History didn’t just absolve Mike Davis, it affirmed his clairvoyance. In 1990, his dystopian L.A. touchstone, “City of Quartz,” anticipated the uprising that followed two years later.
Its unofficial sequel, Ecology of Fear, stated the case for letting Malibu burn, which induced hemorrhaging in real estate tycoons but now reads like a harbinger for the infernal ravages of each fire season. Meanwhile the 2005 tocsin, The Monster at Our Door, interpreted the Avian Bird Flu as an omen of the pandemic that pillaged the globe this year.
Nearly everything else in the Marxist historian’s one-man urbanist canon has presaged the dire predicaments that Angelenos now face. There are polemics against winner-take-all globalization and the delirious cruelty of late capitalism; a structurally racist criminal justice system, state-sanctioned environmental atrocities, and a cancerous police apparatus; indictments of cash-rat developers and corrupt politicians displacing entire neighborhoods to build gentrifier starter pack condos with Chipotle’s on the ground floor. It earned Davis the nickname, the “dark prophet of doom” — a backhanded compliment confusing his righteous anger, serrated prose, and rigorous scholarship, for chimerical paranoia.
Literary fame arrived as somewhat of an accident. Davis’s biography reads like a modern-day Jack London or Upton Sinclair. He was born in Fontana in 1946, around the time that the Hells Angels spawned from that one-time steel capital of the West Coast. His father, a meat cutter originally from the Welsh-speaking farms of rural Ohio, eventually resettled the family in the El Cajon Valley, just east of San Diego. His mother was a tough Irish woman from Columbus, Ohio, who bestowed her son with a fighting constitution. The working class household was Catholic and the only books were the Bible and Readers Digest. Amidst these conservative environs, the pre-adolescent Davis briefly became a Cold War fanatic and joined the Devil Pups — the Marine Corps’ version of the Boy Scouts.
At 16, a near-fatal coronary sidelined Davis’s father, which led him to drop out of school to toil in the local slaughterhouse. Enamored with Kerouac, bullfighting, and drag racing, the brooding teenager may have wound up the world’s most cerebral butcher had it not been for a Damascus moment in 1962 — when his cousin Carol and her husband, a Black warehouse worker named Jim Stone, took the cloistered and crewcutted kid to a protest against San Diego’s all-white Bank of America branch. The mythic tale of survival involves a bunch of redneck sailors dousing them in lighter fluid and threatening cremation. Under the aegis of Stone, an inspired Davis returned to high school, graduated as one of three valedictorians, and began working for the San Diego office of the Congress of Racial Equality.
A full scholarship to Reed College didn’t pan out. Alienated and insecure amongst the hippie scions of the upper crust, Davis got expelled for illegally living in his girlfriend’s dorm. But during that stint in the Pacific Northwest, he read the Port Huron Statement, the Ur-manifesto of New Left radicalism. The next thing he knew, he was on a bus from Portland to New York City to accept a job with the manifesto’s authors, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The rest of the ‘60s was spent bouncing between blue-collar gigs and grassroots activism. Davis found himself on the frontlines of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. He burned his draft card in Oakland to protest LBJ sending troops to the Dominican Republic, ducked homicidal assaults from Cicero bigots at the Chicago open housing march led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and organized demonstrations against Dow Chemical, then manufacturing napalm in Torrance. The President of the SDS reportedly told Davis that he was the organization’s “most meat-and-potatoes-guy.”
About two months before the Watts Rebellion, the SDS tasked him with organizing direct actions against the construction of the 210 Freeway slated to destroy large swaths of a historically Black section of Pasadena. The leader of the movement turned out to be Jackie Robinson’s mom in her last years of life. She met Davis for coffee, gently put her hand on his knee, and told him that they had it all under control, and that he should “organize white kids against racism or something.”
After a stint in Austin, Davis resettled in L.A., receiving mentorship from the city’s “Red Queen,” Dorothy Healey, and a job managing the Communist Party bookstore on 7th Street, located within walking distance of the F.B.I.’s offices. Healey soon fired him for chasing a snooping Soviet cultural attaché out of the stacks, the closest that Davis could come to avenging Stalin’s murder of Trotsky. In these years, there would be five politically-related arrests on charges of unlawful assembly, battery, armed robbery, and carrying a concealed weapon. None stuck.
