The 1960s live on in U.S. memory as an era of counterculture rebellions and the civil rights movement that changed the course of the nation’s history. The mass uprisings that took place from coast to coast have been immortalized in myriad films and books, but these often focus on well known figures rather than the everyday Black and Chicano youths that fueled the movement. In their new book, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the 1960s, renowned historians Mike Davis and Jon Wiener set out to capture the complete history of the city’s revolutionary political scene by focusing on the working class Americans who are so often left out of the story. The book also goes into great detail about the Chicano Movement, also known was “El Movimiento,” which is also often neglected by historians. Wiener, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, joins Robert Scheer on this week’s Scheer Intelligence to discuss the book he co-authored as well as how it relates to the most recent Black Lives Matter protests.
“Our heroes are the working-class young people of the great flatlands of Los Angeles,” says Wiener. “This is not about the movies, it’s not about surf culture, it’s not about rock ‘n’ roll or the scene in Hollywood or in the canyons.
“The core of this book is a chronological narrative of Black and Latino [people] organizing in struggle. It’s a movement history that starts in 1960, when young Black people in L.A. were inspired, like you and I were, by the Civil Rights Movement in the South, by the sit-in movement and the Freedom Riders. That’s the spine of the book. And then around that, we discuss all the other movements of the era: the antiwar movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement; the Asian American movement appears at the very end.”
As Scheer praises the book, published by Verso earlier this year, and discusses how it informed his view of an era he also partly experienced in Los Angeles as a young journalist, he ties the analysis of Wiener and Davis’ book to the present-day uprisings that have taken the world by storm.
“There’s a tendency to celebrate the sixties as a very great, crusading, changed time,” begins Scheer. “And I accept all that. But it has occurred to me in this last six, seven months that we are actually going through a much more profound time of change, particularly in terms of America’s most egregious problem of race.”
“I have to agree,” responds Wiener. “I’ve come to exactly the same conclusion. If you look at what Black Lives Matter accomplished in the past few months, this summer, ever since George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day weekend in Minneapolis, they have had demonstrations everywhere in America. Not just the big cities where there’s majority minorities, but in all the little towns all over the place.
“The other thing I would point to is Black Lives Matter has actually had some impressive success, much more than we had at the time,” Wiener adds.
Wiener points to the fact that mass protests led Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was planning to increase the LAPD’s budget, to ultimately cut $150 million from the police department’s funding.
“Now, we say that’s nowhere near enough; that’s a drop in the bucket,” the author says. “But you know, the whole idea of cutting the budget of the LAPD–this was unthinkable six months ago. We have to give Black Lives Matter credit for keeping their eye on the ball, for organizing the right kind of pressure.”
The two go on to discuss the American communists who helped to shape L.A., along with movements such as the gay liberation movement, which were rejected by many on the left in the 1960s, and went on to have huge success. Listen to the full conversation between Wiener and Scheer as they grapple with the lessons to the past and analyze a time Scheer calls “more exciting politically and more encouraging, maybe, than the sixties.”
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. And the intelligence today is coming from Jon Wiener, who along with Mike Davis has written an incredible book called Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties. And when I say “incredible,” it’s just the definitive work on what L.A. was like during whatever you want to call it, the Beat movement, the antiwar movement. The whole–whatever happened in the sixties happened in L.A. in a very important way, not only because L.A.’s an important city–certainly, maybe, arguably the most important city and region in the country–but also because it’s a center of music and entertainment and moviemaking and mythmaking and television and everything. And so “setting the night on fire” in Los Angeles reverberated around the world, even more profoundly–and I say this with the conceit of somebody who was in Berkeley in those days, mostly; much more so than anywhere else, including New York. Mike Davis is of course the legendary historian, writer about this area; he wrote the most important book, the City of Quartz.
And my guest today is his coauthor, Jon Wiener, who is a highly regarded professor of history–now emeritus, which means he has time to think anew–at University of California, Irvine. And I have used Jon’s work a lot in my own teaching and writing, but one in particular is a [book] called Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files. And what Jon did was get the records of really how the U.S. government–we now talk about all kinds of foreign governments doing terrible things to us. But the most terrible things have been done to us by our own government, and John Lennon was not one of our citizens, but–the attempt of the FBI to destroy John Lennon doesn’t quite rise to the level of destroying, trying to destroy Martin Luther King, which is well documented. But that was a work that first, that I’ve relied on heavily in my teaching.
But let me begin–and I’ll get you to talk about John Lennon and the FBI, but this new book, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties. And I’m not saying this with any hostility [Laughter]–no, because I enjoyed it, and I learned a lot; I thought I knew a lot about it. But my goodness, it’s an 800-page book! And I have to ask you, what were you and Mike–what were you guys thinking? [Laughter] An 800-page book on something that happened a half-century ago. So why don’t we just begin: why should anybody pick up this tome, let alone purchase it? What’s the price–thirty-five bucks? You know, and it’s by Verso Press. And this is my way of actually celebrating this book. I just–I found it marvelous. Really, I found it great in the detail; I just loved it. And I probably have to spend the rest of what remains in my life to fully absorb it. But really, what caused you guys to set the record straight on the sixties in L.A.?
