A Review of Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
by Avery Minnelli
Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties [hereafter SNF] by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener [hereafter D&W] (Verso, 2020) is a tremendous gift to today’s burgeoning movement(s) against racism, police violence, and austerity. Davis, a longtime Marxist geographer and activist, and Wiener, a credentialed historian and journalist, have put together an invaluable, even encyclopaedic, movement history for that particular decade and city. Clocking in at a sprawling 638 pages (788 including endnotes), SNF paints a lucid picture of the on-the-ground reality of LA’s wide array of movements, milieus, publications, and organizations.
As a movement history that provides context for contemporary activists, the book succeeds spectacularly. If City of Quartz (1990) was Davis’s muckraking history of LA’s mafia-like ruling class, SNF is a history essentially from below. For certain overlooked struggles, such as the gay movement and the high school student walkouts, the book presents new information that has hitherto been missing from the Left’s common sense history. And for movements and organizations that figure more prominently in the Left’s historical memory, such as the Black Panther Party, D&W provide a legitimately fresh and original analysis that throws new light on old stories.
As a cohesive narrative, the book leaves the reader wanting. Primarily journalistic in disposition, SNF isn’t nearly as analytical as, say, Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air (2002) nor as coherent as some of Davis’s other works like Prisoners of the American Dream (1986). With chapters organized thematically by movement rather than chronologically, SNF presents the LA of the 60s in an episodic rather than narrative fashion. For what the book sets out to do this may work fine, but I could have done with more analysis on how the different movements fit together (or didn’t fit together).
That being said, there are a number of takeaways I got from this thick volume. I won’t pretend to be an unbiased reader; certainly my thoughts on the current political moment structured my reception of SNF, but nonetheless I’d like to outline a few key points.
On prospects & legacies
One thing that’s absolutely clear from SNF is that, despite the feeling of potential seismic political change, nothing like a “revolution” in any strict sense was in the cards. The most prominent and remembered groups like the Black Panthers or the Brown Berets were small, short-lived, and fraught with deep problems. That’s not to say that I don’t admire these groups; if anything, a less mystified account of their histories has given me an even deeper appreciation for what they were able to accomplish in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. But these accomplishments were not and could not have been something like October 1917.
That being said, SNF is easily the most critical left-wing account of the Black Panthers that I’ve read. D&W provide an ambivalent account of the BPP’s internecine struggles with other groups and within their own organization. The BPP, an organization that was armed since its beginnings as a cop-watch patrol, often brandished their weapons to get what they wanted from other Black and leftist organizations. They even, in numerous instances, resorted to murder in order to deal with suspected informants within the organization.
The Panthers’ longstanding feud with Ron Karenga’s US organization is given a more even treatment than in other Panther histories such as Black Against Empire (2013). The conflict’s crescendo, the 1969 UCLA shooting which resulted in the deaths of Bunchy Carter and John Huggins (cousin of Davis’s longtime comrade Ruth Wilson Gilmore), is portrayed not as a targeted assassination but rather as the unfortunate outcome of a verbal argument between people carrying guns. While I think the argument could be made that SNF is insufficiently critical of US or unfair to the Panthers, I think it’s reasonable to say that the BPP had a lot of deep problems that are often unacknowledged or overlooked by today’s Left that (understandably) draws a lot of inspiration from the group.
These questions about guns, coercion, and political violence, both within the Left and against the Right, are becoming live questions in this time of increased political violence. A 17-year-old right-wing vigilante killed two activists during the Kenosha riots in August of this year. An antifascist activist in Portland was killed by police after reportedly killing a MAGA provocateur at a protest. At the Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (CHOP/CHAZ), two Black teens were shot and killed, plausibly by CHOP “security” forces. These tragic events raise serious questions to grapple with, and especially with the CHOP shootings, I think it’s time for the Left to soberly reflect on our relationship to political violence and to avoid any reflexive self-justification that mirrors the worst of police apologia or Stalinist dismissal.
All of this paints a bleak picture both for the 1960s and today. However, if our goal is at all short of total social revolution, I think D&W give us much more cause for hope. The 1960s left a lasting impact in terms of building and maintaining a radical Left tradition in the United States. This contribution is immeasurable. It’s also worth noting that many reforms and victories were won during or in light of 1960s activism, including college Black studies programs and the end of the Vietnam war.
