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The Many Explosions of Los Angeles in the 1960s

Mike Davis and Jon Wiener's chronicle of Los Angeles in the 1960s, Set the Night on Fire, isn't just a stunning portrait of a city in upheaval half a century ago. It's a history of uprisings for civil rights, against poverty, and for a better world that speaks directly to our current moment of mass protest.

Youth from the Florencia barrio of South Central Los Angeles arrive at Belvedere Park for La Marcha Por La Justicia, on January 31, 1971. (Luis C. Garza / UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center)

The vision of sun-drenched Los Angeles, the land of the forever young, tanned white beautiful people drinking and partying at the beach, so popularized by Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” has from time to time been punctured by the much less rosy news appearing in the media about the doings of the city’s working-class population living on the other side of the tracks. Such news is not necessarily motivated by a concern for the poverty, homelessness, xenophobia, and racism those groups live under, but rather by the potential for mass protests and riots to break out, as they have throughout the city’s history. In the process, such coverage misses the molecular and less visible social and political forces that precede them and that explain their evolution and impact.

This is not a problem with Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s monumental Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, the definitive treatment of the resistance against oppression and war by the “other LA” and their protest movements in the long 1960s (1960 to the mid-1970s). Theirs is a major, beautifully written 788-page opus, an exhaustive and in-depth presentation of the wide-ranging big and small resistance movements of that period with a sober and insightful account of their strengths and weaknesses, including the role that the political left played in them. Its publication in 2020 could not be more timely in these days when tens of thousands have been demonstrating in Los Angeles and across the country and world against police brutality and racism.

A City Dominated by Racist Repression

Davis and Wiener place the social and political movements of resistance in 1960s Los Angeles in the context of a political structure similar to many Southern cities of the period. While citing Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and James Baldwin explicitly likening LA’s racist abuses of the sixties to those of Birmingham, Alabama, the city of that time was much richer and economically developed than Birmingham, and it included diverse leading economic sectors such as real estate (a developers’ paradise), considerable manufacturing including the highly technologically developed aerospace industry, banking, and entertainment.

At the top of this political structure was what the authors call the city’s “ruling triumvirate of white power” that consolidated its control for years to come, they write, with the reelection of superconservative Sam Yorty as mayor of Los Angeles in 1965. Besides Mayor Yorty, the triumvirate included Catholic cardinal James Francis McIntyre and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) chief William H. Parker. As LA mayor for twelve years (1961–1973), Yorty was consistently hostile to the black community and the poor in general, to the point of even refusing to follow federal guidelines that would have released millions of dollars of anti-poverty funds for youth jobs, while fully supporting police repression of protest and unrest, especially in minority communities.

Cardinal McIntyre, who was the head of the LA Catholic Church since 1948, first as archbishop and then as cardinal until he retired in 1970, was a right-wing supporter of the John Birch Society opposed to many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the first half of the sixties, and firmly repressed dissenters within the Catholic clergy like famed artist Sister Corita Kent. He publicly expressed his racist views, frequently accompanied by racial slurs, provoking the ire of blacks, Latinos, and members of the LA clergy itself.

But it was William H. Parker, LA’s chief of police from 1950 until 1966, who turned out to be the most influential of the three, both in terms of the markedly brutal racist practices he instituted in the police department, as well as in terms of the racist legacy he left behind after his seventeen-year tenure at the top of the police department with his successors after his death: Thomas Reddin, Ed Davis, and Daryl Gates (Parker’s chauffeur), who ran the police department from 1978 until he was forced to resign after the Rodney King riots in 1992.

William H. Parker, the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief from 1950 until 1966.

Parker also became infamous for his public, disparaging remarks about LA’s racial minorities. Davis and Wiener cite him lamenting having “barely civilized people” from other regions inundating long-suffering Los Angeles, a clear reference to blacks, Latin American immigrants, and Chicanos. The authors describe him as a man loaded with political acumen who understood early on the potential of the mass media as a means to expand his influence. He assiduously courted the support of all the major city newspapers and TV. In that spirit, he offered unlimited cooperation to the production of the famous TV show Dragnet in exchange for the right to revise its scripts, which predictably led to the portrayal of LA policemen as “ethical, efficient, terse and white.”