By the dawn of the ’70s, Davis lived in a dilapidated Victorian east of downtown and became a fixture at every major protest — including the Chicano Moratorium, broken up by a deranged horde of sheriff’s deputies, one of whom murdered Los Angeles Times journalist Rubén Salazar by “accidentally” ripping off a chunk of his skull with a tear gas projectile. For money, Davis hauled Barbie dolls all over Southern California in an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer, and worked as a Gray Line tour bus guide. The excursions included trips to Disneyland, the Farmer’s Market, and “Hollywood by Night,” but Davis started conducting subterranean historical voyages that contained vignettes about the bombing of the L.A. Times building by pro-labor subversives, and L.A’s little-known Chinese Massacre of 1871, one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history.
There are two stories floating around about how Davis wound up returning to college. Both involve the Teamsters-led tour bus driver’s strike of 1973. In the first version, Davis gets arrested and later fired for beating up a scab who drove a bus through a picket line. The other iteration involves the same ghoul trying to hit the strikers with a bus; but this time, Davis winds up in a room with 40 others, voting on whether or not they should each ante up $400 to hire a hitman to kill the head of the strikebreakers. Davis gave the speech of his life in opposition to the plot, but was voted down 39 to 1. This anecdote ends with the hitman getting arrested for drunk driving, and thus, dooming the plot. It seems 90 percent true, but 100 percent honest. Davis has admitted to being “something of a fabulist,” but it’s just part and parcel of his seanchaí heritage. All that matters is that somehow, Davis matriculated at UCLA as a 28-year old “functionally illiterate” freshman, studying economics and history.
After three years in Westwood, Davis decamped for a fellowship in Scotland, which led him to London and Belfast. These were the peak years of The Troubles and Davis developed ties to Sinn Féin, agitated for Northern Irish independence, bunkered down in the Shankill Road libraries to write about the 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots, and was briefly kidnapped by a leader of the Ulster Defence Association, a paramilitary militia loyal to the crown. (“He wanted to show me that it was the Protestants who fought the army, not the fucking Teagues!”)
Eventually, Davis returned to the home of the Bruins to complete his bachelors and begin PhD studies in history. Yet restlessness was the central animating force of his life, and so he moved back to London to collaborate with the cadre of brilliant socialists behind the New Left Review — helping to establish the Haymarket series for Verso, the publishing arm of the famed political journal (Davis concentrated on radical studies of American politics and culture). This saga ends with him releasing his first book, 1986’s searing anti-Reaganite salvo, Prisoners of the American Dream.
Exhausted with London intellectuals, Davis attempted to finish his doctorate in L.A. But UCLA refused to accept an early version of City of Quartz as his thesis, causing a return to truck driving. This time, Davis hauled blanket-wrapped furniture to Las Vegas in a dangerous Mack cab for substandard wages, until a financially crippling $600 ticket from a CHP inspector led him to shut off the engine. A vagabond academic career followed, as he floated from school to school as an adjunct professor. Then City of Quartz dropped, the ’92 Riots tore L.A. asunder, and suddenly, his tome became everyone’s favorite Rosetta Stone for translating the civic unrest.
You can’t overstate the importance of City of Quartz. Even 30 years later, it remains the best socio-political critique of modern L.A, the first book you’d recommend to someone seeking to understand the dark nativist currents and unyielding avarice that still shape a city so easily stereotyped but rarely understood. It is noir to the core, triangulating Raymond Chandler and Carey McWilliams, Nathaniel West with a knife to the throat but filtered through the progressive economic treatises of 19th Century reformer, Henry George. With hard-boiled clarity, Davis revealed the unseen fault lines rupturing underneath the surface, observed hairline fractures in ostensibly stable facades, and offered a damning history of the malevolent forces that led to our cataclysmic discontent.
For both amateurs and academics, it is Davis’s lens through which we most clearly glimpse this slippery, subtropical metropolis. He’s the closest thing that L.A. has to a Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Gary Snyder. Even Vince Staples insisted that I read City of Quartz had I not already. As the Walter Benjamin epigraph cautions, these aren’t the superficial inducements and exotic picaresque of the unfamiliar; this is the brutal complexity of the native son, who was somehow raised 125 miles to the southeast.
These days, Mike Davis doesn’t live far from where he grew up. The long-time lodestar and patron saint of progressive L.A. now resides in San Diego, on the fringes of a rapidly gentrifying district. He’s the type of person familiar with his neighbors and their personal histories: a former Togolese soccer player from Gabon who speaks Romanian because he played there professionally; a schoolteacher, a nurse, and a biker machinist who builds Predator aircrafts by day.