JW: Well, first of all, let me say thank you, Bob. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be with you on one of my favorite podcasts. But I have to say, you’ve exaggerated a bit. It’s true there are 800 pages in the book, but only 640 pages of text. The rest is notes, bibliography, index. So it’s–640 is a much more reasonable–
RS: I got a goddamn hernia picking up this book! [Laughter] What are you talking about! It’s at least three and a half inches thick, isn’t it?
JW: It’s big, it’s big. You know–
RS: It’s beautiful, it’s a beautiful book. And I’ve noticed a lot of bigger books are coming out now. I don’t know if that’s because they don’t actually sell print copies, people get them by eBooks or what have you. And maybe–I don’t know, was this printed in China or someplace? Maybe the cost of production has gone way down. But come on, this is–I mean, this is–you could devote your whole life to this Verso book. Yeah.
JW: I appreciate your sentiments here, but you know, we feel it’s too short. We feel we had to leave out so many important things that we’re just heartbroken over. But our publisher said we were already testing the limits of binding technology, and we had to call it quits, so we even had to cut a couple of chapters. It’s been a very painful process to make this book as short as it is.
RS: OK, but let me put the question seriously to you. Because you are really two guys who have contributed a great deal. Mike Davis, I’m sure a lot of people know his name, and Jon Wiener. And you made a conscious decision to set the record straight on L.A. in the sixties. Set the Night on Fire. Why that decision? And tell us, really, take it from here; what is the result of your research and your writing?
JW: Well, first of all, I want to give Mike Davis credit. This is basically his conception. You know, you mentioned City of Quartz; after City of Quartz–you know, I’ve taught City of Quartz for probably a dozen different years to grad seminars, and the smart students all have the same criticism: this is a great book, but it’s all about the elites and the ideologies; where are the people? Where are the people? And Mike wanted to write a book about what we call–we say our heroes are the working-class young people of the great flatlands of Los Angeles. This is not about the movies, it’s not about surf culture, it’s not about rock ‘n’ roll or the scene in Hollywood or in the canyons.
The core of this book is a chronological narrative of Black and Latino [people] organizing in struggle. It’s a movement history that starts in 1960, when young Black people in L.A. were inspired, like you and I were by the Civil Rights Movement in the South, by the sit-in movement and the Freedom Riders. That’s the spine of the book. And then around that, we discuss all the other movements of the era: the antiwar movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement; the Asian American movement appears at the very end. The counterculture that helped build and supported all these movements, especially KPFK and the L.A. Free Press. The L.A. Free Press was the largest so-called underground newspaper of the sixties, the most successful, edited by Art Kunkin. And L.A. also had a free clinic, the second free clinic in America–the first of course was San Francisco–which pioneered the idea that there’s a right to health care, that health care should be free in America. So to tell that story takes a lot of pages. But we said, no one else is ever going to do this after we do it, so we have to make sure we do it–we have to make sure we do it right.
RS: Yeah. So tell us what you did, really. What’s the takeaway?
JW: So, you know, first of all, we see the movements that we think of as the sixties. L.A. kind of disproves a lot of the conventional wisdom on this. We think of the antiwar movement as basically something that took place on the college campuses, first of the Ivy League, of Columbia and Harvard, and then of the big public universities–Berkeley, where you were such an important person, Wisconsin, Michigan. In L.A., this was not the case. L.A. is the great exception. In L.A., it’s the state colleges and the community colleges. In fact, it was at Valley State, a brand-new college–now it’s called Cal State Northridge, then it was Valley State; it had just been founded–they had a huge Black studies movement that seized the president’s office, and that led to the largest number of felony charges against student radicals anywhere in the United States. Twenty-four members of the Black Student Union at Valley State were charged with 1,730 felonies. Didn’t happen anywhere else. So the student movement here is very different, and our feeling is–our discovery is that the movement in L.A.–and this actually surprised me, I have to say. I was surprised by how young the activists in the streets were. They weren’t just college students, they were high school students; in some cases they were even junior high students. And that may be the case everywhere else, but we documented it very thoroughly here in L.A.
L.A. also was distinguished [as] a place where the Old Left and the New Left were not antagonistic, had some very important connections and ties. And this was mostly because of one person, Dorothy Healey, who was the head of the Communist Party of Southern California, always a kind of dissident, a sometime renegade, always fighting with the national party over the party line. And Dorothy first of all thought that Communists should be open and public about their beliefs; she had a show on KPFK called “Communist Commentary,” that started in 1959. Unheard of in the rest of American media, mainstream media especially. And she cultivated, developed, paid attention to, and instructed–and was the kind of mentor to–a whole generation of activists, which included first of all Mike Davis. He joined because of Dorothy. And second of all, the most famous radical of the sixties, Angela Davis, was a kind of protégé of Dorothy Healey, and Dorothy was her mentor through all of her struggles at the end of the sixties. So this is a place where–oh, and also Art Kunkin, founder of the L.A. Free Press–he’d been an editor, he was older, older than the college kids–he had edited, worked on the SWP newspaper and on community newspapers in East L.A.
RS: SWP is the Socialist Workers Party, which for people who don’t know all this history, was opposite to the Communist Party on the left. They were a Trotskyist, or “-ite,” group–I never got that distinction clear. But they were, after all, they accused the Communists of killing Leon Trotsky, their hero, in Mexico, right?
JW: Which was true.
