresting teenagers en masse, pulling them by their hair, and choking and beating them with batons. In December 1966 the LA Free Press reported an attack on ‘a kid holding a sign’ that left ‘a trail of blood 75 yards long’.

The city’s establishment press instinctively sided with the police. A typical headline in the Los Angeles Times read: hippies Blamed for Decline of the Sunset Strip. Yet in the longer term the teenagers won a partial victory. As the bands that played on the Strip became famous, executives from the city’s increasingly important record business started to side with the teenagers against the police. LA’s large and pragmatic culture industry began to see its hippie scene as a lifestyle that could be commodified. Police harassment continued along the Strip, but a more refined and marketable version of its mid-1960s music scene was being perfected in the wooded residential hills above it. The British pop historian Barney Hoskyns described it well in Waiting for the Sun (1996), his history of the LA music industry: ‘By the beginning of 1970, Laurel Canyon in particular had become … a place where the survivors of the Sunset Strip’s halcyon days could chill out in rambling split-level cabins with their cats and marijuana and write soul-searchingly introspective songs about the affairs they were having with each other.’ Up in the canyons, it was possible to believe that the macho LA of police chief Parker, who died in 1966, was giving way to the more sensitive city of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

But this was largely an illusion. Davis and Wiener demonstrate again and again that in less bucolic parts of the city the harsh, segregated LA lived on. Twenty miles south of Laurel Canyon, in the hotter, smoggier flatlands, the African American ghetto of Watts housed ‘eighty thousand of the poorest people in Los Angeles’ in two square miles of worn bungalows and public housing. Despite a boom driven by the Vietnam War and by LA’s many defence companies, the unemployment rate in Watts rose sharply in the 1960s: by 1964 it was 30 per cent for men. Many employers, while officially against racial discrimination, refused to hire African Americans. Marooned in Watts, young men were regularly stopped and searched, and arrested if they complained, thus acquiring police records that made them less employable still.

One boiling summer evening in 1965, a drink-driving episode in Watts led to a series of arrests and beatings by dozens of policemen. A week of protest followed, beginning in Watts and other ghettos across the city and spreading to the rest of southern California. Thirty-four people were killed, 3438 were arrested and the National Guard was mobilised. The LA Times described the rioters as ‘armed looters’ and ‘terrorists’, and their actions as a ‘guerrilla war’ – an especially loaded phrase in the Vietnam era. Davis and Wiener justify the uprising: first as ‘community retaliation against the police and exploitative local businesses’ and then as ‘neighbourhood resistance to military occupation’. They quote Martin Luther King, who visited Watts at the end of the violence and encountered a young man who told him: ‘We won!’ King was baffled: ‘Thirty-some people are dead [and] all but two are Negroes. You’ve destroyed your own [businesses]. What do you mean, “We won?”’ The man replied: ‘We made them pay attention to us.’ That was only briefly the case. A bittersweet closing chapter here describes Wattstax, a black music festival that took place in 1972 on the seventh anniversary of the uprising. It was ‘the biggest all-black gathering in American history’, part of a black cultural and social renaissance in LA which lasted until the early 1970s and included a rare, extended truce between criminal gangs. But Davis and Wiener point out that, economically and in its infrastructure, Watts in 1972 was no better off, and in some ways worse off, than in 1965. The neglect and discrimination continued for decades after. In 1992 much of black LA rioted again.

The book covers some lighter episodes. In 1967 one of the local organisers of the resistance to the Vietnam draft was Bill Garaway, a lanky young man who often spent his days barefoot. At an anti-draft meeting he was spotted by a casting director working for Michelangelo Antonioni, who was about to start shooting Zabriskie Point, which was partly about the unrest on California’s campuses. Antonioni decided that Garaway would be perfect as one of his radicals: he was so perfect for the role, in fact, that after the contract was signed he was tried and sentenced to five years in jail. Garaway managed to get his conviction quashed, but then faced a second trial. This time his case was finally dismissed, thanks in part to a bit of luck: the presiding judge had a son who had just come back from Vietnam and told him that ‘the war was a sham.’ Garaway left the courtroom and went back to filming. With his money from Antonioni, he ‘helped found a commune in Arizona, not far from the Safford federal prison where his Resistance comrades were serving their sentences, so they could visit frequently’.

