Reading Mike Davis in Toronto: Police Violence and the Global City

By David HelpsNovember 22, 2020

Reading Mike Davis in Toronto: Police Violence and the Global City
ON MAY 4, 1992, TORONTO residents descended on the United States consulate to protest the acquittal of the four police officers who had beaten Rodney King almost to death. But their protest — organized by the Black Action Defence Committee — also responded to a wave of police violence in Toronto; protestors chanted, “From L.A. to T.O., racist cops have got to go!” Less than a month earlier, on April 8, an all-white jury had acquitted two officers who had fatally shot a Black teenager named Michael Wade Lawson in nearby Mississauga, Ontario. Then, on May 2, an undercover Toronto cop had shot and killed 22-year-old Raymond Lawrence, an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica. Before the night of May 4 was over, Toronto residents looted more than a hundred stores — shattering any illusion of Toronto as a multicultural utopia.

A few years earlier, a largely unknown professor at Toronto’s York University was writing a big book about the racial and economic fractures which would soon tear Los Angeles — and Toronto — apart. In City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis argued that Los Angeles’s “ultimate world-historical significance” was its perverse ability to “play” both “utopia and dystopia.” Los Angeles projects an image of “sunshine,” of Hollywood and palm trees. The city is not so much planned or designed as “infinitely envisioned.” Against this “dream machinery,” he cast a light on Los Angeles’s noir corners, where abject inequality belied the utopian myth. “The best place to view [the] Los Angeles of the next millennium,” Davis argued, “is from the ruins of its alternative future.”

City of Quartz, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in October, began as a dissertation for a PhD that Davis never completed. With subheadings like “Gramsci vs. Blade Runner,” it’s hard to imagine the book ever being something as restrained as a graduate thesis. City of Quartz is “a rather strange book,” as Davis himself remarked in the preface to the 2006 second edition. It begins with a short prologue on 1910s socialist cooperatives, before abruptly leading the reader on a tour of L.A. social and cultural history spanning Frank Gehry, taxpayer revolts, the LAPD, science fiction, and liberation theology.

Though he relocated to San Diego two decades ago, the 1992 Los Angeles uprising made Davis forever synonymous with that city. And while his varied bibliography includes books on climate disaster, car bombs, and the avian flu, he’s still “trying to emancipate [himself] from LA stuff.” Like its author, City of Quartz deserves to be emancipated from its parochial legacy. Read from Toronto, we can see it as a working theory of global cities writ large, with as much to teach us about multiculturalism as it does racial apartheid in Los Angeles.


When City of Quartz appeared in the fall of 1990, critics treated it as the ravings of a doomsayer. In The New York Times Book Review, Bryce Nelson dismissed Davis’s “almost unrelievedly oppressive picture of life” as simply “all a bit much” (under the title, “If This Is Hell, Why Is It So Popular?”). In The Nation, Marshall Berman likewise felt that City of Quartz veered into apocalyptic fantasy. Even for Berman, a fellow Marxist urbanist, Davis couldn’t decide between his hope for revolution and his urge to “tell the whole city to go to hell.”

But the Rodney King rebellion transformed Davis’s reputation into that of an urban prophet. He’s been called the “chronicler of the California dark side” and “The Last Man to Know Everything.” In 1998, he received a MacArthur genius grant and wrote a kind of sequel to City of Quartz Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. That book further established him as the founder of L.A. anti-flâneurism. The nationwide protests against police violence and structural racism that have taken place over the past few months have only renewed interest in his work, including his latest book, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (co-authored with Jon Wiener). As a recent profile in theLAnd Magazine put it, “History didn’t just absolve Mike Davis, it affirmed his clairvoyance.”

Davis winces at this portrayal. If he saw the writing on the wall in 1990, it’s only because he bothered to look. Along with his friend Rubén Martínez, Davis was one of the few correspondents willing to talk to the city’s dispossessed. Anyone living in, say, Skid Row, Pico Union, or on the Eastside could see that permanent unemployment, homelessness, nativism, and militarized policing had created a powder keg. While the L.A. commentariat cheered Mayor Tom Bradley’s local variant of Reaganomics, Davis was meeting with rival gang leaders in Watts, or getting arrested on a picket with striking janitors in Century City. After the 1992 rebellion, Knopf offered him a large advance for a book documenting the uprising. Davis soon abandoned the project and returned the money. “I couldn’t find any real moral license for looting folks’ stories,” he reflected. He wasn’t interested in playing “LA’s voice of doom.”

