In the 1960s LA communities of color prioritized a radical tradition of care and the transformative power of art and politics.
“How a rainbow of insurgent social movements tried to peel back the glitter, dismantle the police state, and replace elite white rule.”
Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties
Mike Davis & Jon Wiener
Verso, $34.95 (cloth)
In the summer of 1969, my mother decided we were moving to Los Angeles. Her friend Luther, an older Black gentleman and fellow devotee of the church established by Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), had moved there the year before and sent her letters extolling the city’s virtues. It didn’t take much convincing. My mother regaled us with Luther’s stories, adorning the walls of our tiny New York tenement apartment on 157th and Amsterdam with clippings from Sunset Magazine and Better Homes and Gardens—images of palm-lined streets, beaches, the Hollywood Hills, gorgeous rooms flooded with sunlight. She imagined herself meditating at SRF’s beautiful Lake Shrine property in Pacific Palisades just blocks from the ocean. “The flowers and the weather,” she told me recently, “reminded me of growing up in Jamaica.” LA would fulfill her dream of having a house, good schools for her children, freedom from violence, and spiritual peace.
But in 1969, all that was only a dream. A single mother with three kids, she survived on low-wage jobs and occasional public assistance. It would take two years for her to board a plane bound for LAX with nothing but a suitcase and a couple hundred dollars. She made the journey alone that summer of 1971, while my siblings and I were with my father in Seattle.
My mother spent her first weeks in Hollywood with Luther before moving into an empty apartment above her aunt’s on Ninety-Fourth and South Figueroa Streets. South LA did not at all resemble the pictures that had fed her dreams. Instead of rolling hills and pretty rooms, she found a vast concrete landscape framed on the east by the Harbor Freeway and crowded throughout with dilapidated homes, liquor stores, fast food joints, churches, a smattering of tall palm trees, and Black people everywhere. And cops—lots of cops. She recalls counting fourteen patrol cars lined up on her block one evening.
“South LA did not at all resemble the pictures that had fed her dreams.”
My mother had fled to LA in search of peace, but instead she found a war zone. Six years after the Watts rebellion, the police patrolled the streets of South LA like a victorious occupying army. But as Mike Davis and Jon Wiener make clear in their monumental new book, Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, the police under Mayor Sam Yorty treated the entire city like it was under siege. “No other major city outside of the Deep South,” they write, “was subjected to such a fanatic and all-encompassing campaign to police space and control the night. Along with minorities, many young whites were also routinely victimized, leading hatred of the LAPD to grow into a common culture of resistance.” When cops terrorized middle-class white kids for roaming Sunset Strip at night, their cries of “Free the Strip” quickly evolved into “All Power to the People” and “No More Murder of Black People.”
The image that lured my mother and millions like her to the City of Angels was painted by racial segregation, patriarchy, sexual norms, classism, and an iron fist used to crush dissent. And yet, the pervasiveness of state violence is not the whole story—it may not even be the main one. Set the Night on Fire is, above all, a historical account of how a rainbow of insurgent social movements tried to peel back the glitter, dismantle the police state, and replace elite white rule and its regimes of segregation, militarism, patriarchy, and conformity with a society oriented toward “serving the people.”
“The police under Mayor Sam Yorty treated the entire city like it was under siege.”
These social movements imagined a revolutionary culture of care, one that met all basic needs, that eliminated racism, patriarchy, and poverty, and that democratized knowledge and power. Diverse and complex, these movements entangled with one another as allies, affiliates, and adversaries. Some of this history is familiar thanks to an array of brilliant scholars—Rodolfo F. Acuña, Rosie Bermudez, Martha Biondi, Maylei Blackwell, Scot Brown, Ernesto Chávez, Edward Escobar, Dionne Espinoza, Max Felker-Kantor, Mario T. García, Steve Isoardi, Jenna Loyd, Laura Pulido, Bruce Tyler, Daniel Widener, to name just a few. But one of the unique strengths of Set the Night on Fire is its focus on “the reciprocal influences and interactions across such a broad spectrum of constituencies,” its analysis of movements that are usually treated in isolation. It moves seamlessly between civil rights and Black Power, anti-war protests, gay liberation, women’s liberation, alternative media, the Brown Berets and the Chicano Moratorium, student strikes, the free clinic movement, Asian American radicalism, and the citywide struggle against police brutality. All these movements shared a desire for freedom—freedom of movement and mobility; freedom to access public space; freedom to live and work anywhere; freedom to determine their own education, health, and sexuality; freedom to write, perform, and make art; and freedom from economic precarity and war—at home and abroad. And at times, Davis and Wiener show, LA’s insurgent movements were winning, challenging the state’s legitimacy and thus driving it to rely on force to maintain control.