On repression & reaction
The Trump administration has often been categorized as fascist for, among other things, its political repression and police terror, including ICE raids and DHS agents kidnapping activists in unmarked vans. These are serious issues and legitimate cause for alarm, to be sure, but one thing SNF taught me was that this kind of repression is to be expected historically speaking, in situations involving both growing progressive movements and strong conservative forces. Although things like militarization and surveillance technology were not in the 60s what they are today, the police back then (as now) operated largely as a street gang, regularly sparking police riots against protesters or poor Black neighborhoods.
In the 1960s, police shot live rounds at protesters more than they do now (so far), and they beat, arrested, and framed activists with basically the same methodology as occurs now. Twenty-four Black students at San Fernando Valley College were each charged with dozens of felonies, including kidnapping, for occupying an administration building during a rally. The massive arrest of J20 protesters for things like felony rioting and felony conspiracy in early 2017 echoes this precedent for overcharging. Similarly, the various Grand Juries of the 60s, intended to jail activists and turn them against one another, remind us of what happened in the aftermath of Standing Rock, for example.
In terms of political reaction, it’s hard to consider President Trump as all that different from LA’s Mayor Sam Yorty, LAPD Chief Parker, or then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Of course, the type of racism and political reaction embodied in those figures enjoyed more cultural hegemony than it does now, but I think it’s more than tenable to view the modern Right as cut from essentially the same cloth as a Yorty or a Nixon. The political violence of the Trump era seems unprecedented only in light of the relatively quiet 80s-00s. When we look closer at other times of heightened political struggle such as the 1960s, 1930s, 1910s, or 1870s, we see that political instability and violence of this type has been a periodic feature of the US in one form or another.
The world belongs to the youth
The chapters about youth movements, particularly high school campus activism, were by far the most interesting and educational for me. Youth protests on the Sunset Strip, Mexican-American high school & junior high campus “blowouts” (i.e. walkouts) against racism and for education equality, and Black Student Union activism were among the most consequential mass political actions of the decade. These youth movements have often been overlooked in favor of groups like the Black Panthers, who at any rate were also comprised mainly of teens and early 20s. D&W conclude that “[i]n fact, the seventh-to-twelfth-grade and junior college protests were arguably the most original and populist social movement of the entire decade in Southern California, especially when considered in their full multiethnic spectrum.” I’m not sure what us “older” leftists can do to incorporate young people into the current configuration of the Left, but at the very least I’d say we should keep an eye on what young people are doing and take them seriously as political actors.
Fuck the LAPD
If there’s one steady stream running through SNF, it’s fuck the police. Nearly every progressive movement of the 60s LA, regardless of racial, gender, or age composition, regardless of neighborhood, regardless of political outlook, eventually to some greater or lesser degree found itself brushing up against, often directly confronting, the LAPD. The youth protests on the Sunset Strip, the hippie movement on Venice Beach, Black uprising in Watts, Panther operations, high school student walkouts, college campus protests & occupations, all faced beatings, arrests, and in some cases killings. It was the police repression perhaps more than anything else that allowed movements to “draw connections” and see their struggles as united against a common enemy.
As a particularly striking example, “teenyboppers” and “hippies” organized mass protests on the Sunset Strip in 1966-68 against its privatization and its move away from youth-friendly hangout spaces. When this protest movement unsurprisingly ran up against LAPD repression, its militancy and seriousness only increased, and by 1968 the movement was explicitly in solidarity with anti-police and anti-racist causes, among them the Free Huey campaign. As D&W put it, “‘Flower Power’ had become ‘All Power to the People.’”
If SNF is rich in historical and political insight, easily applicable lessons are hard to come by. For many of the chapters, little more can be said than what not to do, or the truism that the police are the most immediate and violent threat to leftist movements. These lessons are ultimately hackneyed. But if one wants some vivid historical context of what movements were like in the 1960s, so that we may better understand our own political moment, I think there are few better sources to turn to than Set the Night on Fire.