That a former meatcutter, long-haul trucker, and tour bus driver became the voice of a city surprised Davis as much as anyone. In the preface to the book’s second edition, published in 2006, he recalls feeling that City of Quartz was too consumed with the unique madness of Los Angeles to gain a following. No one would read this book, he remembers thinking, unless forced to do so by their “tyrannical Marxist professors.”

Like any good Marxist, Davis knows that material conditions shape intellectual life, leaving clear traces in our mental labor. We might ask then: what traces did Davis’s short teaching stint in Toronto leave in City of Quartz? In the 2006 preface, Davis describes countless hours of “reading, late at night on microform at the library of York University in Toronto where I was teaching political economy at the time.” With its many racialized and first-generation students and brutalist architecture, York resembles a City College of the North — a so-called “Harvard of the proletariat.” Perhaps because of this, it also has more than its share of “tyrannical Marxists.” In 2018, the campus experienced the longest university strike in Canadian history when instructors walked out for 143 days. In other words, it is the kind of place where a heterodox academic like Davis could find work teaching Marxian economics without a PhD.

If Davis’s former employer is a monument to Canada’s multicultural social democracy, it’s also a witness to that system’s failures. Take the 35 bus for 10 minutes and you’ll arrive at the intersection of Jane Street and Finch Avenue — the most infamous neighborhood in Canada. In this hyper-policed corner of the national mosaic, politicians don bulletproof vests and compare public housing tenants to cockroaches. There is very little of Davis’s apocalyptic prose — his “unrelievedly oppressive picture of life” — that doesn’t apply to Toronto’s own social geography.

Not that Davis makes those connections for us. Other than the 2006 preface, Toronto appears just three times across City of Quartz’s almost 500 pages and is never discussed substantially. Yet the similarities are notable. Like Los Angeles, Toronto is a proudly diverse, “majority-minority” city whose destiny is nevertheless determined by white people. And while Toronto doesn’t have the culture industry of Los Angeles — no city does — its multicultural myth is just as powerful. Toronto is an international icon of multicultural coolness, thanks most recently to rap and R&B artists like The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor, and Drake (representing the diasporas of Ethiopia, Jamaica, and the US South, respectively).

In global cities, superficial multiculturalism rests upon a fierce, public-private security apparatus. In the chapter “Fortress L.A.,” Davis predicted that the architecture of surveillance and exclusion would be woven into “a single, comprehensive security effort.” In Toronto, the recently aborted Sidewalk Labs project would have enabled Google to collect and monetize residents’ data across a 12-acre section of the city’s lakefront. Toronto police have also used the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to hassle and ticket houseless people in parks with nowhere else to go. When Davis wrote that “genuinely democratic space is all but extinct,” he captured Toronto’s future as much as Los Angeles’s.


Thirty years on, City of Quartz’s prescience is not about its “unrelievedly oppressive” setting, as The New York Times put it. Rather, the book reveals the convergence of global cities like Los Angeles and Toronto, in ways that should make us think differently about both places.

While the “Rodney King riots” caught L.A.’s bourgeoisie off-guard, their counterparts in Toronto expressed outright disbelief that they too lived in a city divided by race. Mayor June Rowlands blamed the property destruction on “alienated youth.” One man told a TV reporter that after watching “the stuff that happened in L.A.,” he never thought racial strife could happen in “Toronto the Good.” “If Canadian society is as unjust as the rioters on Yonge Street would have us believe,” a letter to The Globe and Mail mused, “why is Canada the destination of choice for so many of the world’s peoples?” Another letter claimed that in the midst of the uprising, two young men called him a “racist pig” and pushed him down the stairs to the subway. “Such a strong allegation,” he related, “and they’d never even met me!” This kind of attack might be expected in acrimonious Los Angeles, with its maddening traffic and spatial apartheid. But in multicultural Toronto, in a country where politeness is a preeminent source of patriotism, to accuse a stranger of racism is an almost unfathomable affront.