Indeed, LA’s radical culture was powerful and prevalent. This might explain why my mother never expressed disappointment or regret about moving: the full measure of what she found in South LA in 1971 far exceeded anything she saw in a glossy magazine. She discovered a community of artists, activists, and neighbors who practiced a radical culture that emphasized collective care, survival, community control, and the transformative power of art and politics.
The seeds for this movement had been planted over a decade earlier. South LA residents entered the 1960s with unemployment in the double digits, a median income below the poverty line, and a severe housing shortage. The Black families who could have afforded to leave were imprisoned by restrictive covenants, real estate practices, lending institutions, and white neighborhood associations. In 1963 the Rumford Fair Housing Act attempted to outlaw housing discrimination, but the following year white Angelenos voted overwhelmingly to repeal the law. And the city’s response to South LA’s economic decline? Add more police.
“All these movements shared a desire for freedom.”
An increase in police led to an increase in premature deaths. Between 1963 and 1965, police officers killed sixty African Americans—twenty-five of them unarmed, twenty-seven of them shot in the back—and every shooting was ruled justified. But during this period under LA’s police state, most Black residents suffered a slower, less spectacular death. Davis and Wiener explain:
“The LAPD operated the nation’s most successful negative employment scheme. While giving low priority to white collar crimes, whatever their impact on society, the department fastened a relentless dragnet on poor Black and Chicano neighborhoods. Without the slightest pretense of probable cause, the cops stopped and searched people, particularly young men, in the hope of finding some weed or a stolen item. Those who verbally defended themselves, however innocent, would usually be offered a ride to jail. The result was an extraordinary accumulation of petty arrests (but not necessarily convictions) that made a majority of young men unemployable.”
Under such conditions, resistance was inevitable. In 1961, when police arrested a Black teenager in Griffith Park for riding the merry-go-round without a ticket, about 200 African Americans began hurling rocks and bottles at the officers. A year later, when police killed unarmed Ronald Stokes during a raid on the Nation of Islam mosque, over a thousand people rallied against the LAPD and demanded Chief William Parker’s resignation. Protests over policing, housing, education, jobs, and racism began to erupt with greater frequency. In the two years before the Watts rebellion of 1965, some 250 demonstrations took place, including a mass march for school desegregation in June 1963. Led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, and the coalition United Civil Rights, it was the largest Black-led march for civil rights in LA history.
The common narrative of the Watts rebellion suggests that the uprising was a spontaneous response to the August 11 public arrest of Marquette Frye (for drunk driving) and the subsequent arrests of his brother Ronald and mother Rena (for intervening). But the history of police repression and Black organizing before the Watts rebellion throws this into question and challenges the prevailing wisdom. Five weeks before the uprising, twenty-two-year-old Beverly Tate was pulled over by two LAPD officers, driven to a deserted street, and raped. The Black press reported the story and the officer, W. D. McCloud, was fired but never criminally charged. Just as protesters during the 1992 LA rebellion demanded justice for Latasha Harlins, the fifteen-year-old fatally shot by storeowner Soon Ja Du in 1991, Black people took to the streets in Watts to demand justice for Tate.
“Tate was pulled over by two LAPD officers, driven to a deserted street, and raped.”
Prior to the Watts rebellion, activists, artists, social workers, and residents had already begun to create a new form of civil society to contend with the growing economic catastrophe. A dynamic urban arts movement birthed the Underground Musicians Association (UGMA), Studio Watts, the Watts Towers Arts Center, Watts Happening Coffee House, the Mafundi Institute, and the Inner City Cultural Center. Some radicalized street gangs formed the Sons of Watts and the Community Alert Patrol (CAP) to monitor police and document misconduct. Others joined the LA chapters of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and US Organization.