RS: Yes. So you’re describing–yes, there were elements of the Old Left, but the Old Left was not monolithic.
RS: It had many different components, and they knew each other’s failings. So this was not a naive culture of young people swept up in some sectarian movement, because the debate within the Old Left was very strong. And that carried–you’re right, they got along well precisely because there was such an open, L.A.-ish environment.
JW: And how have we managed to spend 10 minutes without ever mentioning the LAPD? Which of course has so prominently been in the news this summer, along with all the other police departments of the country. The LAPD provides, I’m sorry to say, the kind of unifying thread. They’re present in almost every chapter of our book, because they set out to attack, undermine, and destroy almost every movement in our book, including some of the more unlikely ones. I mean, we know how they set out to, and succeeded with the help of the FBI in destroying the Black Panther Party. That was COINTELPRO; that’s a story that is very well-known, about how the FBI secretly fomented murderous rivalry between the Panthers and the organization headed by Ron Karenga called US, U-S. But the FBI–and of course we know how it targeted the antiwar movement; that’s a well-known story.
What’s a little less well known is the FBI went after the women’s movement here in L.A. L.A. had one of the very first women’s self-help health clinics in south Crenshaw. This was the era when the book Our Bodies, Ourselves had just been published; the old-timers out there will certainly remember Our Bodies, Ourselves, a kind of a pioneering, revolutionary book declaring independence from the medical profession as it then existed. The LAPD raided the women’s self-help clinic in south Crenshaw, and arrested activists there, and charged them with practicing medicine without a license. Carol Downer was put on trial; her crime had been recommending yogurt for the treatment of vaginal yeast infections. So this was called “the great yogurt conspiracy” by the rest of the women’s movement; it became a national event. Of course she was found innocent in the end. But the LAPD had set out to destroy the women’s health movement. The one exception–I never quite figured out why–was the free clinic. The free clinic was OK with the LAPD. They didn’t raid it, they didn’t try to–
RS: I’ll tell you, I’ll give you the answer to that one.
RS: I think I’m a bit older than you–
JW: Little bit.
RS: –and I was on the scene. So you know why, it goes to the current crisis in Los Angeles right now regarding homeless people. And what the establishment loves–whether you call them the Salvation Army or you call it the L.A. free clinic or whoever–they love people who come and feed the homeless, as long as the homeless are not in the pristine neighborhoods. As long as they’re located in some place where the rest of the voters won’t encounter them. And so the Berkeley free clinic was also such a group. They were seen as sort of do-gooders, you know. And even though what they were really challenging was the whole medical system–which resonates again today–they were even celebrated as, OK, you take care of those homeless people and very poor people and people who are neglected by the medical system. You’re kind of doing our dirty work.
But I want to pick up on what you said about the police, and I do want to bring it right up to the present, right now. Because what happened was in Los Angeles, thanks to the movie industry, you actually had a celebration of the police. All sorts of shows, movies, TV and everything, and it was very convenient to shoot here in L.A. So a whole mythology developed about a very effective, wonderful police force and sheriff’s department and everything else. And the fact is it was a deeply racist, anti-union, for the big corporations, led by the Los Angeles Times, where they could count on the police to destroy any union movement or anything else. And you had, in your book you describe Chief Parker, you bring it up through–but we go further, we go up to Daryl Gates, we go up to Rodney King. Well, first we had the Watts Riots, which had–uprising, uprising, I have to correct myself; that was the terminology of the establishment that it was a “riot.” And then the Rodney King uprising. And now Black Lives Matter can be traced to–you know, I’m not claiming ownership by the L.A. people, but I’ve done these podcasts with Melina Abdullah and others who–you know, it’s certainly one of the main originating points of the Black Lives Matter movement.
And that brings me to a question I should have asked earlier, but I’ll ask now. There’s a tendency to celebrate the sixties as a very great, crusading, changed time. And I accept all that. But it has occurred to me in this last six, seven months that we are actually going through a much more profound time of change, and particularly in terms of America’s most egregious problem of race. And my goodness, Black Lives Matter now has been embraced by a majority of the National Football League players, and NBA and everything else, you know. I find the current time, the last six months for me, to be actually more exciting politically and more encouraging, maybe, than the sixties.
JW: I have to agree. I’ve come to exactly the same conclusion. If you look at what Black Lives Matter accomplished in the past few months, this summer, ever since George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day weekend in Minneapolis, they have had demonstrations everywhere in America. Not just the big cities where there’s, you know, majority minorities, but in all the little towns all over the place. I mean, my favorite example is Newport Beach had a Black Lives Matter march with a couple of hundred people. Now, you and I think of Newport Beach as the most wealthy, white, Republican place in Southern California. If there’s Black Lives Matter in Newport Beach, something is happening in America.
And the other thing I would point to is Black Lives Matter has actually had some impressive success, much more than we had at the time. I mean, when they started in L.A., our mayor was planning, was publicly advocating to increase the budget of the LAPD by six percent after tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Pan Pacific Park, and then a thousand people went to the mayor’s house. He announced he had changed his mind and favored a cut of $150 million in the budget of the LAPD. Now, we say that’s nowhere near enough; that’s a drop in the bucket. But you know, the whole idea of cutting the budget of the LAPD–this was unthinkable six months ago.