Thecommon experience of being harassed by the LAPD meant that the rebels often formed coalitions. In 1970 members of the local branch of the Gay Liberation Front published A Guide to Revolutionary Homosexual Draft Resistance. ‘The US government oppresses homosexuals,’ the leaflet said. ‘Is this a system you want to die for?’ LA had a big gay population, and ‘many more gay bars than New York City’, according to the authors, but the bars were often raided by the police. On New Year’s Eve 1966, a dozen plainclothes vice squad officers had infiltrated the Black Cat Tavern, waited till midnight for everyone to start kissing and then beaten them to the ground, arresting them for ‘lewd conduct’. Over the next few weeks, patrons of the Black Cat and other gay Angelenos organised protests against the police, ‘more than two years before the Stonewall uprising in New York’ that is usually taken as the founding moment of the modern gay rights movement.

In 1969, it seemed that the combination of these new political forces might be enough to end Yorty’s mayoralty. In the election that year he was challenged by Tom Bradley, a liberal black city councillor who couldn’t easily be stereotyped as a dangerous radical: he was a former LAPD officer with a courteous, quietly calculating manner. His campaign was supported not only by the new radicals but also by many older Jewish Angelenos, prominent businessmen and liberal celebrities including Burt Lancaster and Burt Bacharach. It was thought Bradley even had a chance with voters in the predominantly white, usually conservative suburbs in the San Fernando Valley. Ten days before the election, two polls showed him ahead. But then Yorty launched a counter-attack: a parade of supposed black nationalists, secretly funded by his campaign, drove through the valley in a convoy of convertibles covered in provocative slogans. He won the valley overwhelmingly, and the city as a whole by a small margin – 53 per cent to Bradley’s 47.

Bradley’s defeat was one of several big setbacks for LA’s rebels. In 1968, Nixon won the city in his first successful presidential bid – probably helped by the assassination in LA a few months earlier of his most likely challenger, the increasingly left-leaning Robert Kennedy. Then came the Manson killings. The LA Free Press defended Manson after his arrest as a victim of the local establishment, and radical LA seemed either to have succumbed to decadence, or to have run into the sand. Yet like many veteran leftists, Davis and Wiener are good at pointing out forgotten victories as well as dissecting defeats. They cite a successful local campaign in 1969 against the proposed redevelopment of Venice, the city’s ‘last poor beach’, from a scruffy but vibrant enclave of small houses, dissidents and street traders into a sterile shoreline dominated by freeways. The Venice beachfront remains tatty and bustling, if sometimes intimidating after dark, to this day. Another survivor is the Los Angeles Free Clinic, now the Saban Community Clinic, which opened in 1967 to treat the sexual and drug problems produced by the counterculture without judging or charging the sufferers. The clinic was kept alive by unpaid volunteers, benefit concerts by musicians and donations from celebrities, including – and it must be this teeming book’s best detail – a cheque for $10,000 from Elvis Presley.

Bradley finally beat Yorty in the mayoral election of 1973. Yet once in office, where he stayed for twenty years, Bradley prioritised his business supporters over the rest of the coalition he had built in the 1960s. He oversaw LA’s transition into the slicker, ever more seductive but hardly less segregated or repressive place which Davis described vividly in his influential book City of Quartz (1990). It wasn’t until after the 1992 riots that the LAPD began to be brought under the same sort of political control – limited, but real – as police forces in most large democratic cities. Modern LA is in some ways a less alien city for Europeans to visit than it used to be. It has a growing number of pedestrian-friendly areas, a rapidly expanding city rail system, and lots of hipsters and artists who enjoy space they couldn’t afford in New York or other traditionally arranged cities. It votes by large majorities for the Democrats and celebrates its multiculturalism rather than trying to hold it at bay. Even the LAPD, overwhelmingly white until the 1990s, now has a large majority of officers from other racial groups.

Yet some of the old inequalities and confrontational instincts remain. After last year’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there were protests across LA against racism and police violence, protests that were met with more police violence. Protesters were wounded by rubber bullets. Curfews were imposed, and defied. Almost as many people were arrested as during the 1965 Watts uprising. In June the current LAPD chief, Michel Moore, said that people who had been looting in southern California during the protests had Floyd’s death ‘on their hands as much as … those officers [in Minneapolis].’ The LA described by Davis and Wiener didn’t seem so far away after all. But Moore quickly apologised – ‘I misspoke’ – and was given a warning by the mayor who had appointed him, Eric Garcetti. ‘If I believed for a moment that the chief believed that in his heart,’ said Garcetti, a relatively liberal Democrat, ‘he would no longer be our chief of police.’ Last year’s protests in LA may be seen by future historians as part of an ongoing radical tradition. But the change in LA that began in the 1960s has only gone so far.

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