In the aftermath of City of Quartz, Davis became one of the few remaining public intellectuals, but fittingly turned his back on a beckoning celebrity. There was a MacArthur “genius” grant that lavished him with over $300,000, which he blew on globetrotting and Spanish Civil War posters. He’s lectured all over North America, including local stints at UCR, UCI, and CalArts. Due to medical bills stemming from a pair of cancer diagnoses, Davis continues to teach at the University of San Diego. He attributes his ability to survive against steep medical odds to his old habit of running six miles a day.
I visited Davis last fall at the home he shares with his wife, the artist and professor, Alessandra Moctezuma, and their two teenage children (Davis has an Ireland-raised adult son and daughter from previous marriages). You don’t actually interview Davis as much as you absorb a series of Talmudic inquiries and rollicking Hibernian storytelling. He wears a short-sleeve button-up work shirt; his hair is grey and his eyes are iron blue, giving him a vague resemblance to the late Frasier actor, John Mahoney. Davis says that his nondescript looks give him the ability to safely blend in during chaos. But his eyes betray the sad truths of the old Irish poet: intense but kind, mischievous but fundamentally sincere. The platonic ideal of who you’d hope to conspire with over pints in an ancient Belfast pub. As I walk in the door, he offers a drink and jokingly compares himself to General Sternwood from Chandler’s The Big Sleep, who eagerly watches Bogart drink while yearning for the days when he would sip “champagne cold as Valley Forge…with about three ponies of Brandy under it.”
The Davis home is decorated exactly how you’d expect: cluttered with obscure tracts and artifacts of revolution. There are antique handbills advocating for the destruction of Czarist plutocrats, Teutonic capitalist oppressors, and the admonition to “Vote Spartacus in 1919.” Rosie the Riveter paraphernalia exists side-by-side with art-deco posters of Mexican cinema classics, and framed art commemorating the Paris communes of 1871. There are CDs of jazz greats and a portrait of Davis that an admirer sent.
“I should move this so it doesn’t look like a shrine,” he says jocularly.
I arrive that afternoon with his former CalArts student, the photographer Brian “B+” Cross, who wrote the seminal L.A. hip-hop oral history, It’s Not About a Salary, but only after Davis exhorted him to document what was then considered fringe culture. Our plan was to talk for an hour or two and take photos in the backyard, but we all wind up talking well past twilight, and I don’t even get to ask a quarter of my questions.
In April, Davis and I reconnect for a second conversation; this time over Zoom amidst the anxious monotony of the first shelter-in-place order. By now, the publication of his latest work loomed. A collaboration with the professor and journalist, Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, is practically as essential as City of Quartz. Subverting inherited myths and false narratives, the pair chronicle the underground movements and activism that defined the city during the tumult of the Aquarian Age. It concentrates on the lesser heard histories of Chicano activists at Eastside high schools, the Black Panthers and Ron (now Maulana) Karenga’s US Organization, the youth protests on the Sunset Strip, the Watts renaissance, and the gay rights movement that began at Silver Lake’s Black Cat Tavern.
Davis claims that Set the Night on Fire is as close to a memoir as we’ll ever get, which is fitting because it’s not even remotely autobiography; rather, it’s a love letter to organization and the idea of collective struggle. For someone so frequently and incorrectly branded a pessimist, there is a deceptive optimism to Davis. The constant thread throughout his life is his formidable ambition to create a more equitable and humane world — and with that comes the underlying hope that such a thing is even possible. He’s stated that the book was written so that the chain will remain unbroken, to inspire this new generation of activists with the stories of courageous unsung heroes from a half-century ago. In that same window of history, it’s hard to think of anyone who has been a better spiritual compass than Davis, a writer of fearlessness and integrity, whose timeless ideas and prescient warnings remind us to keep fighting for the future that needs to exist.
City of Quartz turns 30 this year. It still feels strikingly relevant to the issues facing L.A. When you wrote it, did you have any idea that it would continue to seem prophetic this many years later?
It’s an interesting thing about prophecy. People are regarded to be prophets simply because they keep their ears open on the streets. Not long after the book came out, I was arrested at a “Justice for Janitors” demonstration. There had been an appalling police attack where a woman lost her baby at a legal and peaceful march. I got arrested for challenging an officer to fight. What was I yelling at him? “Tiananmen Square!!! Tiananmen Square!!!”
I’m used to being in the back of cop cars and hearing cops talk. So these guys are transferring me down to the 77th Street Station, and were talking about this Armageddon scenario: “The gangs have Uzis. We’re going to end up fighting in the streets. It’s going to be worse than Vietnam.”