Seeking the control of his department, even before he became chief, he made sure to get life tenure for LA police chiefs, thereby insulating them from political control, and succeeded in keeping department discipline within the LAPD ranks free of outside oversight. As the authors point out, Parker was his own man, and while he was happy to feed political intelligence on their enemies to Republican conservatives, “he seldom broke strikes and absolutely never took orders” from anyone, as was the case with his predecessors.

That is what may explain Parker’s interest in eliminating the until-then widespread corruption among the city’s police officers high and low. He instituted military-type discipline in the department and expanded the Organized Crime Intelligence Division (OCID) to keep the Mafia and organized crime out of Los Angeles.

He also built up the “vice squad,” which became widely known for its constant harassment of gay people. It is ironic, the authors note, that Parker’s anti-corruption efforts led to more oppression of the gay population of LA. Gays in New York had it better in comparison, they write, given the corrupt agreements between the police and the Mafia that controlled NY’s gay bars that was interested in easing up the harassment of their gay clientele.

Parker’s successors at the head of the police department continued their antecessor’s harsh methods to repress political protest and racial unrest. A well-known example is the LAPD’s brutal repression of the massive demonstration against President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War at the new Century City district on June 23, 1967. In the same year, it pioneered the use of SWAT teams, the primary purpose of which was to ostensibly preserve “public order.” And, like under Parker, the LAPD continued to infiltrate protest groups no matter if they were engaged in fully legal activities.

The LAPD brutally repressed a demonstration against the Vietnam War at the new Century City district on June 23, 1967.

As an assistant professor of sociology at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) at the time, I personally knew police sergeant Harry T. Kozak, who in the late sixties had been a mole at UCLA as an undergraduate in the history department. He was found out through discovery motions made by attorneys for students arrested at a demonstration protesting the outcome of the “Chicago 7” trial in February 1970.

I met Kozak on many occasions at a room in the student union that had become a haven for UCLA radical activists of various stripes, including the International Socialists (IS), my own organization. There, Kozak took on the role of an antiwar Vietnam veteran — while informing the police about the activist students’ plans and activities. Later, after his identity was revealed, I was at a faculty union meeting during Governor Ronald Reagan’s closure of UCLA and the rest of the UC system, in the wake of the huge protests against President Richard Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia, when I spotted him and another policeman walking in the hallway next to our meeting room.

Immediately after I informed the faculty about his presence, a substantial number of history professors went out to confront him. Kozak and his companion beat a hasty retreat, hopping into their unmarked police car and suddenly taking off, notwithstanding history professor Geoffrey Symcox standing in front of the vehicle. Symcox was hit and fell to the pavement suffering a serious head injury, from which he fortunately recovered some time later. Needless to add, this violent police act went unpunished.

For Davis and Wiener, the deep and long-lasting power of LA’s oppressive and racist triumvirate was rooted in the preeminently conservative white Protestant population that in the sixties constituted the largest proportion of the inhabitants of the city. LA, they write, was the city with the largest proportion of white Protestants among the large cities outside the South. In 1960, only 6.4 percent of the LA population was Mexican American; blacks were 13.5 percent, double the proportion of the city’s Mexican Americans but not large by the standards of big cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Later on, the proportion of Mexican Americans grew to 18.4 percent in 1970, and by 2018 they became a major presence at 35.8 percent of the city’s population.

Together with the non-Mexican Latin American immigrants and their descendants, they came to represent 47.7 percent of the total LA population. In contrast, blacks began to register a continual descent, and by 2018 they represented only 9 percent of LA’s total population.

Another important factor contributing to the conservative politics of the LA of the sixties was the weakness of the city’s labor movement, though there are important exceptions such as the 1970 citywide Teamsters wildcat strike. This weakness is often linked to the bombing of the building of the strongly anti-union Los Angeles Times on October 1, 1910 by the brothers John J. and James B. McNamara, both members of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers. The bombing exacerbated the right-wing, anti-union politics of the Los Angeles Times, the most influential newspaper in the area, which only began to moderate its politics in the direction of liberalism in the late sixties under the editorship of Otis Chandler.

