Writing about LA in the 60s with Mike Davis

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“A rock-and-roll dream moment: Saturday night on the Sunset Strip in early December 1967.”

This early academic article was the first thing everyone saw about Mike Davis’ new project, a history of the Los Angeles movement in the sixties. “Riot Nights on Sunset Strip” chronicled how thousands of young people battled police, apparently over curfew.

Mike called the battle “the most famous episode in the struggle of teenagers of all colors in the 1960s to create their own realm of freedom and carnivalesque sociality in the Southern California nightlife.” But you could only read it in the Spring 2007 issue of the bilingual Canadian scholarly journal Tillage/Work. The article was preceded by a note in which Mike explained that it was “the first small episode in a projected history of countercultures and protesters in Los Angeles, Set fire to the night.”

But for years, no additional installments appeared. I kept asking him how his LA-in-the-Sixties book was doing. Maybe that’s why, more than six years later, on January 1, 2014, he emailed me asking me to co-write this book. He had too many incomplete projects going on, he explained, and wanted to make sure this one got written. Of course, I said yes.

Turns out he had already done quite a bit of research. He had 133 file folders, three linear feet of clippings and notes. “I more or less completely vacuumed Los Angeles Time from 1959 to 1973,” he wrote in an email. “I also read the california eagle 1960-64, but I’m still working my way through the Sentinel“, he added, referring to the black newspapers in the city. ” I crossed Battlementsthe Berkeley Barb, the The Oracle, and all 2900 quotes in LA in the archive ‘The Sixties: Documents and Personal Narratives via the Alexander St. Press’. I read it Free press ’64-’66 during the break. He also had a 12-page preview of a book that looked wonderful.

I wondered how much Mike would write about his own experience of those years. He had been an SDS leader and then a member of the Communist Party and had participated in most key events. As we worked on the book, it quickly became clear that it seemed to remember everything and everyone – not just leaders like Angela Davis. He emailed me about the guy who ran the Papa Bach paperbacks across from the Nuart Theater in West LA (“a scholarly, leftist theorist”), and about the publisher of the Free Bridgehead of Venice, one of the local underground newspapers (he had “a wonderful wife, Anna”).

But hardly any of his personal experiences made it into the body of the book. One exception: In his chapter of Watts, describing the action of white vigilantes during the uprising, he recounted how a black friend, Levi Kingston, walking near USC, “was shot by someone on the roof of ‘a nearby fraternity house’. Buried in an endnote, he added that “I was walking by 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 worked with, “my local heroes.” At the top of the list was Dorothy Healey, renegade leader 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 that the book might be 60% oral histories. He had a list of people to interview and we got to work. But we were a bit too late for most of them – they were dying or already gone, or their hearing was impaired, or their memories were shattered. I showed a guy a Free press article citing a speech he gave at a large protest march, and he said he had no recollection of the event, let alone the speech.

But some people remembered everything, and others who claimed to remember everything told stories that we probably thought weren’t true. 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 was burned down in 1973 by right-wing Cuban arsonists. This was the case 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 primarily on printed sources.

It was easy to divide the topics. Mike will write the heart of the book, the chronological narrative of black organizing – starting with nonviolent protest in the early 60s, then, in 1965, the earthquake of the Watts uprising, and then the turning point. Black Power, Rise of the Panthers. , and their rivalry with the American organization of Ron Karenga, 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, countercultural institutions like the Los Angeles Free PressKPFK radio and the Free Clinic, as well as our finale, the largest gathering of black people in American history to date, Wattstax, the free concert at the Coliseum in 1972, on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the uprising, a ” celebration of darkness.

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 it and the treatment for the carcinomas that also showed up slowed him down for a few years, but they were successful enough to allow him to finish the book.

We received a wonderfully enthusiastic response from critics, but Mike was disappointed. He didn’t want praise and he didn’t like the 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 central to his concerns; he wanted serious engagement with our arguments and some attention to our evidence

He was right to say that it was mostly missing. For example, the chapter Mike wrote on the fatal 1969 shooting of two Black Panther leaders, John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, by members of Ron Karenga’s American organization – a masterpiece of reporting on true crimes – seemed to be almost completely ignored, even as it challenged what had been our understanding of the FBI’s COINTELPRO role in bringing the Black Power movement to an end. There was no doubt that the FBI was waging a major campaign to promote animosity between the Panthers and the American Karenga organization. We all thought the animosity 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. So said later historians, including Angela Davis.

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 heard the news of what had happened. Mike found evidence that Panther John Huggins drew his gun first but didn’t pull the trigger before he was shot. There was nothing planned about the murders. Two American members were charged with conspiracy but not murder. Mike concluded that they were “conveyed to San Quentin by an outrageous verdict based on hearsay and influenced by a biased judge”. Meanwhile, for Karenga, the event was “a disaster”, and it made Los Angeles “the graveyard of Black Power, just as COINTELPRO intended”. His testimony had 64 footnotes. Only a critic 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 doorstep. Like everyone else with a spring book in 2020, we’ve canceled all of our publicity events — no bookstore signings, no panel discussions. But then, like everyone else, we learned to do Zoom meetings, which meant we could talk about our book anywhere.

I think Mike’s favorite was a Zoom event in February 2021, sponsored by a group of students from Cal State University, San Bernardino (he was born in San Bernardino), discussing ‘race and policing’, past and present , with two student activists presiding . Mike enjoyed this event much more than his New Yorker interview (which he called “stupid”, although I thought it was excellent.) And he enjoyed these meetings with students even though they had broken the promise he had made years before to his teenage daughter Róisín, a promise “to stop talking about that fucking sixties.


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