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Authors Mike Davis and Jon Wiener borrowed the title of their new history of Los Angeles from the Doors song “Light My Fire.” Titled Set the Night on Fire: A History of LA in the Sixties, it is a history of social movements for social and economic justice and against imperial war. Indeed, given the subject matter, perhaps a more appropriate title could be found somewhere in the lyrics of another Doors song. That song is called “Five to One” and features the line “They got the guns/but we got the numbers” and embodies the righteous fury of many people in Los Angelenos and across the world during the time covered in this text.
Besides being one of the world’s largest metropolises, the population is one of the world’s most diverse. This was possibly even more true in the 1960s. Consequently, the story told in these pages is a bit different than that told in many (if not most) other histories of the Sixties. Not only are the protagonists in the popular movements mostly from backgrounds with origins other than Europe, so was much of the leadership. Naturally, many of the protestors and activists were young, but in Davis’ and Wiener’s telling, many were also experienced activists. Indeed, many of them were from the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). In fact, Davis himself was a member during that period.
While this text does cover the LA version of the (mostly white) youth counterculture, it primarily describes and discusses the multiple actions and movements led by and populated with African-Americans and Chicanos. There are chapters devoted to the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party and its non-Marxist counterpart United Slaves (US)—a tale that ended in COINTELPRO-contrived murder. Other chapters break down the history and meaning of the Chicano nationalist group The Brown Berets. One of the final chapters describes the short but meaningful life of Gidra, a left-leaning newspaper published by Asian-American students for that community. There are also pages devoted to more localized movements and even the mayoral campaigns of the liberal African-American Tom Bradley.
Behind the authors’ vivid descriptions of protests, meetings and other actions lie serious discussions regarding the politics of the organizations involved and considerations of the internal conflicts inside these groups and the broader movement. The broader context of every issue, every movement discussed here is the racism and inequality existing in Los Angeles; two of the factors which caused the Watts uprising in 1965. The other factor—and the most obvious—was the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). A historically corrupt and racist police force, the LAPD was not only an occupation force deployed into poor and mostly non-white areas of the city, its brutality and abuse were the cause of much of the unrest covered in this book. Indeed, the text makes clear that the department’s assaults on individuals and peaceful protesters were rarely accidents, and usually intentional provocations. Two of the better known such incidents were the police assault on the Panther headquarters in December 1969 and the murder of Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar in August of the same year. However, it’s fairly safe to state that if there was a protest by a part of the population the city establishment (of which the police chief was an important if not the most important part), the LAPD would attack it.
This included the young, the gay and lesbian community and women. The Sunset Strip riots that the rock band made famous with the song For What It’s Worth are dissected; the reader discovers the roles played by a coffee shop owner and the world-famous underground newspaper The LA Free Press. One is told that the first gay liberation uprising was not the Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan in 1969, but a similar incident in 1967 at the Black Cat Tavern that opened up the large but closeted gay community in Los Angeles. Then, in a chilling reminder of how repressive things really were in the 1960s, Davis and Wiener describe police surveillance and arrests of women running a women’s self-help health clinic. The omnipresence of the LAPD and its service to the wealthy and the reactionary power structure in Los Angeles cannot be overstated. The authors of this text make that clearer than the skies of Los Angeles ever were in the period they cover.
The book ends with a massive index, a bibliography and short biographies written by the authors. Both men reveal their political backgrounds and their relationship with Los Angeles. Both were intimately involved in the struggles of the 1960s—members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), antiwar movement organizers, allies of the farmworkers (in Davis’s case) and writers for underground papers and Liberation News Service (in Wiener’s case). Davis joined the CPUSA during that period, which partially explains some of his criticisms of the more militant protesters in the Chicano movement and the actions of those who turned towards armed struggle. The men’s experiences during that time and their subsequent work as leftist social critics, writers and historians combined with the reflection time brings make this history more than just another history or a good read.
Set the Night on Fire: A History of LA in the Sixties is a book as vast as the city itself.
The breadth and substance of this text is reminiscent of Todd Gitlin’s 1960s history, The Sixties. The authors’ intention seems to have been to provide a comprehensive, intelligent, and popular history of the 1960s in one of the world’s greatest urban experiments, Los Angeles. Their effort is exhilarating, engrossing, and extremely successful.