This was before the ‘92 riots. I’m talking like late ‘91. Every kid on the streets of South Central knew something was coming. Then when it came down, it was generally nothing like what people understood it as. I was down at a meeting with gang kids on Crenshaw and someone said, “we get beaten like dogs, like how Rodney King was, all the time!”
All these news crews and journalists were around and didn’t have a clue where to go; they were scared silly. Meanwhile, I’m out in the streets while all the stuff is going on, buying looted goods. I did the same thing in ‘65, violating curfews and ended up furnishing the whole SDS office. I just went out on Vermont and people were out there taking orders like a restaurant. “What do ya need?” I said, “I need typewriters…lots of typewriters.” They were selling IBM typewriters for $25 apiece. I don’t know what I was wandering off into. I have seen such strange things.
In ‘92, I immediately moved on from Parker Center. I called up my best friend Ron Schneck. He’s a madman, but reasonably rational about things. I said, “I wanna drive around South Central.” He says, “Not on your life, don’t make me do this man.” But he can’t resist. We got out immediately and drive down on Slauson, just west of Central — the street that has the huge power lines. We see a gas station and it’s on fire. We get out of the car and spot a group of Black guys arguing. I have a great advantage of being an entirely nondescript person. One of my students once actually offered me money because he thought I was homeless. I’m invisible to a degree that’s entirely surprising in situations like that.
We start talking to these guys, and it turns out they’re betting if the gas station is going to blow up or not. They got very irate when it doesn’t. At another point, we almost get hit by this kid on a skateboard with an enormous load of booze and a maniacal smile on his face. In ‘65, I actually saw looting Germans on Vermont, right near USC. That used to be a German neighborhood with a German language theater, and there were poor Germans, too. So on that second day in August ‘65, everyone started looting, white and Black. In that neighborhood, they looted while speaking to each other in German. The same thing happened in Detroit; there were a whole lot of Polish people arrested.
Your writing on ‘92 is some of the rare writing from the time that described how multi-ethnic it actually was.
‘65 was more of a unitary phenomenon. It was a general uprising of Black people, to which you could attach one explanation. ‘92 wasn’t like that at all. Cuban businesses were being burned down by Mexican kids. In Compton, they sent Marines up from Pendleton because Black kids from Compton were burning down a mall that was owned by wealthy Black people who lived outside the community. And it was a whole separate thing in Pomona and Pasadena. The majority of the people arrested, according to the ACLU, were arrested north of the Santa Monica Freeway. They were almost two-thirds Hispanic.
People forget that Frederick’s of Hollywood was looted.
They stole Madonna’s bra. A gay friend of mine joked to me, “The gay community did that one.”
In all the remembrances and documentaries, the action understandably is centered around South Central, Watts, and Compton, but it’s always strange to consider that all the stores around the Beverly Center were being emptied out too.
You could only wish they had gotten the Beverly Center. Another one of my memories from ‘92 is that I was down in Pico-Union on the second day, and things were burning at Andrew’s Hardware Store on 7th Street. There’s an L-shaped mini mall across the street and it’s on fire, and there’s a fire crew desperately trying to fight it. In the mini-mall, there’s a Payless Shoes and a dress shop, but in the corner, there’s a donut place. I had run into my friend Ralph, who was a homeless folk artist from the Belmont Tunnel, and I ask him, “Is there anything you need?” And he says, “Yeah man. We need cigarettes. Lots of cigarettes.”
I’m in Pico-Union, but not for the purpose of honest journalism or anything else. Having been so successful getting typewriters in ‘65, I was looking for a big box of cigarettes. I’m talking to someone about this, and there’s some Catholic high school girls and some young guys that are looking at the Payless with the clothes in front of it, and they’re about to try to enter. All of a sudden, the LAPD black-and-white whips in in front of the donut stand, and the guy leans up against the car — real hardcore, not like the wimps He’s one of the mightier LAPD guys. He looks at the people getting ready to run, and all he says is, “Leave the fucking donuts alone!!” I go back the next day, and the building across the street has been totally ignored by the police. The shoe store’s looted; the mini mall is burned to the ground, but the Cambodian donut place was untouched and still in business. This is something that really wasn’t reported, because the police went on strike. They didn’t do shit.
I always thought it was rooted in the deep-seated enmity between Police Chief Daryl Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley.