And we have to give Black Lives Matter credit for keeping their eye on the ball, for organizing the right kind of pressure. And one reason they’ve been able to do this, I think, if we look at what happened to the left of our era–I speak with you as an older veteran of the sixties. The white part of the New Left had bitter factional disputes; SDS famously split in 1969, one half expelled the other half. The Black radical movement of the late sixties, the same kind of splits, even worse; it led to the killing of two Black Panthers at UCLA at Campbell Hall in 1969 by two members of Ron Karenga’s US Organization. Yes, they had been kind of egged on by FBI COINTELPRO, but the factionalism, the splits, really undermined the left of the sixties. Black Lives Matter has stayed together, kept focused, eye on the ball, for I think it’s about seven years now. I asked Melina Abdullah, how come? How come they’ve been able to do that? And she said that she thought one important reason was that Black Lives Matter is led by women. I wonder if you agree with that.
RS: Well, yeah. I do agree with that. But I think it’s not just–I shouldn’t say “not just,” it’s certainly women’s leadership. But you might also say it’s that they have the male ego in check. And that there’s a real sense of a community base, male and female. That this is a movement–every time I’ve talked to people in that movement, including Melina, there’s a sense of accountability. It isn’t done for the media, it’s not done for personal publicity–which, you know, your story of the sixties has a lot of egomaniacs running around. You know, maybe I should be included in that, I don’t know. But the fact of the matter is, one of the things you can say about this movement is it’s authentic now in a way that maybe the New Left wasn’t always. In the sense that it resonates with–first of all, it resonates right through the whole Black community in America. Small town, big town, rich, poor, what have you. There’s an authenticity, and it’s–you know, that’s why you can have big celebrities, wealthy celebrities like LeBron James principally involved, or Colin Kaepernick for that matter. But on the other hand, it’s authentic because they’re not in control. They’re not setting it, and it’s real to ordinary people–why? Because they’re telling a reality they know all too well. They know the police forces are racist. They know the system is racist. They know you don’t get a fair shake.
And the problem–I’m not going to put down the sixties rebellion, because it was authentic to many people who were in the military, who were drafted. That’s what made it successful. It was an authentic movement because it allied with not just Martin Luther King, but with John Lewis, with other people in–with the Black Panthers, with others, SNCC and what have you. So yes, the New Left attained a great deal of legitimacy. But when it came–you know, the whole slogan of “the whole world is watching,” the whole idea of a televised movement, that became its weakness, you know. And that anyone who could get on television could somehow define the movement. That has not happened here. Yes, famous Black celebrities have spoken out, but they don’t own the movement. The movement has something that as a historian, maybe you could analyze. But it has an authenticity for Black people, but for white people, for brown people. There’s something about it that they just can’t–they’re trying; President Trump is trying to smear it, others are trying to smear it. It doesn’t hold, because there is something based in reality in this movement that maybe the New Left didn’t always have.
JW: I think you’re right. I think one of the things that we write about in our book on L.A. in the sixties is that there’s a–especially looking at Black Los Angeles, and what kind of political organizing and activist groups that were here. There is a clear historical trajectory with a sharp break around the Watts Riots–the Watts Rebellion, in August of 1965. The Watts Rebellion was a huge shock to the mainstream media. It happened one week, exactly one–it started one week after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That was the most far-reaching, the most important civil rights legislation, really since the end of the Civil War. It enlisted the federal government in enforcing the right to vote for Black people in the states where they had been denied the right to vote. We miss the Voting Rights Act right now! We need it, we still need it. We wish we had it back. Nevertheless, the Watts–what people said was, well, the Black people have won; what are they complaining about? They got the Voting Rights Act. You know, the South is not going to be an all-white voting base anymore.
But what the conventional wisdom and the mainstream media had missed was the specific history of the movement in L.A. L.A. had had a nonviolent, direct-action protest movement that aimed to desegregate housing in the public schools, which started right in 1960. As I said earlier, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the South, as we all were. L.A. had some of the strictest residential segregation anywhere in the United States, as strict as anything in the South. There were sit-ins, picket lines, building occupations at the new, all-white suburbs, especially in Torrance, in ’63, ’62-’63. And this movement succeeded in getting the state legislature of California to pass what was called an open housing law that banned some kinds of racial discrimination in housing. In 1964, the conservative real estate forces got a referendum on the ballot to repeal open housing in California, and two-thirds of white people voted in favor of the initiative to repeal public, fair housing in California.
That was really the end of the nonviolent direct-action protest movement. Nine months after that you get the Watts Rebellion, and then comes the period of Black radicalism, Black Power, the rise of the Panthers, the rise of Ron Karenga’s US Organization, which have a very different conception of the intractability of white power and the need for a much more militant stance. So there is a clear trajectory here that really forced the Black community to confront the realities that white people were overwhelmingly against integration in Los Angeles. And that required a different kind of politics, which eventually of course collapsed, failed, and the era of the Panthers came to an end. You know a lot about this, because you were in Berkeley; Oakland was the center of the Panthers.
RS: Ah, excuse me–excuse me, it’s not in your book, but I know a lot about it because as editor of Ramparts magazine I was drawn before a grand jury investigating the Panthers in San Francisco, and forced to testify challenging the government narrative, which wanted to demonize the whole movement.