After decades of domination by this reactionary coalition, Angelenos finally pushed back en masse in the sixties.

The Movements in Los Angeles

As Davis and Wiener show, to speak about resistance in the Los Angeles of the long sixties is to a very large extent to speak about the resistance of the city’s oppressed and exploited Chicano and black communities. The distinguishing characteristic of these movements, they write, was “the commanding role students in grades seven to twelve” played in them, especially the Chicano students.

The highly segregated Chicano high schools blew up in March 1968. As the authors describe it, influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, young Mexican Americans began to become politicized, adopting the old term Chicano as a symbol of their rejection of assimilation into the Anglo community and as a positive identification with the indigenous people of Mexico, the “brown race,” and with the ongoing struggles of Mexican working-class and poor people such as the United Farm Workers (UFW) led by Cesar Chavez.

As the authors note, this increasing politicization was taking place in the context of growing immigration of mostly undocumented Mexicans into the city, on one hand, while the already minimal political representation of Mexican Americans at the state level completely disappeared on the other, when the sole Mexican-American member of the legislature was defeated in 1966.

The political powerlessness of the Chicano population was especially evident in the racism that dominated LA’s highly segregated school system. During the mid-sixties, increasing numbers of principals and counselors were speaking about Mexican Americans as “uneducable.” At the time, the National Education Association (NEA) indicted Los Angeles educational authorities for the refusal of the schools to provide bilingual classes or even allow Spanish to be spoken in playgrounds. And a report by the state advisory committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights based on 1967 data condemned the frequent practice of placing Mexican-American students in classes for mentally handicapped people simply because they could not speak English.

This was the combustible mix that for Davis and Wiener gave rise to the Chicano high school rebellions. The spark that ignited them was the censorship by the school authorities of some risqué lines in a play (the very popular Barefoot in the Park) that Chicano students had put on with much enthusiasm at Woodrow Wilson High School. That censorship provoked the walkout of hundreds of Wilson students from March 4 to March 8, including junior high school students that shared the same building.

One of the walkouts by Chicano high school students, which became known as the “East LA Walkouts” or the “Chicano Blowouts.”

The walkouts at Wilson were supported by other Chicano high schools and obtained the support of black high schools in the second week of the walkouts. As Davis and Wiener note, the supporting walkouts from those other high schools were not entirely spontaneous. Groups of students at the heavily Chicano four East LA high schools had been preparing, under the guidance of their teacher Sal Castro, for some action. While it was a censored play that triggered the movement, the demands of the protesters centered on the inequality and racism prevalent in the education system and called for reductions in class size, bilingual-bicultural education, Latino administrators in Mexican-American–majority schools, Spanish-language training for English-only teachers, a new high school in East LA to relieve overcrowding, the abolition of corporal punishment, an end to ethnically biased testing, and a curriculum that included Mexican-American history and folklore.

Evidencing the repressive atmosphere of the time, right-wing and politically ambitious District Attorney Evelle Younger charged Castro and twelve student activists (the “East LA 13”) with a number of felonies, raising the potential of long prison sentences. Thankfully, those charges were eventually thrown out by an appeals court, while Castro was reinstated at his teaching post at Lincoln High School.

The most radical and politically consequential expression of Chicano discontent took place two and a half years later with the Chicano Moratorium of August 29, 1970. Like all moratoria, it was called to protest and demand the immediate end to the war in Vietnam. Twenty to twenty-five thousand people — 85 percent of them Chicano — marched down the main street in East LA with numerous flags and banners chanting “Raza Sí, Guerra No” (“Race Yes, War No”). This massive march marked a qualitative breakthrough for both the Chicano community, previously known for its quiescent patriotism, and for the antiwar movement’s expansion of its minority and working-class base.