No, they deliberately went on strike. In the Korean community, the Koreans were completely outraged. That’s why they ended up becoming vigilantes, since the cops wouldn’t lift a finger. Later that night, I’m down near Adams, near USC, and I run into Bill Boyarsky from the Times. We’re standing there watching this group of mainly younger cops, and they’re being stoned by a handful of kids. These cops looked terrified. It’s not the LAPD of 1965, who would’ve probably murdered half of these kids. That’s the thing, a minimal police presence would have saved half of the property that was destroyed — not that I’m opposed to some of it — but when it comes to ethnic small businesses…
I’ve always wondered if more civil unrest would actually be the most valuable thing to thwart gentrification, just because you’d scare off the “luxury” developers.
The one thing that my wife and I always fight about is artists moving into Barrio Logan [a traditional Chicano neighborhood in San Diego]. My position is that you need murderous street gangs to kill the first guy you see who tries to move to the block, then you’ll have a chance to stop gentrification. Here’s this great Chicano neighborhood with this fantastic history defending itself right next to downtown. But the minute the first studio opens…
Ultimately, urban reform is impossible unless you control property markets. There are even examples in the United States where that’s been done: big parks and some zoning. If you go to Canada, they have Green Belts to control reform in the city and to prevent sprawl. But you have to take on the private real estate market, not just developers for this and that, and come in with ideas for creation… If you want to see the urban crisis in L.A. these days, go to the Inland Empire, go to Pomona.
You lived in Echo Park during the 90s, right?
Angelino Heights, which was interesting because I was a tenant of — do you remember Eating Raoul? It’s a film that was turned into a comic book about these two murderous yuppies who hook up with this Chicano guy. They furnish him with bodies, and he grinds them up and sells them as burritos. I was living in this little ‘50s, one-room building that they’ve since torn down. It was really ramshackle, and there was a purposefully ramshackle Victorian next to me, which they used as the haunted house in Eating Raoul and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.
Do you ever go to L.A. anymore?
Not really. Everything that meant something to me is gone.
Rhino Records, the Midnight Special Bookstore, all the restaurants — the best one being this Hungarian restaurant next to [what was then] Shelly’s Manne-Hole. All the haunts, they’re gone.
There are definitely a lot of people trying to find a way to organize a coherent resistance to moneyed interests, real estate, and gentrification. Although until recently, it felt rather powerless to stop it.
The [impending] earthquake will reset the clock a bit, and give opportunities for normal cosmopolitan, poor communities.
When I talked to Ferlinghetti about it, he said that San Francisco “once felt like an offshore Republic, but now it’s a Bohemian theme park.”
Just like how New Orleans has become a chain theme park for Black music. The real music of the city, the bounce music, the project music, is gone.
You were active in working with some of the activists behind the ’92 gang truce between Bloods and Crips. How did that come about?
I’d gotten a $160,000 advance from Knopf for a book on the L.A. Riots. Then I sat down and had a long think about it because I’d been involved in support of various groups and stuff. I ended up knowing the mother of Damian Williams, who was one of the guys who beat up Reginald Denny. I knew the mother of the guy who started the gang truce.
Dewayne Holmes, right?
Dewayne’s cousin [Henry Peco] had been murdered by a white LAPD cop who stood over him in the Imperial Courts project and executed him on the ground. And he just walked a few blocks to the Jordan Downs and said, “Look guys, let’s hold this truce for one day.” They thought about it and said, “Okay, one day.” The truce began before the riots. Cops just turned their focus on taking down Dewayne. He organized a gang unity treaty between the three major gangs of Watts. A couple of older drug dealers working for the LAPD were trying to sell drugs in the Downs, basically setting up a police raid and Dewayne physically threw them out. He was indicted, charged with a felony, and convicted by an all-white jury in Torrance, despite the fact that there were 30 people who signed affidavits saying that it wasn’t Dewayne who did that. What really convicted him was his nickname in the Crips: Sniper.
Didn’t you used to take politicians through neighborhoods that they’d neglected?
I knew [Governor] Jerry Brown back then and he asked me to come with him on a trip there. We started the tour at a junior high school in South Central. One of the kids raises his hand and says, “why do you drive that little Japanese car? Don’t governors have big cars?’ Brown gets back in the car, slams the door, glares, and says, “I hate kids.”
We went to Adams and Western. There’s a group of tired people waiting to go home on the bus. He rolls his window down and goes “Hi, I’m Jerry, Governor of California.” They just roll their eyes. It was totally bizarre and insane. I got Brown involved in Dewayne’s case. He went to the appeal. Dewayne was up there in Wayside at the time. Brown had apparently been pretty good to the sheriffs and police departments, but it didn’t help Dewayne at all.