JW: And Eldridge Cleaver, who had been the presidential candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968–at least until he was ruled off the ballot–he was well known as a staff writer for Ramparts magazine, of which you were the editor.
RS: Yes. But my point–I want to get to some basic points here, because we’re going to run out of time. And you are a font of knowledge about all this. So I do want to go back to your book a little bit and draw some lessons for the present. First of all, I want to get into this thing of the Old Left, because you’re very honest about it, and a lot of people have run away from that issue. But I just happened to go to a very good talk by a scholar, Taj Frazier, right now at USC, where I teach. And he’s written a number of very important–he wrote a very important book about China and its relation to the Civil Rights Movement, Communist China. He’s written about Paul Robeson, that earlier period. So it’s fresh in my mind.
And everybody forgets that one of the results of red-baiting and the Cold War and everything was to destroy, in the name of anti-communism, to destroy probably the most effective movement to support civil rights for Black people in this country, which had white support as well. And those whites were red-baited, and some of them were reds. Dorothy Healey would be one. But a caricature was developed; J. Edgar Hoover used it famously to try to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide, because two of his top assistants that he relied on had come out of that earlier civil rights movement, one Black and one white. And he was, Hoover was going to use that to blackmail him. But the fact is, this is a history that very few people want to touch; it’s kind of the third rail. But the Communists on the West Coast particularly, where you had the longshoremen and warehouseman’s union led by Harry Bridges, who was attacked, you know, as being a Communist; he was originally from Australia. They were very strong in Southern California and Northern California. But in Southern California, when you talk about that earlier pro-civil rights activity, they were one of the first unions to really take on the racism within the labor movement. You know, whereas the longshoremen on the East Coast were all involved with the mob, and were quite reactionary in that respect, in Los Angeles you had a very progressive–and you did in Northern California–labor movement. It wasn’t just the longshore, but they were a very powerful union, because ships in those days had to be unloaded by hand, and you know, truck. I mean, whatever, wagon. And so they were very important. You even had with the United Auto Workers, you have somebody who’s in your book, Paul Schrade, who was one of the first labor leaders to turn against the war very early. And yet he was representing workers working in the aerospace industry.
So a large part of what’s left out of the whole sixties discussion–and this goes for people involved in rock groups like Country Joe and others. And I remember a guy from my neighborhood in the Bronx [had] come out and had one of the first big music sites in Los Angeles. They were not divorced from the left. It gave them an organizational strength, it gave them an older base of people to support. And I think that helped characterize that period. You also had the people in the film industry who had been damaged by the loyalty oath and everything, and who were sympathetic to these younger people now challenging the status quo.
JW: One small fact that tells you a lot about the Old Left in Los Angeles: Dorothy Healey had been put on trial; the Smith Act trials, where being a member of the Communist Party was officially a crime, and the leaders of the party were put on trial in the late fifties. They eventually won their case on constitutional grounds. But Dorothy Healey ran for county tax assessor in Los Angeles in 1966 and got 85,000 votes. It just seems unbelievable today: 85,000 votes for Dorothy Healey in 1966 in L.A. County. And that shows that at least some of the Old Left really had a lot of support, which they didn’t have in other big cities, especially in the East.
RS: Well, as long as we’re on this theme, let me just point out something about L.A. history. I guess it’s about 55 years ago, or a little bit longer, is when the L.A. Lakers came here from Minneapolis. And at that time, there was an understanding in the NBA that you could only have two starting members of your team who were Black. And people ignore that, but documented fact of sports history. You also had when Tom Bradley was our first Black mayor–I remember I interviewed him on his sixtieth birthday for the Los Angeles Times, and he told me that much of his adult life he’d had trouble even checking into motels or hotels. He had to check whether in fact they would accept or make Black people feel welcome, even though he had been a member of the L.A. police department, an officer. And yet, you know, he was going to be challenged. You had in both Northern and Southern California restrictions against Black [people] being salesmen and auto showroom men, or working on the front desk in the fancier hotels. So to echo your point before about discrimination in housing, the sixties were a reaction to the fifties and what had come before, where a polite form–a mostly polite form, or a cover-up of racism–was actually quite normal in both Southern and Northern California.
JW: And Tom Bradley is an important part of the story that we tell, because he famously became the first Black mayor, not just in Los Angeles but nationally–well, second to I guess Cleveland–what was his name, Stokes?–was the first big-city Black mayor. But Los Angeles, much more important place, we’re especially interested. And he had been a captain of the LAPD, and then a city councilman representing the Crenshaw district, which was an integrated district in the sixties–Japanese, Jewish voters, and African Americans. In 1969 he ran a really inspiring, grassroots campaign for mayor that had a lot of support on the west side of L.A. Sam Yorty, the incumbent, a very right-wing, pro-war and racist Democrat–Democrat of the old kind of establishment, Democrat of the old school–ran an openly racist campaign relying on turning out the white vote in the San Fernando Valley, and ended up defeating him in 1969. Four years later he ran again and won, and became L.A.’s first Black mayor. That was, unfortunately from our point of view, that was a very different kind of campaign. It was not a grassroots campaign; it was run by professionals with a lot of downtown business and corporate support. But that marks an important turning point in the history of Los Angeles as well. Bradley of course ended up not really doing a whole lot for Black Los Angeles, but he led the redevelopment of downtown, and he never got the LAPD under control. So that was a very kind of compromised victory, but still one that we need to mark and notice.