The Chicano Moratorium of August 29, 1970, where protesters demanded the immediate end to the war in Vietnam. (Los Angeles Public Library)

The response of the police was extraordinarily violent; out of control rank-and-file policemen and sheriff’s deputies turned it into a veritable police riot. Tear gas was all over the streets, and even residents, often elderly, who had nothing to do with the moratorium were attacked by the police when they failed to follow orders to go inside their homes.

Well-known investigative reporter Rubén Salazar was shot and killed by the police while he was taking a break inside a café-bar. He had been previously threatened by the LAPD and was under surveillance by probably more than one agency for his damaging investigative reports. The subsequent police investigation and grand jury inquest into Salazar’s death turned into a whitewash in the midst of an almost hysterical right-wing slander campaign against the moratorium and its leaders.

Like with the Chicanos, the authors place much of the black resistance movements in the black high schools of LA. The writers mention various formal complaints against the LA educational system that had been exposing the rampant racism ongoing in the classrooms: in 1960, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local accused the LA County Board of Education of refusing to assign or transfer black teachers to schools in predominantly white areas. A year earlier, black educator Wilson Riles had also complained to the California Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights that in the midst of a serious teacher shortage hundreds of fully credentialed black educators could not find jobs.

Black high school students had been organizing for the most part in their own Black Student Unions (BSU) to protest those and other practices by the Board of Education. Reflecting the turning away from integration by blacks throughout the United States toward black power, the high school students’ demands were centered on community control and not on the racial integration of the school system. But they also fought racist white principals at Manual Arts and Fremont High Schools, and at Carver Junior High School they actively supported black students at the new Southwest College fighting to obtain decent facilities to replace a dozen inadequate temporary structures.

However, as the authors note, the most significant act of resistance of the 1960s that placed the Los Angeles black community in the national and world map for many years to come was the Watts Rebellion in 1965.

Even naming the rebellion as such was a misnomer, they argue, since it extended well beyond the 46.5 square miles of the main black ghetto in the South LA Watts neighborhood and covered nearby black communities including Venice, Pacoima, Long Beach, north Pasadena, Monrovia, Pomona, and even San Diego. The rebellion involved young and old poor blacks protesting, for several days, in the streets and clashing with the police leaving behind 34 dead and 1,034 injured and the destruction of property that principally affected the black community in South-Central Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, it was condemned by the local authorities and media in extremely harsh and derogatory terms.

Refusing to cater to the largely white hysteria as well as to the inclination to romanticize what happened, Davis and Wiener paint a picture of a rebellion characterized by unorganized, largely spontaneously inspired acts — in a way similar to the pre-political rebellions studied by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in Primitive Rebels — largely aimed at retaliation against the police and exploitative local businesses. Contrary to what is commonly alleged, it was not, they argue, a “race riot”: Mexican residents of the area were for the most part left untouched, and aside from the police, the whites who were stoned or beaten were mostly commuters crossing the black community on their way to the white side of the line separating black and white neighborhoods.

Armed National Guardsmen march toward smoke on the horizon during the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, California. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The establishment of a reign of terror by the LAPD effectively quashed the rebellion. Its intensity, the destruction it left behind, and the repression that followed forced an official investigation of the events. Afraid of losing the support of conservative whites for his coming reelection in the fall of 1966, Democratic governor Edmund “Pat” Brown (Gov. Jerry Brown’s father) appointed wealthy businessman and former CIA director John McCone to head an investigative commission to report on what became labeled as the Watts “riot.” A renowned conservative figure, he had, as CIA director, overseen the US attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, and resigned from his post in 1965 to protest President Lyndon B. Johnson’s rejection of plans that would have widened the air war against North Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, the resulting report, titled Violence in the City – An End or a Beginning, was an absolute whitewash of the racism at the root of the Watts explosion and of the violent, abusive conduct of the police. It denied the reality of the horrific living conditions under which Watts inhabitants lived, claimed that the police acted correctly and “efficiently” under the leadership of Chief William H. Parker, and minimized the number of black residents who had participated in the rebellion, suggesting that it had been initiated and conducted by marginal criminal elements.

Contradicting those remarks, the county probation department showed, based on a study it conducted of four hundred arrested black juveniles, that most of them had “little or no previous contact with the police,” and “less than 10 percent had been arrested for arson, assault, or possession of a weapon”; the majority had been “booked for loitering, curfew violations, or looting.”