Despite sharp differences, these groups shared a desire to end racist policing and envisioned a future based on cooperation, economic strength, and community empowerment. In 1966 the LA Chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initially proposed that Watts and surrounding communities secede from LA and incorporate as Freedom City. The chosen name harkened back to Reconstruction, when formerly enslaved people established independent towns to secure economic and political power, escape the exploitative hold of the plantation, and develop new forms of justice. This version was no different. When SNCC director Cliff Vaughs first proposed the incorporation plan, he declared, “No resident of Freedom City who has been convicted of a crime and who has paid his debt to society will be denied work because of his past offense.” Nor would they be precluded from holding political office or be barred from working in law enforcement. Freedom City gained widespread support from community leaders and Black elected officials but was quashed when the NAACP’s national leader Roy Wilkins denounced it as segregationist.
“SNCC proposed that Watts and surrounding communities secede from LA and incorporate as Freedom City.”
Predictably, the movements committed to reconstructing post-rebellion Watts endured constant surveillance and harassment from the FBI, local police, and agents provocateurs tasked with sowing dissension and destroying property. The state spent more money on repressing a vibrant political culture rooted in art, mutual aid, public safety, care, and democratic practice than it did on creating jobs or affordable housing.
The predominantly Mexican American community of East LA also routinely faced police violence, racism, and divestment. An effort to incorporate in 1960 narrowly failed, leaving LA’s largest Latinx community without representation and subject to gerrymandering. Wracked by political and generational divisions, East LA residents initially struggled to mount an effective opposition. Chicano/a youth ultimately broke the political inertia, forming the Brown Berets in 1967 to resist police brutality, and waging a series of “blowouts” (school walkouts) in 1968 to protest segregated schools. These school strikes, involving brown and Black kids, from junior high school to college, comprised some of the largest sustained protests during this period. The fight for better schools—with no police, greater funding, ethnic studies curricula, diverse teaching staff, and freedom of speech and assembly—turned education into the city’s central battleground. Campuses became a breeding ground for new multiracial alliances, Third World solidarity, and support for the anti-war movement.
The police, the FBI, nor Mayor Yorty could imagine folks in South or East LA leading a revolution—so they blamed communists. While their claims were exaggerated, it’s true that communists were everywhere. Communist Party veterans, Trotskyists, independent Marxists, and associates of the Old Left played critical leadership roles in LA’s radical movements. Dorothy Healey, for example, was a longtime communist leader before becoming a pioneering radio talk show host on Pacifica Radio, a labor leader, a peace activist, a key ally in the Black liberation movement, and a thorn in the side of the Communist Party USA’s rigid national leadership. And Healey worked closely with California’s most famous communist, Angela Davis. Davis had a critical role in LA’s insurgent politics and was much more than a renowned political prisoner, icon, and radical philosophy professor. A supporter of the Black Panther Party, an organizer in SNCC, and a formative leader in the Che–Lumumba Club (along with founders Franklin, Kendra Alexander, and Deacon Alexander), Davis was an effective organizer unafraid to push a socialist program even when it ran against the prevailing rhetoric of Black Power. She had earned a reputation as one of California’s most popular and beloved revolutionary intellectuals before she was jailed on trumped-up murder charges and her defense rocketed her to international stardom. While Davis delivered withering critiques of state violence, the core of what she wrote and spoke about—in the classroom and in her many political speeches—centered on the meaning of freedom. She understood freedom not as an individual right, as in the liberal tradition, but as a collective, transformative process born from a dynamic struggle for liberation.
“It’s true that communists were everywhere.”
One need not count communists to recognize the strong class and anti-imperialist thread running through LA radical political culture. LA’s LGBTQ movement first mobilized against police repression, before a radicalized segment sought to create an alternative political culture grounded in anti-racism, anti-imperialism, feminism, and anti-capitalism. Although activist and theorist Carl Wittman was based in the Bay Area, his writings profoundly influenced LA’s queer political culture and were foundational to the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in 1970. Wittman’s “A Gay Manifesto,” published in the LA Free Press, argued that genuine sexual liberation required abolishing all extant social institutions that uphold racism, gender and sexual oppression, war, imperialism, class rule, and economic inequality.