RS: Well, he did have Daryl Gates fired. Stanley Sheinbaum, who was the head of the police commission appointed by Tom Bradley–you know, that was an important event, right? After Rodney King, when Daryl Gates, the police chief, defended the chokehold killing Black people because they had a “different physiology.” And that took some courage to fire him. I don’t think other mayors had anything done like–I’m just throwing that one in.
JW: Absolutely, that was–and let’s remember, Daryl Gates had started out as the driver for the kind of creator of the modern L.A. police department, Bill Parker. So there was kind of a direct line of succession from the racist founding of the modern LAPD down through Daryl Gates. But yes, getting rid of Daryl Gates was a key turning point in the history of Los Angeles. And we thank Stanley Sheinbaum for taking the lead in pushing for that.
RS: Yeah, and just to indicate the crazy-quilt of L.A. culture, he was married to a wonderful woman, Betty Warner Sheinbaum, who was the daughter of Harry Warner, along with Jack Warner, who were the heads of the whole movie industry at one point. So L.A. has been full of these contradictions. I do want to make one point, self-serving as it may be. I want to refer you to page 177 of your book. It’s interesting, the one movement that has had the most incredible success in such a short period is gay liberation. And I was reminded in reading your book that gay liberation came very late as a cause embraced by the sixties revolution or whatever it was. And I was reminded in fact when I came across my own name in your book. [Laughs]
JW: There it is! I see it, on page 177.
RS: Yes, you’re right, I marked it down. And what it reminded me–because I, you know, went to work for the L.A. Times about six years later after that incident. But that when–and I was there during the whole AIDS pandemic. And the L.A. Times still would not treat AIDS, when Reagan was president, as an emerging issue. It was bad enough that the president was denying and would not use it, but actually the newspaper was not covering it. And we had–you know, this is beyond the realm of your book, but it just reminded me. But in your book you go into the original Gay Liberation Front, and we had later the Mattachine Society and everything. But given the enormous success of that movement in recent years, it’s a good reminder of how difficult it was for gay people in Hollywood, in L.A. at that time.
JW: And one of the most striking stories in our book is the story of the beginnings of a public, open gay liberation movement. More than two–we think of Stonewall as the beginning of everything in gay politics in America, but really, L.A. was–two years before Stonewall, L.A. had the first-ever public street demonstration opposing the police raids on gay bars. This was at the Black Cat Tavern on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. They’d been raided, you know; cops were always raiding the gay bars. On New Year’s Eve of 1969, twelve men were arrested; the crime: kissing at midnight on New Year’s Eve. They organized a street protest a month or two after that, and made history. One of the important things about–and L.A. then developed the first national gay newspaper; The Advocate was based in Los Angeles, today the largest gay publication in America. The largest gay institution in the world, the gay church, began in L.A. with Reverend Troy [Perry]. A lot of this happened–and the New Left part of it, the antiwar part, as you say, the Gay Liberation Front–a lot of this–
RS: By the way, I just want to–not to nitpick, but I don’t think you gave credit to the Mattachine Society.
JW: Earlier. You’re quite right. Please, tell us about the Mattachine Society.
RS: Well, it was one of the first openly gay organizations. And it published a publication called ONE, and I know it was in the sixties because I was working at City Lights Books in San Francisco when the guy who was running it would bring in, you know, maybe 20 copies of the publication. I only bring it up because people forget how dismal the situation was for gay people in America. Because now a whole generation has come where there have been victories and normalization and so forth, but you know, going back–and I was in L.A. quite a bit during that period. And as you point out in your book, I actually ran for the Senate at that time, a kind of forlorn campaign, but I did–the Gay Liberation Front wrote part of my platform. And I remember having more resistance to that from a lot of supposedly well-meaning white people than I did for supporting the Black Panthers, or supporting SNCC. I mean, and that went really right up through the whole AIDS crisis. So if we want to celebrate some really remarkable turnaround, the attitude towards gay people in this country–now many of them are white, and they’re in everybody’s family, et cetera, et cetera. But boy, that was a movement that had a hard time getting going.
JW: And I’m glad you mentioned the Mattachine Society, because the Mattachine Society was founded by Old Left organizers who’d been kicked out of the Communist Party. Dorothy Healey later said she regretted this. But the party line was you couldn’t be gay in the Communist Party because you’d be vulnerable to blackmail by the FBI, so they were all kicked out at one point.
RS: That was the U.S. government’s excuse for kicking them out of the State Department, and not letting them be in the military.
JW: Yes. So in L.A., some very talented gay organizers kicked out of the Communist Party by Dorothy Healey organized the Mattachine Society, using some of the same underground techniques as the Communists had used in building the Communist Party. And you’re quite right, they were the first. Of course, the New Left part, the Gay Liberation Front, denounced them for being, you know, conservative and integrationist and not revolutionary enough. But that was the sixties.
RS: Yeah. OK, but let me–OK, so let me wrap this up with you. Why should people read this book?
