The Fire and the Fizzle
By Jerald PodairApril 14, 2020
Set the Night on Fire by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
Their intent was not to offer a comprehensive history of Los Angeles in the 1960s — to do so would have required many more pages than the 600-plus they have produced — but to capture a crucially important element of it: the social, cultural, and racial movements bubbling up from the schools, storefronts, and streets that shifted the equilibrium, opening it to possibilities of fundamental egalitarian change. Davis and Wiener are historians of the left, with deep roots in the Los Angeles area and decades of activist experience reaching back to the 1960s. They are thus well positioned to render judgment on the events they narrate; for at least some of the time, they were there. Combining comprehensive, mineshaft-deep research with unique firsthand knowledge, their recounting of the radical ’60s in Los Angeles will likely not be surpassed.
Davis and Wiener tell a complex story involving webs of relationships along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, and class, in what would today be referred to as intersectionality. One of the major contributions of Set the Night on Fire is the linkage of what have often been viewed as separate events, including the so-called “Blowouts,” politically inspired secondary-school walkouts that originated among Latino students but soon became multiracial; anti–Vietnam War protests that moved beyond white constituencies to engage Angelenos of color; and black cultural articulations that attracted white leftist support.
Davis and Wiener argue that, at least for a time, a movement of movements existed in Los Angeles with the potential to transform social and political life in the city for generations to come. But it ultimately produced reform, not revolution. Why this outcome? Davis and Wiener fault the ongoing intransigence of institutions — the police department, public education system, and employment and housing markets, as well as the forces of globalization and deindustrialization, class inequities, intergenerationally transmitted white supremacist attitudes, and the inflexibilities and inertias of politics-as-usual.
But as the authors acknowledge, the unrealized hopes of the 1960s are also rooted in the incompatibilities and inconsistencies of the component parts of the movements themselves. Set the Night on Fire is filled with terrible ifs and might-have-beens. Perhaps the most heartbreaking was the inability of the African-American and Latino communities, each experiencing profound cultural and political change, to forge enduring alliances. As the authors ruefully conclude, “One can only speculate about how L.A. history might have played out if the Southside and the Eastside had been able to build a common agenda.” While here they refer specifically to lukewarm Latino support for black-led initiatives against discrimination in employment and public education in 1963, they also could have been referring to the decade as a whole, during which right-wing Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty succeeded in attracting Latinos to his political coalition even as the Chicano Movement grew and advanced. Despite points of intersection, especially among youth and students, the groups never fully overcame the sentiment — the product of their different experiences, trajectories, and histories in the city — that progress for one would come at the expense of the other. That a durable and broad-shouldered partnership did not emerge from the 1960s was a tragedy for the radical vision of redistributive change.
Radical African Americans were themselves divided by politics and no small amount of ego. The rivalry between the cultural nationalist group US and the Black Panthers, which stripped of its ideological underpinnings resembled a turf war, culminated in the murder of two of the latter by representatives of the former. Add to this mix the Black Muslims, the Che-Lumumba Club of the Communist Party, and the local chapters of SNCC and CORE, and it becomes clear how competing agendas and ambitions splintered what could have been a powerful and effective mass movement.
We also see white anti–Vietnam War activists being played by the Black Panthers in a one-sided and self-serving Peace and Freedom Party partnership that featured Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 nomination for the presidency (Cleaver did not meet the constitutional age requirement and was stricken from the ballot in California), as well as black activists at Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge) cutting ties with antiwar whites in order to concentrate their energies on building the school’s Black Studies program.
Even within the antiwar movement there were fissures and contradictions, as when the group Women Strike for Peace, visiting Moscow for a USSR-sponsored disarmament conference in 1962, declined to join in an anti-Soviet resolution and refused to participate in a demonstration criticizing nuclear testing by both the USSR and the United States, giving credence to the charge that their moral standards for the two Cold War rivals were different. This stigma compromised the Communist Party generally. While its Southern California branch opposed Soviet brutalities in Czechoslovakia during Prague Spring in 1968, this was not the position of national officials. The party’s support of interracialism and resistance to American imperialism was admirable and courageous, but it could not escape the implications of its moral inconsistencies. These would make it difficult, if not impossible, for its Che-Lumumba Club to serve as a vanguard of systemic change in either the black or white communities.
Set the Night on Fire concludes with the Wattstax cultural arts festival in 1972 and the 1973 election of Los Angeles’s first black mayor, Tom Bradley. Each event represented an important legacy of the radical ’60s in the city. That the Wattstax concert in the Los Angeles Coliseum was the subject of a popular, mass-audience film — made by a white-owned production company — might well be judged yet another example of the commercial exploitation of black artistic expression. But it can also be viewed as the genesis of an opening to a series of new cultural influences that would help create a contemporary Los Angeles that is substantially more encompassing and diverse than that of the white-bread Protestant metropolis of 1960 and which may come closer to the cosmopolitan ideal than any other city in the United States. The election of Bradley, the culmination of an alliance between the black community and the liberal Westside that had gestated throughout the 1960s, also opened up the political system and diversified its electoral landscape. Its legacy endures as well in the Los Angeles of 2020.
This, however, does not mean that the visions of movement Los Angeles were fully realized. Bradley was a downtown- and business-oriented mayor. During his 20-year tenure, as the authors note, he prioritized “the rebirth of downtown property values and the creation of a state-of-the-art infrastructure for the globalization of the metropolitan economy in the 1990s.” By the authors’ lights, the spoils “did not go to the neighborhoods or jobless youth […] but to white men in office towers.” Bradley’s mayoralty may best illustrate the weaknesses of a politics based on identity rather than one centered on class and economics, which could have allied Angelenos of color with working- and even some middle-class whites. This coalition could have been especially potent in the 1980s when, as the authors lament, “deindustrialization […] was the asteroid that destroyed Marxist dreams.”
The Bradley years serve as history’s warning to contemporary intersectionalists against putting their faith in the power of an array of interlocking and reinforcing identities as engines of social transformation. The law of unintended consequences should remain uppermost in their minds.
So if this movement of movements fell short of its aspirations, what did it accomplish? A great deal, as it turns out. While it did not achieve the revolution it sought, it changed the trajectory, the substance, and even the tone of Los Angeles. There are few American cities where people of color are more politically empowered, where women’s and LGBTQ rights are more respected, where immigrants are more welcome, where unions, at least in the public sector, wield more influence, and where personal and cultural expressions in all of their forms are more celebrated. Even as it continues to struggle with income disparity, widespread homelessness, educational inequality, and other challenges of urban life in the 21st century, Los Angeles is a far more just and inclusive city than it was when the 1960s began. Given the scope of their ambitions, one wonders if movement activists, including the authors, will take satisfaction in this. They should.
Jerald Podair is a professor of history and Robert S. French Professor of American Studies at Lawrence University, and the author of City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles.
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