Some of the richest examples of LA’s revolutionary culture of care come from women’s liberation. Feminists built movements centered on health care, reproductive rights, sexual freedom, safety, and the value of reproductive labor. In fact, the welfare rights movement began in LA in 1963, when a Black woman named Johnnie Tillmon founded ANC (Aid to Needy Children) Mothers Anonymous. Tillmon would go on to become the most prominent leader in the National Welfare Rights Movement, founded three years later in 1966. As Tillmon became more involved with the national organization, Catherine Jermany, a Black woman who had been active in various civil rights and Black Power organizations, assumed leadership of the LA County Welfare Rights Organization. According to historian Rosie Bermudez, Jermany established close ties with Alicia Escalante, founder of the East LA Welfare Rights Organization (ELWARO). Although Wiener and Davis tell Tillmon’s story, Jermany, Escalante, and ELWARO are significantly absent from Set the Night on Fire. Escalante was one of the most effective organizers in East LA, and her work with Jermany speaks to the challenges of building Black–brown solidarity during the late 1960s and to the extraordinary radicalism of welfare rights. Black and Chicana welfare rights activists built a movement for racial, gender, economic, and reproductive justice. They defined childcare as essential labor, demanding women receive an adequate income regardless of whether they worked for wages or stayed home to raise children. Moreover, they insisted on complete reproductive control of their bodies. For Black, Latinx, and Native women, this meant not only having the right to abortion care, but also having protection from forced sterilizations.
“They defined childcare as essential labor.”
At stake was adequate, competent, and affordable women’s health care. Even in California, which granted women the right to “choose” in 1970, many women could not afford an abortion—or pre- and postnatal care and regular gynecological visits, for that matter. In 1971 Carol Downer and Lorraine Rothman opened the Feminist Women’s Health Center on Crenshaw Boulevard. They were pioneers in the women’s self-help movement to demystify medical authority in a profit-driven, sexist health care industry, providing information about birth control and abortions and teaching women skills such as self-conducted cervical exams. They were also a threat to the district attorney and the county medical examiner. In 1972 the LAPD raided the center after learning that women were told to use yogurt to treat yeast infections. The police arrested Downer and Colleen Wilson for practicing medicine without a license, a charge that didn’t stick. Not only did the center prevail, but Downer also launched similar centers all around the country and the world.
Before the Feminist Women’s Health Center, there was the LA Free Clinic. Founded in 1967, it was the second such clinic in the country (the first was established in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district). By 1969 the LA Clinic served some 1,200 people a day, providing medical, mental health, and even legal services. The clinic operated at night, owing to the fact that the staff were primarily volunteers who worked day shifts as doctors, nurses, psychologists, and lawyers. It was an incredible experiment in mutual aid and anti-capitalist care, and not simply because services were free. The staff prided themselves on working without judgment or bureaucracy, free from a criminal justice system that criminalized illicit drug use and addiction—which meant breaking the law when necessary. Clinic doctors performed abortions, ignored drug laws, provided drug counseling, and encouraged the use of psychedelic drugs in some cases. The LA Free Clinic set out to remove medical care from the marketplace and reimagine care as a community project rather than a commodified service. Its commitment to “serve the people” inspired similar free clinics throughout the city. In May 1969 the Brown Berets opened the Barrio Free Clinic in East LA; two months later, the Peace and Freedom Party helped found the Long Beach Free Clinic; and in December 1970 the Black Panthers opened The Alprentice Bunchy Carter Free Clinic, named after one of the Panthers fatally shot on UCLA’s campus by Claude Hubert-Gaidi, an FBI operative posing as a Panther. Overall, during the formative years of the free clinic movement, California was home to a third of the nation’s clinics, and over 80 percent of these were located in Southern California.
“The LA Free Clinic set out to remove medical care from the marketplace and reimagine care as a community project.”
In 1972 the massive benefit concert to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts rebellion, Wattstax, occurred at the LA Coliseum. The concert was intended to celebrate Black culture and identity and to showcase community progress, but in reality it masked a hard truth: working people in South LA had not experienced any appreciable socioeconomic change. Wattstax coincided with my mother’s one-year anniversary as an Angeleno. By then the glitter had begun to dull. Jobs were harder to find. She noticed an uptick in burglaries. The arts community had thinned out. And then, in May 1973, the city regained some of its sparkle for my mom and a whole lot of folks in her neighborhood when Tom Bradley defeated Sam Yorty: LA had its first Black mayor.