By feigning racial innocence, white Torontonians refused to believe that structural racism coexists with the city’s multicultural image. The day after the Toronto uprising, the Black Action Defence Committee that organized the initial protest addressed the media. “What happened yesterday,” activist Dudley Laws observed, “was the frustration and anger of the people coming out.” Years of protests, moral suasion, and government inquiries had accomplished nothing. “We have waited for the justice system to deal justly with our community. And it has failed.”

Unlike in Los Angeles, Toronto’s 1992 uprising is mostly forgotten. While 2017 saw a series of articles published in local newspapers to recognize the 25th anniversary of the “Yonge Street riot,” even this coverage sometimes replayed white residents’ initial disbelief. The left-of-center Toronto Star described the event as a “wake-up call,” yet one that had been “imported from 4,000 kilometres away in Los Angeles.” In 2020, Toronto media has lagged behind even its US counterparts in covering the protests. As Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson argues, “The fact that Black people have to organize hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets in protest of police brutality for the media to consider finally engaging with the issue is an embarrassment.”

If one thing has changed, it is that the unprecedented scale and global reach of this year’s protests may finally eradicate the notion that racism can be analyzed in terms of any one city or police department. Months of mass protest have pushed a majority of Americans and Canadians to acknowledge the existence of anti-Black racism. While the public-opinion needle has moved, politicians have lagged behind, proposing solutions that remain cut off from racism’s global context. When two politicians proposed modestly cutting the Toronto Police Services budget by 10 percent in June, the City Council instead voted to give the department $3 million to purchase body cameras — a technology that is already commonplace among the most lethal police departments in the United States (including Los Angeles).

With City of Quartz, Mike Davis put his finger on how governments muzzle antiracist activism by appealing to local or national exceptionalism. For all its talk about diversity, “Canada fundamentally understands itself as a white nation-state,” argues Black Studies scholar Rinaldo Walcott. For white Canadians in 1992 and today, “riots” and police killings happen somewhere else — usually the United States. Californians, meanwhile, view themselves against the foil of Southern Jim Crow. As historian Daniel HoSang writes, the Golden State sees itself “as a forward-thinking” model of “social possibility,” even as Black and brown people are killed by police, locked up in jails and prisons, or made to sleep on the streets in disproportionate numbers.

For Davis, multiculturalism was neither a settled fact nor a utopic horizon to uncritically strive toward. To the powerful, multiculturalism meant masking inequality with superficial celebrations of ethnic vibrancy. In the wake of Los Angeles’s 1992 uprising, the city created a nonprofit called Rebuild L.A. that promised to create jobs and support small businesses in “minority” neighborhoods. Under this guise of uplifting communities of color, however, Rebuild L.A. outsourced jobs and catered to global corporations like Shell and Lockheed Martin that deliberately polluted the very communities they were supposed to help. In Toronto, Canadian multiculturalism was used as a cudgel against claims of racism (as the incensed letters to newspapers revealed).

This use of multiculturalism as a “slogan,” as Davis put it, has always been contested from the margins. In City of Quartz, Davis saw a “guerrilla opposition” taking shape for whom multiculturalism meant economic, spatial, and racial justice. In the 1990s, this took the form of groups like Justice for Janitors, which pioneered the type of intersectional labor organizing that fueled the L.A. and Chicago teachers’ strikes last year. In 2020, perhaps the best example is People’s Budget LA: a multiracial coalition led by local Black Lives Matter activists fighting to reorganize the City’s budget to match the stated needs of Angelenos. The campaign espouses a multicultural, majoritarian vision — a people’s budget — while still centering Black voices.

“From L.A. to T.O.,” the struggle against white supremacy is simultaneously a struggle to dismantle cities’ multicultural myths. Thirty years after its publication, City of Quartz is still some of the best ammunition we have. It’s not that “LA’s voice of doom” could see the future. He just knew where to look.


David Helps is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and a historian of policing, cities, race, and migration. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Cleveland Review of BooksThe Metropole, and other publications.


Banner image: "Toronto sign" by Sebastiaan ter Burg is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

LARB Contributor

David Helps is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Michigan. His research and teaching cover US history since the 1960s, with emphases on policing, urban politics, migration, and the comparative study of race. His dissertation considers the relationship between policing and multicultural politics in Los Angeles between the 1970s and 1990s. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Cleveland Review of BooksThe Metropole, and other publications.


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