In the course of this, I told Tom Hayden about it and when Dewayne got out a couple of years later, Tom hired him as a field representative. He was the only one on city council and really in L.A. politics, aside from [legendary L.A. priest and gang intervention activist] Father Greg Boyle, who understood the gang scene for what it really was. The climax of all this was that in ‘92, The New Yorker hired me to take Richard Avedon around L.A.. He was in town to photograph Ronald Reagan, and there’s this famous photograph in The New Yorker where Reagan’s just a blank slate. So I introduced Avedon to the gang truce guys and he took them back to the same studio on Melrose in Beverly Hills where he shot Reagan. I was thinking, “This could be really tricky.” But he composed them and shot them as the Burghers of Calais. These are the civic leaders of their community. They’re Roman statesmen. It was astonishing.
How did the gang truce guys receive Jerry Brown?
Well, I told Jerry Brown, “You gotta meet these guys, because they’re gonna tell you that they’ve carried out this social miracle, but it’s gonna go no further unless they get money to help.” There was a manifesto demanding everything from jobs to algebra in schools. I get Brown to agree to it. Where does he set up the meeting? At Frank Gehry’s office in Santa Barbara. So these guys came up, by this time some of them were almost famous, they had been in the news so often. I really thought somebody was going to shoot Frank. He didn’t understand a thing they said to him. I mean, Frank Gehry’s office? That was the worst possible choice. The meeting breaks up and Jerry comes over to one of the Bloods from Athens Park, who was a really magnificent looking guy who would do thousands of push-ups at the park every weekend. Jerry looks at his biceps and says, “Man, where do you work out?” He says in a very deep voice, “I go to the park every weekend with some guys and we do push-ups a lot.” Jerry Brown responds, “How did you get into doing all these push-ups?” “Well my cell mate burned himself alive up in Vacaville.”
Was it surreal being a long-time organizer and Marxist suddenly getting invited into the world of the L.A. power elite?
The scariest thing is that if you ever have the opportunity to meet the people who really make things go, you discover how fucking bizarre they all are. Brown is just a total space case. There’s something missing. [Former Mayor] Dick Riordan took me to the California Club when City of Quartz came out. He’s sitting there and he’s got a piece of lettuce dripping off his chin, and he says, “well, tell me about your book.” All he knew was that he’s a major figure in it. He tells me, “Oh, I’m meeting some Chinese businessmen later, maybe you want to stick around for that?” I explain to him, “I’m not getting involved.” The California Club…what are the chances that I’d get let into a place like that? So I say “Well, Dick, you’re actually the Darth Vader of the book.” He kind of chokes on his lettuce, like nice to meet you. I’ll show you out the door. You can hardly believe these people. So many of them are just absolute nincompoops.
It seems like the more powerful they are, the dumber they get.
When you meet someone like Father Greg Boyle, you remember them for the rest of your life. You’d really be glad you met a person like that. Or someone like [Spanish historian] Abel Paz. My daughter Roisin was living in Barcelona, and took me to meet him before he died. He was the last surviving member of CNT-FAI leadership. He was like 16 years old when he was [anarchist hero] Buenaventura Durruti’s sidekick, and was in Madrid when Durruti was killed; he eventually became his biographer. Barcelona is, in some ways, a really icky bourgeoisie city. He’s living in this run-down apartment. buying wine in half-gallon jugs and serving it out of cold bottles. I never spent an evening with someone whose humility so impressed me. When he died a few months later, about 200 people, most of them sons and daughters of the ‘30s anarchist movement, marched behind his coffin.
READ MORE: The People v. Melina Abdullah
What were the stories behind you getting arrested five times by the LAPD?
I sued them too. This was many years ago when me and my first wife were really young and were still commuting to L.A. from San Diego. We were at a Communist Party meeting on Barrington near Olympic, and got back into the car. Suddenly, these cars going 90 miles per hour were bearing right down on us. My car slams the breaks, it skids into the back of another car. In the meantime a guy in one of the cars is shooting at the first car. We’re terrified.
The next thing we know, a guy is standing over us with a gun. It turns out, he’s an off-duty cop who lives in the apartment, heard the gunshots, and came out. It turned out that two off-duty LAPD detectives made a pass at a woman at a bar, but the woman’s boyfriend slugged the guy. Apparently, they were chasing him, and they were going to murder him, just a couple of blocks away. Thankfully, a few uniformed cops showed up. We sued the LAPD and got a couple of grand out of it.