In the end, as Davis and Wiener show, the Watts Rebellion turned out to be a victory only in the widest political sense, in that it became a powerful symbol communicating to a national and worldwide audience the extent and depth of black oppression and discontent. But in terms of its residents’ lived reality, it was a defeat. Aside from having failed to leave behind a durable organizational legacy in the area, by the 1970s the riot neighborhood had lost whatever little it had gained through the War on Poverty and similar improvement programs. Ten years later, as the Los Angeles Times reported, conditions in the Watts ghetto were worse than in 1965.

But the Watts rebellion and those that followed in subsequent years in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Newark pressured the Johnson administration to give concessions like the opening up of welfare rolls and the liberalization of welfare rules, the cheapest possible way to attempt to quiet black discontent.

The deindustrialization wave that had devastated many of America’s big cities also hit LA with the closure of auto plants, aluminum mills, steel plants, and tire factories, bringing about a sharp decline in what had often been steady jobs with decent wages and working conditions. Eventually, the declining black population and growing Latino immigration was reflected in South-Central LA, as Latinos increasingly replaced blacks in Watts and surrounding areas. This became evident in the different racial composition of those rioting to protest the abusers of Rodney King getting away unpunished in 1992.

Another important black resistance movement in LA that was not centered in the high schools involved the formation of the Black Panther Party three years after the Watts Rebellion. It had already been in existence in Oakland where it was founded in the summer and early fall of 1966. It had a huge impact among blacks, particularly among the young, because it placed the issue of police brutality and armed self-defense at the center of its activities and program.

Black Panther Party founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. (Wikimedia Commons)

In LA, the party was organized in 1968, but it immediately clashed with the existing cultural nationalist Ron Karenga and his US Organization that argued for a reconstitution of black identity that eliminated white influences and reclaimed its African roots. Cultural revolution, in US’s view, had to precede the sociopolitical revolution advocated by the Panthers. The rivalry between these organizations climaxed in an armed clash over control of a program to enroll black high school students with high academic potential at a Black Student Union meeting at UCLA on January 17, 1969. As a result, two Black Panthers were killed by US members.

Davis and Wiener’s account of the UCLA killings significantly differs from the conventional Panther account of what took place there. Davis and Wiener are skeptical about claims that Karenga and US were following orders from the FBI, and that in any case, Karenga was not even aware of what took place that day at UCLA and only found out when he was reached by phone in Harlem.

Much of the story about the Panthers in Los Angeles is intimately connected with what was happening to the Panthers elsewhere in the country. The FBI, along with other repressive arms of the US government, engaged in a national campaign to eliminate the Panthers both politically and physically, as evidenced in the notorious killing of Fred Hampton in Chicago in 1969. In LA and elsewhere in Southern California, the Panthers had been frequently clashing with the police.

A major confrontation took place on December 8, 1969, four days after Hampton’s murder. An army of cops, including forty SWAT members, led by acting police chief Daryl Gates — Parker’s protégé — attacked the LA Panther headquarters. The thirteen Panthers present there tried to resist the armed police invasion of their offices. The battle went on for four and a half hours. It ended with six Panthers injured (but none killed, amazingly, given the massive clash with the police). This, plus two other simultaneous raids on other Panther locations, led to the arrest of twenty-one Panthers with eighteen of them facing charges of “conspiracy to commit murder” punishable with the death penalty.

On December 8, 1969, an army of LAPD officers, including forty SWAT members, led by acting police chief Daryl Gates — William H. Parker’s protégé — attacked the LA Black Panther Party headquarters in the Watts neighborhood.

Eventually, a jury acquitted eight Panthers of conspiracy to commit murder, convicted nine Panthers of conspiracy to possess illegal weapons, and deadlocked on the remaining nine counts against eight defendants while two Panthers were acquitted of all charges.

