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A magisterial, kaleidoscopic, riveting history of Los Angeles in the SixtiesHistories of the US Sixties invariably focus on New York City, but Los Angeles was an epicenter of that decade's political and social earthquake LA was a launchpad for Black Power where Malcolm X and Angela Davis first came to prominence and the Watts uprising shook the nation and home to the Chicano walkouts and Moratorium, as well as birthplace of Asian America as a political identity, base of the antiwar movement, and of course, center of California counterculture.Mike Davis and Jon Wiener provide the first comprehensive history of LA in the Sixties, drawing on extensive archival research, scores of interviews with principal figures of the 1960s movements, and personal histories (both Davis and Wiener are native Los Angelenos) Following on from Davis's award winning LA history, City of Quartz, and picking up where the celebrated California historian Kevin Starr left off (his eight volume history of California ends in 1963), Set the Night on Fire is a fascinating historical corrective, delivered in scintillating and fiercely elegant prose.


10 thoughts on “Set the Night on Fire

  1. Magally Miranda Alcázar Magally Miranda Alcázar says:

    Set the Night on Fire is Mike Davis and Jon Wiener's gift to the next generation.

    Davis' credentials as an an American writer, political activist, urban theorist, and historian combine with the journalistic voice of co-author, Jon Wiener, history professor Emeritus at UC Irvine who's been a contributing editor to The Nation since 1984 to write a history of the sixties and Los Angeles that stands up to the hype. As acclaimed sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich notes in the cover of Set the Night on Fire: this is a history of the sixties written by “two of many peoples’ favorite locals.” It's worth noting that both Davis and Wiener are not only historians of the 1960s, but were active participants each in their own capacity in many of the social movements discussed in this book, including Davis' leadership in the Los Angeles Chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society, the anti-war movement on university campuses, the Southern California branch of the Communist Party and the rank-and-file Teamsters movement. Also a member of SDS though on the East Coast, Jon became politicized by the events of Mississippi, Birmingham and Selma and became a journalist working on and in the anti-war movement before moving to Los Angeles in 1969 where as he says there was no shortage of things to report about including the trial to Free Angela Davis and the repression of the Black Panther Party and Cuban reactionary activity.

    Though nearly-800 page, Set the Night on Fire manages to feel at times too brief. That isn't only a commentary on the questions it raises but doesn't answer about political theory or methodology (these things are easy enough for an educated reader to infer). Written as a series of short vignettes in more or less chronological order, the authors transport the reader into the 1960s and early 1970s through traditional archives but also their own memory (including diary entries of Davis' experience during the days of the Watts Rebellion).

    In Los Angeles, the authors argue, many social movements were anything but insular (where they were separatist in nature, this was often a concerted and political decision): movements for civil rights, housing, education, desegregation, black liberation, the establishment of African American and Chicana/o Studies, anti-war, and of course rock and roll and counterculture (Set the Night on Fire is a reference to a song by The Doors).

    Forget everything you know about the 60s, the book seems to say. At least that's how I felt even as someone with more or less expert knowledge of the origins of Chicano movement (I'm a PhD student in the field of Chicana/o Studies at UCLA). If the political argument structuring the book is that the defeats at the level of reforms in the early part of the decade foreclosed avenues for peaceful change toward the end of the decade, then at least one important provocation this book should hold for future generations of lay and academic historians alike is a curiosity about how these untold and buried transmissions of memory can inform future studies and future struggles. I see many a future dissertation emerging from the memories in these pages.


  2. Elliot Elliot says:

    fuck the LAPD


  3. Ravi Ravi says:

    This is a magisterial history of Los Angeles in the 1960s. From the Black Panthers and Chicano liberation movement to the gay rights movement and feminism, Davis and Weiner provide a tremendous amount of information that takes the reader deep into a world that has passed. As the pandemic crisis upends the global economy, the relevance for building social movements is more salient than ever. The book is ultimately a descriptive history, closely hewing to the detailed portraits it paints. There is relatively little analysis or reflection from the authors on assessing the strategic choices of actors which obviously mostly failed. Surprisingly the authors who of course are extremely well read (Davis is renowned for his contributions) focus overwhelmingly on social movement history. This was clearly a deliberate choice and the result is impressive. But I found it a bit strange that there is very little attention paid to the left organizations of the time such as the SWP or smaller ones. I perhaps dogmatically thought a book about California in the 1960s might mention Hal Draper, a legendary Bay Area activist, but I do appreciate the commitment to a constricted geographic scope. These are quibbles. This is a must read book.