Bradley had been a police officer since 1940. He entered politics in the 1950s; in 1961 he won a seat on the city council. He nearly defeated Yorty in 1969 by running as a progressive fighting for fair housing, civil rights, jobs, and an end to police brutality. This campaign would have been impossible without the wind of radical social movements at his back. Bradley’s 1969 mayoral campaign revealed that a progressive agenda could flourish. But his campaign perished because he underestimated the forces resistant to change.
Bradley did not make the same mistake in 1973. Remaking himself as the classic neoliberal big city mayor, he made peace with developers and finance capital. Bradley’s election marked the beginning of the end for LA insurgent politics. With the help of his investors, he preserved the city’s glitter and added some more color. South and East LA experienced massive disinvestment at the expense of downtown and Pacific Rim capital, even as Bradley championed the preservation of the Watts Towers and supported museums and public art projects preserving the city’s multicultural heritage. “Bradley’s greatest accomplishments,” write Davis and Wiener, “were not his attacks on residential segregation or direction of public investment to have-not neighborhoods, but rather 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.” The ex-cop turned mayor could not rein in the police or police chief Daryl Gates.
The LAPD shooting of unarmed Eula Mae Love, the fifteen Black men killed by chokehold, the tightening repression of Black and brown neighborhoods under the guise of the War on Drugs, the killing of Latasha Harlins, the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent rebellion of 1992—all happened under Bradley’s watch. Today LA remains segregated, overpoliced, and even more economically unequal than it was in 1961.
I began reading Set the Night on Fire as the world took shelter from the deadly new coronavirus. I had dreams of free health care for all, buildings that once caged people turned into libraries and schools, community centers serving the people homegrown organic food, embracing confinement as a way of reimagining the world outside our windows. By the time I finished the book, millions had broken quarantine to protest the murder of George Floyd and countless others killed by police or vigilantes. Here in LA, multiracial waves of demonstrators converged in the centers of wealth, power, and commerce—Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, the Fairfax District, West Hollywood, Downtown. They called for defunding the police and investing in education, health care, housing, living wage jobs, and—in the words of the People’s Budget LA Coalition—“Reimagined Community Safety.”
“Multiracial waves of demonstrators converged in the centers of wealth, power, and commerce.”
Meanwhile in South LA, artist Lauren Halsey was knee-deep in her own revolutionary project long before the protests or COVID-19. A third-generation Angeleno born and raised in South Central LA, Halsey creates powerful installations celebrating her community’s resilience, creativity, and resistance to displacement and erasure, both as a reclamation of history and a projection into the future. Although she was born in 1987, Halsey, more than any other artist, is heir to the community arts tradition of the Watts Renaissance. She is less interested in winning the recognition of the art world than in building a community center. She told one interviewer: “With all of the odds already stacked against working-class Black and brown folks in low-income neighborhoods in LA (food, education, police, housing, etc.), I can’t imagine not having a community-based practice. My interest is to not only affirm folks through my practice/the artwork but most importantly to do so with tangible results: paid jobs, transcendent programming, free resources, and workshops.” And she walks the talk, hiring Black carpenters at union wages through the LA Black Worker Center—a South Central institution also headed by a radical Black woman, Lola Smallwood-Cuevas. Just as Halsey and her renegade crew—Monique McWilliams and Korina Matayas, among others—were preparing to launch the Summaeverythang Community Center, COVID-19 struck. Halsey pivoted, turning the community center into a food bank. Every week she and her crew box and deliver thousands of pounds of organic, locally sourced produce to the Nickerson Gardens housing projects and other low-income families in Watts. Free. Free of pesticides, free of GMOs, free of obligation, free of stigma, free of charge. Survival pending revolution.
For many self-styled leftists, images of overturned police cars or gun battles between Panthers and SWAT are the glitter that shrouds the radical tradition of care and mutual aid. The Summaeverythang Community Center is the bearer of this radical tradition. So are the LA Black Worker Center, the Strategy and Soul Movement Center (a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center), the Los Angeles Community Action Network, and the Mutual Aid Network LA, among others. Unless we clean the glitter from our eyes, as my mother did almost fifty years ago, we might not see it. Perhaps Freedom City is on the horizon after all.
Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
This article previously appeared in Boston Review.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]