I even got a second payment from a “Justice for Janitors,” demonstration too. Their conduct was so outrageous that they had to pay everybody. I told the union that I’d give them all the money, but they told me to keep it. Everybody earned it that day. The next time I got arrested, it was at a Local 11 demonstration when they were trying to fire all the long-term employees at USC — all the catering workers and stuff. We sat down in Pershing Square in the middle of the street; It was [Maria Elena Durazo], a couple hotel workers, a couple staff members, and me; we all get arrested. The question is then: will they charge me or not? Everyone got a call to go to the City Attorney’s office, and I show up and there’s a deputy. I’ve had probation officers recommend to a judge that I spend a year in jail for nothing — for demonstrating. I don’t know what’s going to happen this time. I go in there and this judge says, “People like you have contributed so much to our city by your involvement in the cause of unions.”
It shows you the sea change that occurred as the unions took power. She did everything but put a medal on me. I had had a great night in jail with the workers from USC. I think only professor Laura Pulido of USC supported it. Were there any faculty out on the picket line getting arrested? I think not. USC is such a fucking evil place.
What led you to leave L.A.?
I was basically driven out of town. I couldn’t find any work. I was offered a job at USC and they rescinded it. Somebody discovered an old interview where I mentioned that in 1965, the W.E.B. Du Bois Club and SDS banded together to graffiti the campus. It ended up in the second page of the L.A. Times. $22,000 worth of vandalism. This became their excuse, so we’re basically forced out of the city.
Thanks to this improbable windfall of winning the MacArthur, I was able to get this job at Stony Brook [University]. I was happy. Great department, all radicals and I could get to the [New York City jazz club] Village Vanguard in two hours, which to me was a big deal. I was happy in New York, but Alessandra was deciding whether she wanted to have kids or not, and most of her family is around here in San Diego. She says, “There’s this job. I’m sure I have no chance of it, but if I get it, can we move to San Diego?” I say, “Of course, but I have to get a job in Southern California.” I’m totally unemployable and figure we’ll never get back. This is when Jon Weiner pulls a rabbit out of the hat, and I’m offered a full professorship at Irvine. I’m fucking sunk. There’s no way now that I could say that we weren’t going to go.
You were pretty famous at CalArts for your L.A. tours. What was on the itinerary?
Part of it was that you had to bring a bus ticket so you could prove that you’d taken the bus. I’d say, “We’re going to meet at 11 a.m. at the Watts Towers,” and they’d call and get the details for what buses to take. The European kids had no problem taking the bus. “The ghetto? It’s the first place I want to see in L.A.” But the rich L.A. kids? I had one kid go up to me like, “I don’t know where downtown is.” I’d say, “Understandable, what part of the East Coast are you from?” He said, “Beverly Hills?” I used the Belmont Tunnel because you could still break into it. It was a cheap stunt, but students always loved it, and they’d end up remembering it. You’d have to climb into this dark tunnel for almost a mile until you’re near Pershing Square, and then you’d turn the lights on for like two minutes. We’d do this at midnight on a Thursday. The neighborhood around it, [what was then known as] Crown Hill, was totally desolate — just crack-addicts and gangsters walking around. It looked maximally dangerous. Kids would come out of it feeling like they were street-smart.
The only person to get in any trouble was the Crown Prince of Fiji, right?
Well, the royalty of Fiji is huge. He was one of several princes, but he was very high up. The only time I got close to being fired was because of this. I told the kids to go out and go to bars and hang out. He ended up hanging out with some crack addicts.
Your father was raised in an entirely Welsh speaking community in Western Ohio. What was the story behind the town?
He was actually of the first generation not to speak Welsh. He was born in 1909, although he knew a lot of salacious things in Welsh like, “go to the outhouse!” It was founded in 1840; the last Welsh-speaking community in the United States, and they took all these millenarian tenets from a place in North Wales. My great-great grandfather built a famous log cabin in the town, and from its founding until the 1890s, it was totally Welsh. They’d hire schoolteachers from North Wales and had a famous little church that had an annual Welsh choral contest. There were about 115 people in the village.
My mother was a Mulligan and a Ryan. My grandfather, Jack Ryan, was a veteran of the Spanish-American war. When I used to teach U.S. History, which is something I never took in college myself, I would say to them, “The American century began at Santiago de Cuba on this day in 1898 — in one trench was my grandfather, Jack Ryan, and in the other trench was Fidel Castro’s father with the Galician volunteers.”