JW: Well, I think there’s a history here that makes it clear how important L.A. has been in shaping the political world that we know today. I don’t think you need to read about the sixties to get the lessons that Black Lives Matter needs today. As we have seen, Black Lives Matter is doing a lot better than we did. Part of the thing you understand when you read about the sixties is why it is that the Black Lives Matter movement has been so much more successful, is so much more effective, has so much broader support. The things that they do that we did not do. Nevertheless, the roots of so much of our present world are found there. We’ve talked about the gay liberation movement, the women’s liberation movement, the antiwar movement. We’ve talked about how you can appreciate how much America, and in particular how much Los Angeles, has changed, and what remains to be done. I mean, the fact is that Blacks in 1960 were largely excluded from the decent jobs, the decent working-class jobs in Los Angeles. That’s still very much the case. If you look at the demands raised in the high school blowouts in South L.A. and East L.A., they demanded smaller class size in public schools. They demanded more school counselors. These are exactly the same demands that were raised in the teachers union strike, when was it, last year. So you also get a sense of all the problems that remain that were first fought about in the sixties, and that we’re still fighting about today. And you know, it’s a sobering thought, but it’s an important part of the struggles going on in the streets, you know, this week.
RS: Well, let me pitch your book a little better than you’re just doing.
JW: [Laughs] Oh, I’d appreciate that!
RS: Well, maybe I’m fresh. I’m a little bit angry with it, because it’s kept me up a few nights trying to get through it. Not that the writing isn’t great, and the stories. I really do object to 800-page books. Even if you cut out the index, it still comes to, what–
JW: Six hundred forty, six hundred forty!
RS: But let me tell you, it’s a very good bedside reader to return to. And it does carry the–we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, we’re talking about a situation in our country now where there seems to be a national reckoning, there seems to be a new attitude; we have to solve these problems. But Set the Night on Fire, this excellent book by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, L.A. in the Sixties, is an incredibly well-documented, beautifully written book that reminds you of the capacity of the establishment of this society–and the establishment comes in a lot of different dresses, you know? Republican Party, Democratic Party, do-gooders, whatever, there are lots of different–you know, church establishment, all kinds. I don’t mean Senator Church, I mean, you know, official, big churches. There’s a lot of cooption. Cooption, cooption. And there’s also a lot of repression, OK. The sixties broke–the basic backbone of the sixties, whether it was cultural or political, and both often merged–was broken by deceit, by barbarism, by killing people, setting one against another, framing people, imprisoning a lot of people. But it was also destroyed by seduction, by coopting people.
I had an example of that today, and I don’t want to prejudge it; that’s why I want to get to that a little bit now. I read a story today, we’ve had–it was in the New York Times; we’re doing this, I don’t know, what is today? The 14th, so people can look it up, the 14th of September. And it was an article about how wealthy people, particularly Soros being one, who gave a couple of hundred thousand dollars in support of efforts to deal with racism now in America. Not a couple hundred thousand, I’m sorry, $200 million. And then the Sanders Foundation, which is the one that caught my eye this morning, I think they’ve given $250 million, and they’re giving it to a whole bunch of organizations. And at first glance it looked like a really good thing. And then I started questioning it, because after all, who were the Sanders? They’re dead now, but their daughter seems a well-intentioned person, runs the foundation along with her husband. And I read this story, and what the story was, really, when you read the fine print, is that money–this huge pledge of money to address this basic question of racial oppression beyond inequality in America–is given to a whole host of groups.
Now, many of them are probably wonderful. But it caught my eye: why is John Podesta’s organization, you know, the New America project, why are they getting a big chunk of the money? And I linked it back–who were the Sanders? Now, of course, the Rockefellers and other people, their heirs ended up using money in good ways; so did the Ford Foundation, I’m not going to deny that. But the fact is the Sanders made their money from the Savings & Loan scandals. You know, which preceded the big banking meltdown of the last decade. And the people who were–some of the people getting money, they’re very much connected with the Democratic Party establishment. And getting out the votes for the Democratic Party– which in this season, I suspect one could defend. But I wonder if we’re not again witnessing cooption. And we had it before; we’ve seen how the image of Martin Luther King has been coopted. He’s now a wonderful, benign figure; he wasn’t, he was a radical figure, and he died saying that if you don’t address the problem of poor people, you’re not addressing the problem of Black people or anyone else in this country who’s suffering. He also died a year after, [was] assassinated a year after pronouncing the U.S. government as the major purveyor of violence in the world, and coming out strongly against the war in Vietnam.
So I want to ask you as a historian now–and Jon Wiener is a major historian, an American historian; University of California, Irvine, legendary historian, really. And I want to ask you, what about cooption of the current moment? It seems like the movement for change has gotten a great engine in it now, and I really respect what leading celebrities are doing, as well as of course grassroots people, even more. But isn’t your book really about how a movement was smashed–smashed, coopted, bought off, intimidated, set against itself and everything? And aren’t you as a historian concerned that there will be a repeat right now?
JW: I think you point to a very important problem that we are going to face after Biden wins. I mean, right now it’s kind of all hands on deck, repress the political differences between the progressives and the party establishment of the Democrats to get Biden elected big. But the day after that happens–and especially the day after January 20, when God willing, Biden will take the oath of office–we are going to have to be pressing that Democratic establishment with the progressive agenda. And you know, they don’t really want to do it. And there’s a lot of forces that are going to tell us, don’t rock the boat, you know, America is a very precarious place right now, and you have to restrain yourself, and we can’t do everything that you want to do. Right now, we’ve got to get Biden elected. I think a very good way to get Biden elected is to advance the progressive agenda. But Biden himself is definitely not going to do it. This is not where he comes from. We know this very well. So we have to maintain our political ideals, our political coherence, and our political organizations to make sure that our kind of progressive politics–which is really the only thing that has a chance of changing what has got to be changed in America today–to make sure that that has a chance of succeeding under a Biden presidency. Because if Biden fails, I hate to think of what would come next.