While acknowledging the Panthers’ notable contribution to the defense of the black community against police abuse, and the heavy price they paid for that, Davis and Wiener are not apologists for the Black Panther Party and expose certain traits — namely, its leaders’ and members’ tolerance for criminal activities — that contributed to the organization’s downfall. Specifically, the authors relate how Bunchy Carter, the leader of the Southern California Black Panthers, “had trouble maintaining discipline over a membership that included many tough street people with previous experience in the criminal arts.”

The authors argue that this was due to the “drastic lack of political education” that led to “the lack of a real firewall between the chapter’s open and clandestine activities, between ‘serving the people’ and carrying out robberies and shootings, [that] bedeviled it with problems throughout its brief history.” I would argue this not only forced the Panthers to set aside their cause to build their community’s self-defense, but also facilitated their being blackmailed by the police and FBI, and their vulnerability to the intrigues that set Panther members against each other, seriously weakening the party’s resistance to repression.

The Black Panther Party’s explicit orientation toward recruiting the black “lumpenproletariat” (the Panthers’ own term) also created a problem not solvable only by political education. The recruitment of the “lumpen” to a revolutionary organization does require changing their day-to-day conduct, since such people are often victimizers as well as victims, and their violent activities (assault, robbery, drug trafficking, homicides) are predominantly carried out against the working class and the poor usually living in their own community, since they know that community better and have easier access to it. It is that victimizing conduct that needs to be changed as part of their radicalizing.

The Nation of Islam did that successfully, albeit in a conservative and authoritarian fashion, as other previous movements in the past did, like many of the temperance movements. The task remains to achieve that change in a revolutionary and democratic manner while simultaneously engaging in revolutionary and liberation political struggles.

In the end, however, the movements of resistance in LA ended up having less impact than those that developed at the same time in the Bay Area in Northern California. Although exclusively focused on the LA rebellions, Davis and Weiner seem to implicitly agree with that evaluation when, extending their gaze beyond the city of their book to the rest of California, they write that whereas, even at its highest point, the Southern struggle in Selma in 1965 failed to stimulate the dying Civil Rights Movement in Los Angeles, in Northern California, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Freedom Summer veterans had unexpectedly found themselves leading the Free Speech Movement (FSM) in the fall of 1964, the biggest student uprising since the 1930s. And which, parenthetically, fed into the development of the large and militant anti–Vietnam War movement in the area.

LA’s comparatively weaker movements of rebellion were the result of the conservative domination of the city that Davis and Wiener describe, which obstructed the organization of protest. Ironically, however, it was this conservatism that, by continuing to exacerbate existing social pressures, led to the popular explosion of the Watts Rebellion.

The Sociology of Protest in 1960s Los Angeles

Another characteristic of the Los Angeles of the long sixties is that the protest movements that also took place in the colleges and universities were stronger in the smaller, less renowned ones, such as San Fernando Valley State College (renamed California State University, Northridge in 1972), than at the bigger and more famous ones.

The three most important institutions of higher learning in the LA area of the sixties were the California Institute of Technology (better known as Caltech), the University of Southern California (USC), and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). That nothing of great political significance happened at Caltech was not surprising since students in science and technology tend not to join protest movements anywhere in the United States. For its part, USC was considered to be, in the sixties and seventies, a university attended by young and rich white women and men interested more than anything else in the social life of sororities, fraternities, and in its football team. (O. J. Simpson played for the Trojans, USC’s football team, during his junior and senior years in 1967 and 1968.)

UCLA had a more diverse student body than USC at least in class if not in racial terms, and certainly a strong scholarly and scientific reputation. But UCLA’s range of interests was far broader than other prestigious area institutions like Caltech, since UCLA had a reputation not only in fields like engineering and medical research (including a well-known School of Medicine and hospital), but also in the social sciences and humanities. Although UCLA had the Bruins, for many years the best college basketball team in the country, it did not monopolize the atmosphere of campus life to the same degree as the Trojans did at USC.

Organized by a relatively small student movement, UCLA exploded when it joined in the strike movement of hundreds of colleges and universities in the spring of 1970 protesting Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia, and was invaded as a result by hundreds of California National Guardsmen sent by Governor Ronald Reagan to occupy its campus, leading to a significant number of injured students and faculty. Yet the protest movement at UCLA was not as politically important as other major campuses in the United States.

