Writing About L.A. in the Sixties with Mike Davis

By Jon WienerNovember 11, 2022

Writing About L.A. in the Sixties with Mike Davis
“A moment in rock-and-roll dreamtime: Saturday night on Sunset Strip in early December 1967.” 

That beginning of an academic article was the first thing anybody saw about Mike Davis’s new project, a movement history of L.A. in the sixties. “Riot Nights on Sunset Strip” recounted how thousands of young people fought the police, ostensibly over a curfew.

Mike called the battle “the most celebrated episode in the struggle of teenagers of all colors during the 1960s to create their own realm of freedom and carnivalesque sociality within the Southern California night.” But you could read it only in the Spring 2007 issue of the bilingual Canadian scholarly journal Labour/Le Travail.  The article was prefaced by a headnote in which Mike explained that it was “the first small installment in a projected history of L.A.’s countercultures and protesters, Setting the Night on Fire.”

But for years no additional installments appeared. I kept asking him how his L.A.-in-the-Sixties book was coming. Maybe that’s why, more than six year later, on January 1, 2014, he sent me an email asking of I would co-author that book. He had too many incomplete projects underway, he explained, and wanted to make sure that this one got written. Of course, I said yes.

It turned out that he had already done quite a bit of research. He had 133 file folders, three linear feet of clippings and notes. “I’ve more or less completely vacuumed the LA Times from 1959 to 1973,” he wrote in an email. “I’ve also read the California Eagle 1960-64, but am still working my way through the Sentinel,” he added, referring to the city’s Black newspapers. “I’ve gone through Ramparts, the Berkeley Barb, the LA Oracle, and all 2900 citations to LA in the archive ‘The Sixties: Documents and Personal Narratives via the Alexander St. Press’.  I’m reading the Free Press ‘64-‘66 over the break.” He also had a 12-page outline of a book that sounded wonderful.

I wondered how much Mike would write about his own experience of those years.  He had been an SDS leader and then a Communist Party member and had been part of most of the key events.   As we worked on the book, it quickly became clear that he seemed to remember everything and everybody — not just leaders like Angela Davis. He emailed me about the guy who ran the Papa Bach Paperbacks across the street from the Nuart Theatre in West L.A. (“an erudite, lefty theorist”), and about the editor of the Venice Free Beachhead, one of the local underground papers (he had “a terrific wife, Anna”).

But virtually none of his personal experience went into the body of the book. One exception: In his Watts chapter, describing white vigilante action during the uprising, he spoke of how a Black friend, Levi Kingston, walking near USC, “was shot at by someone on a nearby fraternity house rooftop.” Buried in an endnote, he added that “I was walking next to Levi, but the sniper was clearly aiming at him, not me.” The rest of his personal remarks went into a two-page “About the Author” section that appeared after the Epilogue, and which was mostly about the dozens of people he had worked with, “my local heroes.” At the top of the list was Dorothy Healey, renegade head of the local Communist Party, “the major and enduring intellectual and moral influence in my life.”

So the book wasn’t going to include his own experience, but he wanted others to talk about theirs; he suggested the book could be 60 percent oral histories. He had a list of people to interview, and we set to work. But we were a little too late for most of them — they were dying or already gone, or their hearing was impaired, or their memories were shot. I showed one guy a Free Press article quoting a speech he had given at a huge protest march, and he said he had no memory of the event, much less of the speech.

But some people remembered everything, and others who claimed to remember everything told stories we thought were probably wrong. For example, Ed Pearl, who had run the Ash Grove music club and movement center, said in an interview for The Activist Video Archive that the Grove had been burned down in 1973 by right-wing Cuban arsonists. This was true of a previous fire, three years earlier. But the 1973 fire, several other people told us, was probably caused by an electrical problem. In the end, our book relied mostly on print sources. 

It was easy to divide the topics. Mike would write the core of the book, the chronological narrative of Black organizing — starting with nonviolent protest in the early Sixties, then, in 1965, the earthquake of the Watts Uprising, and afterwards the turn to Black Power, the rise of the Panthers, and their rivalry with Ron Karenga’s US Organization, and then the Chicano uprising of the late Sixties.

I would write the other, topical chapters: The anti-war movement, the women’s movement, gay liberation, counterculture institutions like the Los Angeles Free Press, KPFK radio, and the Free Clinic, as well as our finale, the largest gathering of Black people in American history up to that point, Wattstax, the free concert in the Coliseum in 1972, on the seventh anniversary of the uprising, a “celebration of Blackness.”

We wrote and exchanged chapters for two years. Then, in November 2016, Mike was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which had already killed his mother and older sister. The surgery for that and the treatment for the carcinomas that also showed up slowed him down for a couple of years, but they were successful enough to enable him to finish the book.

We got a wonderfully enthusiastic response from reviewers, but Mike was disappointed. He didn’t want praise, and he didn’t like reviews that announced that in this book Mike was no longer the “prophet of doom.” He didn’t want his own feelings of optimism or pessimism to be the focus; he wanted some serious engagement with our arguments and some attention to be paid to our evidence

He was right that that was mostly missing. For instance, the chapter Mike wrote on the 1969 fatal shooting of two Black Panther leaders, John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, by members of Ron Karenga’s US Organization — a masterpiece of true-crime reporting — seemed to be almost totally ignored, even though it challenged what had been our understanding of the role of FBI’s COINTELPRO in the end of the Black Power movement. There was no question that the FBI had a major campaign to promote animosity between the Panthers and Karenga’s US Organization. We all believed that animosity had culminated with Karenga himself sending an elite team of assassins to confront the Panthers at UCLA over control of the nascent Black Studies program there. That’s what subsequent historians including Angela Davis said. 

But Mike showed that was wrong. Karenga was in Newark with Amiri Baraka at the time, and he was surprised and then terrified when he received the news of what had happened. Mike found evidence that Panther John Huggins had drawn his gun first but had not pulled the trigger before getting shot. There was nothing preplanned about the killings. Two US members were charged with conspiracy but not murder. Mike concluded that they were “railroaded to San Quentin by an outrageous verdict based on hearsay and influenced by a biased judge.” Meanwhile, for Karenga, the event was “a catastrophe,” and it made Los Angeles “Black Power’s graveyard, just as COINTELPRO had intended.” His evidence filled 64 footnotes. Only one reviewer mentioned it: Samuel Farber in Jacobin.

Verso had published the book just as the COVID lockdown began— the “viral asteroid” he had warned about a decade earlier in The Monster at Our Door. Like everybody else with a spring book in 2020, we had all our publicity events cancelled — no bookstore signings, no panel discussions. But then, like everybody else, we learned to do Zoom meetings, which meant we could talk about our book all over the place.

I think Mike’s favorite was a Zoom event in February 2021, sponsored by a student group at Cal State University, San Bernardino (he had been born in San Bernardino), discussing “Race and Policing,” past and present, with two student activists presiding.  Mike liked that event a lot more than his New Yorker interview (which he called “silly,” though I thought it was excellent.)  And he liked those meetings with students even though they broke the pledge he had made years before to his teenage daughter Róisín, a promise to “stop talking about the goddamn Sixties.”

LARB Contributor

Jon Wiener is a professor of history emeritus at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Set the Night on Fire: L. A. in the Sixties, co-authored with Mike Davis, and  Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory TowerHe is a contributing editor to and on the board of directors of Los Angeles Review of Books,  a contributing editor to The Nation, and host of a weekly afternoon drive-time interview show on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles.


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