RS: Well, but what comes next comes because of the failure of Democrats. After all, Richard Nixon came after eight years of rule by Democrats, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And we had Barack Obama, and we got Donald Trump. And I want to end this by basically not challenging, but raising a question about Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener. It’s a Verso book, they publish great books; you should buy it just to support good publishing, which is a dying art. But you know, the relevance of this book is that here [was] probably the most vibrant period of modern American history in terms of political dissent, challenging, et cetera, on every level. Challenging empire, challenging racism, challenging male hegemony; you can go down the whole list. And yet it was basically coopted, crushed, divided, and a lot of people got hurt. They got hurt at the end of a billy club, they got hurt by being thrown in jail, they got hurt by not being able to work in their professions anymore, by being blacklisted.
And one of the great casualties of that period, of course, was Martin Luther King, who our government went out to destroy, as it really went out to destroy the Civil Rights Movement having any edge at all, despite all the great celebration of the Civil Rights Act and everything. The fact is when the Civil Rights Movement started paying attention to poor Black people as well as poor white people, and really trying to deal with systemic racism, it got crushed. And it got crushed–yes, you can blame J. Edgar Hoover and the top people in the FBI, but the president of the United States could control that FBI. So could his attorney general, which at one point was Bobby Kennedy. The president of the United States was John Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, for most of this period you’re talking about, the sixties. And the damage to people protesting, to the social movements that you’re describing in the sixties, came primarily from the very Democrats that we look to for our salvation. Where does that leave you?
JW: That leaves me that we have to maintain a coherent and distinct progressive left that’s, you know, indispensable if America is going to survive as a democracy. And if we’re going to address the climate crisis and the original sin of slavery and its heir, racism in America today, we’re going to need a coherent and powerful progressive movement that can fight in the Biden years for the changes that America needs.
RS: All right. But, OK, as a historian, let me ask you one other question. The very model of our society, and the presumption of even people on the left, has been [that] as flawed as it is, we have the model of the good society. We’re a work in progress, but basically, even those of us on the left, many of us during much of this period, much of our history, have actually accepted a notion of American exceptionalism. Many of us are the children of immigrants. We bought into the siren’s song of American exceptionalism. And isn’t really the lesson of this current period that we don’t necessarily have the key model and answers, heretical as it may be to assert? How come we’re doing worse with this pandemic than just about every other country in the world? How come our health care system turned out to be inadequate? How come our management of environmental concerns, including climate change, have turned out to be disastrous, no matter who’s president? Maybe the problem is with the capitalist component of Democratic capitalism. Is that possible?
JW: I think that’s possible. I think you’re on to something there.
RS: Well, I mean, it’s something nobody wants to say. Maybe what’s rotten here is not, you know, the intricacies of checks and balances and yes, this wonderful Bill of Rights we have and so forth. But that when money can overpower everything, by logic, greed overpowers everything. You don’t have sensible adults watching the store, or we wouldn’t have had segregation. You know, we wouldn’t have had slavery. And we certainly would have made greater progress since the Civil War than we have. Maybe we failed to do these things because this model we have, of a rapacious capitalism which has nothing to do with Adam Smith, and everything to do with the capture of the political system by money–a total denial of Adam Smith–maybe that’s the real enemy. And I don’t hear Democrats talking any more convincingly about changing that than Republicans. And in fact, it was Bill Clinton who basically unleashed the greed of Wall Street which has brought so much misery, and laid the foundation for Trump in that misery.
JW: Ah, we are together on this. And one of the things that we hope to show in our book, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, is how ordinary people–especially young people–can provide tremendous heart, tremendous courage, tremendous passion, and tremendous organizing to a movement to bring fundamental change to America. They were defeated in the sixties; we need to try again.
RS: OK, well, I think that’s a good, positive point on which to end. And I happen to agree with you on that. I am not–I remain optimistic, and I remain optimistic because clearly, when the system is not functioning, the center under any rules of logic should not be able to hold. And we see that. We see that. I’m doing this recording with you at a time when California is burning; when we’ve had terrible racially inspired violence, including in liberal, blue states like California and Oregon and Washington and so forth. And so I want to thank you. The book is Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, two brilliant authors, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener. And I’ve taken little quip shots at it, but it’s a great book. And frankly, the length makes it better reading, because it’s in the texture, it’s in the detail, and you need to have that detail.
So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Natasha Hakimi Zapata is the person who writes the intro. Christopher Ho at KCRW FM in Santa Monica does the engineering and gets this up on the site. Joshua Scheer is the show’s producer. And Lucy Berbeo does the transcription. We are helped very much by the JWK Foundation with an award of some funding in memory of Jean Stein, who knew everything that Jon Wiener and I have been talking about, and both of us learned from her much about how the society works. Just as a personal footnote, so a memory of Jean Stein. I say goodbye to you, Jon. Thanks for doing this.
JW: Bob, it’s been my pleasure. Thanks so much.