UCLA exploded when it joined in the strike movement of hundreds of colleges and universities in the spring of 1970 protesting Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. (Los Angeles Public Library)

This was true not only in comparison with its equally large sister campus in Berkeley (close to thirty thousand students each), but also in comparison to other politicized campuses of the sixties such as Columbia, Harvard, the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, or even its sister campus at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), with its nearby student section in the Isla Vista neighborhood, where many militant actions took place, including the burning of the local branch of the Bank of America.

When I came from Berkeley, where as a graduate student in sociology I was active in student politics, to join the Los Angeles campus as a junior tenure-track faculty member in 1968, I was struck by how politically dead the LA campus was. Most striking was the absence of a residential student community around or near the campus where, as in those days in Berkeley, students lived throughout the whole year and hung out with each other at bookstores, coffee shops, record stores, and food and housing co-ops.

A major reason for the lack of such community was UCLA’s location in a very expensive area unaffordable and unsuited to student housing, shopping, and entertainment. (There were dormitories on campus, but students lived there only during the thirty-week school year.) Not surprisingly, UCLA functioned as a 9 AM to 4 PM campus; faculty and students never hung out there as they had to come and go quickly to get to class on time and avoid the impossible freeway traffic to go back home. (LA was infamous for its very poor public transportation.) Besides, by the late afternoon and early evening, they had to empty many campus classrooms and other facilities to make them available to the very different student body and faculty of the enormous UCLA Extension division. It was the absence of that campus-related residential community that helps to explain UCLA’s comparatively lower degree of political activity.

Conversely, part of what explains the more important political role of the black and Chicano high schools is that they were embedded in minority neighborhoods with a far more organic connection with the schools. Those homogeneous communities provided support and legitimation for student grievances. A somewhat similar phenomenon existed in the homogeneous mining communities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that propitiated the development of the most militant section of the working class in many different countries.

Yet the existence of a residential community does not by itself guarantee the development of any movement; it only facilitates it. As Davis and Wiener show in the telling of their story, other factors made up for its absence, one of them being the organizational life of or around the student body. One example in the book was California State University, Northridge (originally known as San Fernando Valley State College), located in a heavily white area with no residential campus to speak of.

According to Davis and Wiener, Northridge developed a strong student movement in the late sixties that involved a sizable number of student demonstrations, some of them quite large. They attribute this to a great extent to the very strong organizations of its black, Chicano, and radical white students whose protests led to several police invasions resulting in large-scale arrests, felony charges, and long sentences for student activists (which fortunately did not stick on appeal, although they resulted in lesser but still damaging terms of five-year probation and the banning of activist leaders from campus).

Northridge’s black students were organized into the Black Student Union (BSU). Davis and Wiener note that part of the experienced leadership of this group came from the black, poor, and working-class neighborhood of Pacoima (like Northridge, located in the San Fernando Valley), where radical politics had been flourishing. It was this leadership, they write, that helped to forge a strong, cohesive chapter in the Northridge campus. Pacoima is eleven miles from Northridge, not near enough to serve in practical terms as an effective residential black student base.

Northridge white radical students were active in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) Northridge chapter, which Davis and Wiener describe as being notably cohesive and free of the sectarian splits that by the late sixties were tearing apart many SDS chapters throughout the country. The chapter had a talented leadership and a politically experienced membership, described by one of the group’s leaders as “forty people, who were very politically aware, had skills, could write, could speak, had connections.” That is what allowed the chapter to survive: when some of its leaders were arrested in the many campus police invasions, other members were able to step in and replace them while they were in jail.

As for the Chicano students, Davis and Wiener write that they were also well organized and successfully managed to get the Chicano studies academic department they demanded. But in contrast with the Black Student Union, they tended to follow a more cautious course, avoiding, for example, the occupation of buildings, thus steering clear of any felony charges or long jail sentences, although Chicano students did burn an American flag flying on campus. The Chicano House, the headquarters of the movement, was burned by right-wing extremists during that period.