  4. James Bechtel James Bechtel says:

    Timely? Indeed! Mike Davis is an accomplished historian of Los Angeles. Davis and co-author Jon Weiner have returned to 1960s Los Angeles and its profound problems of racial injustice, economic inequality, and other forms of discrimination. The subject matter of this book is political activism - the reaction to these realities, the struggle to overcome them, to transform not only individual lives but the city and all of America. They refer to it as "the movement" - left/radical/revolutionary. The actors are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. What was the legacy of the movement? To what extent were the goals, strategies, and tactics successful? To what extent were individual lives, the city, and America transformed? Was Los Angeles a kind of crossroads city? Were seeds planted? I remember Zhou Enlai's response (I think in the 1970s or 80s) to a question about the legacy of the French Revolution in world history. He said it was too soon to tell. Perhaps.
    The structure of the book is encyclopedic (or Wikipedia-ish). Chapters are relatively short - each with a narrative arc. There were times when I wanted more in the way of analysis, evaluation, or interpretation. For example - gender. A photograph (on the last page of the photo section) shows the women on the staff of the Japanese-American monthly newspaper "Gidra." The caption quoting Laura Pulido states that the photo demonstrated "'a higher level of collective feminist consciousness' than existed in either the Chicana movement or the Black Panthers." Yes, Angela Davis, Dorothy Healy, and NOW have their chapters, but I don't recall discussions about collective feminist consciousness (or the lack thereof) in the book. I guess that's a criticism. Overall, four stars, not five. Here are a couple of book recommendations. If you want to read more about the 1965 Watts Uprising, check out Gerald Horne's book "Fire This Time." On political activism - I was very, very impressed by Micah White's book "The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution" - enlightening and provocative in the best sense of those terms. It is very timely too.


  5. Mollie Mollie says:

    Set the Night on Fire is an in-depth and complex look at the history that created the sprawling city of L.A. It starts off by enumerating the factors that contributed to the uprisings that transformed not just life in LA but life in America during the sixties. Mike David does an excellent job of laying out the convoluted ties between the different players in the game and shows how each aspect of the cultural anathema evolved throughout the years until hitting a point of firm resolve. This book brings to light the dark history and realities of America in the sixties and forces readers to acknowledge the absolutely horrific ordeals that white right leaning Americans forced on minority communities.

    While at times this book was as sprawling and twisted as L.A. itself is, the sprawling nature seemed necessary to encapsulate the complex factors of how L.A. came to be what it is now. It is a well researched and well written book and should be at the top of anyone’s list for a more nuanced look and realistic perspective of the social, cultural, and political landscape of L.A. in the sixties.

    With new names and characters every few sentences, Set the Night on Fire really brings the human aspect of this time period to the forefront and tells and interwoven story by penning the lives of countless players, on every side of the game. The passion and raw emotion of L.A. in the sixties plays out in this book and really drove the narrative forward.


  6. Jennifer Legaspi Jennifer Legaspi says:

    A thorough, well-researched history of Los Angeles, Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, documents the complex histories of several communities and movements in LA. This comprehensive book recounts details omitted from many U.S. history classes and fills those gaps by bringing often ignored groups into the spotlight. Though LA is not representative of the nation as a whole, this book chronicles many of the movements, relationships, and events that later gave rise to nationwide change.

    While the book long, the engaging writing style holds the attention of the reader throughout and is well organized. The reader could comfortably read a chapter or two each night. The details presented in each section allow the reader to understand the evolution of the movements and relationships described in the book. These details allow the reader to visualize the steps toward change rather than stopping at an indication that change occurred. This book is a compelling read even for those without an attachment to the city of Los Angeles.

    Contemporary change-makers looking for inspiration can use this book to learn about the successful movements of the sixties and their tactics. So many of the tactics are worth revisiting today.


  7. Lindsay Luterman Lindsay Luterman says:

    This is a fascinating read that lets the reader in on the truth of what LA was really like in the sixties. New York gets a lot of credit and focus for the growth that took place at that time, but LA was much more than just a utopia of Hollywood and movie stars. It was fascinating to learn that the first LGBTQ street protest actually took place in LA and not NYC. In addition, the usual history of Los Angeles does not show the incredible truth of the power that minorities were able to fight for in LA.
    This read reveals so much information that everybody should know about the history of Los Angeles and how it effected the growth of America as a whole.
    I highly recommend this read.


  8. Dayna Dayna says:

    Marvelous. Well organized and incredibly comprehensive, this book is a great account of LA in the sixties, told with love by activists. The authors' first-hand experience with the events and the political landscape gives one the sense of an insider perspective - like talking to the locals on the streets instead of just reading the news. Loved it.


  9. Ignacia Ignacia says:

    Really good. I learned so much reading this book, but it didn’t need to be so long.


  10. Virginia Walter Virginia Walter says:

    Nearly 800 pages of detail about the leftist movements and counterculture that flourished -- or not -- in Los Angeles in the 1960s and early 1970s. I would have liked more depth, but the breadth of coverage is amazing. I loved the black and white photos, and I miss The Free Press.