Students at the San Fernando Valley State College (later known as the California State University–Northridge) clash with the LAPD in 1968. (California State University–Northridge Archives Collection)

There were other institutions of the political culture of the Los Angeles of the sixties that to a certain degree compensated for the lack of a geographically based student community. One of them was KPFK, the nonprofit liberal-radical FM radio station belonging to the Pacifica chain of stations led by Berkeley’s KPFA, which concentrated much of its programming on the ongoing movements of resistance and provided information that helped to coordinate protests going on in the LA area. A more important source of information was the Los Angeles Free Press, founded and edited by socialist Art Kunkin. It was a weekly paper that, in the estimation of Davis and Wiener, was more political and less counter-culturally oriented than the hundreds of “underground” papers being published by New Left and hippie groups throughout the country.

Unlike other “underground” papers, Kunkin recruited black writers for his paper who he had gotten to know as a result of his long-time involvement in the Civil Rights Movement through his participation in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). For almost ten years, it was the second-most important underground newspaper in the country, only nationally surpassed in circulation by the older (and less radical) Village Voice in New York. By 1970, it published forty-eight pages every week, had a guaranteed circulation of eighty-five thousand, and boasted a “faithful readership” estimated at a quarter of a million.

Both KPFK and the Los Angeles Free Press not only provided information valuable to activist students but also provided an important degree of linkage between the often dispersed and atomized Los Angeles resisters.

Toward an Inclusive Neoliberalism in Los Angeles?

The “Birmingham on the Pacific,” with its triumvirate of white power, is long gone. In 1973, eternal mayor Sam Yorty finally lost to Tom Bradley, an African-American Democratic Party politician and former policeman who narrowly won on a very moderate platform with close ties to big developers, major banks, and to Otis Chandler, the owner of the influential Los Angeles Times. His election signaled the beginning of the end of the Republican conservative control of the city.

It was followed by the Republican loss of control of the state of California as a reaction to the approval, in 1994, of Proposition 187, urged by Republican governor Pete Wilson, prohibiting undocumented immigrants from obtaining nonemergency health care, public education, and other social services in California. The approval of this proposal, later invalidated by the courts, provoked a huge Chicano electoral response that reshaped the Los Angeles City Council, and the city’s delegations to the State Legislature and Congress by electing many Chicanos to those bodies.

Then, in 1985, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles came under the leadership of Cardinal Roger Mahony, who until his retirement in 2011 supported immigrant rights, including the gigantic march of one million protesters across the United States on May 1, 2006. (After his retirement, he was disciplined by the church for failing to do anything about stopping sexual harassment in his archdiocese.) Even the previously untouchable Los Angeles Police Department lost part of its power with the imposition, by the federal courts, of major reforms in 2001, and the appointment of a court-appointed monitor to ensure compliance.

The Los Angeles of today has left behind its Southern-style racism. But it has donned instead a Northern-style racism that on the one hand allows some blacks, Chicanos and other Latin Americans, and people of color into the corridors and seats of power, and on the other hand keeps most of them poor and unemployed, homeless or living in slum-like conditions, with seriously underfunded schools and without proper health care, all of which has been exposed and magnified by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Like the state of California, the city is ruled by a powerful Democratic Party, tied intimately to the neoliberal capitalist status quo.

The protest organizations of the sixties were either extinct or moribund by the mid-seventies, leaving those who wanted to continue the struggle without a strong vehicle for resistance. However, Davis and Wiener argue that those organizations planted seeds that have grown into living traditions of resistance, with thousands of activists struggling in a wide variety of venues as union organizers, progressive professionals, schoolteachers, and community activists, transmitting to the next generations traditions of resistance that have expressed themselves, for example, in the new labor activism and immigrant rights organizing of the 1990s. And the demographic and social transformation of Los Angeles into what is now a majority-minority city offers far more favorable conditions for the continuation and renewal of resistance than in the sixties.

One can hope that the traditions of resistance developed in the struggles of the long sixties and 1990s — their positive as well as negative lessons ­— are transmitted to the new generations of resisters active in the new explosion of resistance in 2020.