I’d regale students by getting them to think outside of books and the conventional concepts of history. I’d say that I knew a woman, who knew a man, who saw the emperor Napoleon. And that was Dorothy Healey’s mother, Barbara Nestor, who died at around 98. She grew up in Slovakia in a Jewish village outside of Bratislava, and the most famous man in the village was a veteran of the Austrian Army who had been at the surrender of Austerlitz. So she sat at his knee and heard these stories and I sat at her knee. A lot of them had grandparents who were my age or younger, and were blown away by the idea that I had a grandfather who fought in the last war of the 19th Century, or that I knew someone, who knew someone, who knew Napoleon.
In a recent podcast for The Nation, you were talking about how the pandemic will only hasten the onslaught of Amazon and the techno-elite, and further consolidate their power. What are the ways that people might mitigate those effects?
Amazon plays into classical questions raised at the beginning of the 20th century: What do you do with trusts? What do you do with monopolies? One wing of the progressive movement, and later the New Deal, said you bust them up. You use anti-trust legislation, which had been on the books for 20 or 30 years by the time Woodrow Wilson became President. But the other side of the progressive movement, and later in the New Deal, said no, you nationalize them. That question has reappeared in the case of Amazon because Amazon is an extraordinary creature due to their control over retail. They’re out there devouring small business and even franchises.
Even the post office, which might go out of business or insolvent due [in part] to government cuts and Amazon.
It will, particularly if Trump keeps attacking it. But I was also amazed to discover how many giant corporations are dependent on the Amazon Cloud for their computer services. Any way you look at it, Amazon has become an absolutely crucial infrastructure of our society, in the same way that gas pipelines, the energy system, and broadband are. For progressives, my recommendation is to first pass an excess-profits law, because this is something rooted in tradition. It was used by Wilson, it was used by Roosevelt, and it was used by Truman in the Korean War.
My second thing is that people on the left need to develop proposals about how to control public utilities. The progressive movement inside the Republican party and the Socialist party under Eugene Debs coincided over municipal and national ownership of utilities. This was their single most important demand, and that’s why Socialists supported the Owens Valley aqueduct because the [L.A.] Department of Water and Power became the alternative power utility. We have to take a similar approach to broadband and social media. Above all, we need to begin talking about Amazon as an irreplaceable, necessary part of our lives that can’t be controlled by Jeff Bezos. Particularly, a company run by a guy who won’t give facemasks or issue protections for workers.
I have friends who work for places like Instacart and they made it practically impossible to get company-supplied gloves and masks. The company put out a PR statement to look good, but then basically placed every barrier up imaginable to avoid actually helping their workers.
I don’t think there is a more potent and surreal symbol of the state failure than that on virtually the same day that the President was bragging about how we’re the greatest nation on Earth and have the greatest scientific and technological advancements, The New York Times devoted a page to instructions for surgical masks. My wife, who’s an artist, and a couple of her friends were in the other room sewing masks for nurse friends of theirs who had been unable to get surgical masks during the emergency. We’re back to the “handicraft” mode of production. It’s like we’re living in the 17th-Century, not the 21st.
What do you think are the things that the progressive wing of the Democratic party should be asking for in terms of additional stimulus and ways to redress the ever-increasing inequality?
It’s become urgent to aggregate the major proposals and major points of both Warren and the Sanders campaign into a real New Deal-type plan. In the meantime, it’s essential that the fight continues. The Sanders coalition needs to unite with the Warren delegates at the convention to ensure that the platform contains healthcare-for-all and other demands. There’s no reason to let Biden off the hook, and clearly, the only way he’s going to win is by galvanizing the Sanders base. The big question is will there be a convention? Or will we say we consider Biden coronated and let’s move on. It’s essential that the platform committee meet and there be a real debate about this. It seems a majority of delegates that Biden won in the deep South are African Americans and because polls consistently show that a majority of African Americans support Medicare-for-all, there are a lot of Biden delegates who would be sympathetic and would support this as well.
We’ve descended into a time where mass immiseration and hunger have returned on a large scale and unfortunately, I don’t think you can hope these conditions will change even with the end of the pandemic, even with a vaccine. The economy was prime for explosion anyway; this just detonated it.
What do you see are the long-term ramifications on the American city? Most are already totally unaffordable for working people and these new corporate giveaways only exacerbate the problem.
This is an extraordinary opportunity for developers, real estate, investment trusts, and so on to buy property. I was watching an interview the other day with a landlord in New York’s Chinatown. His family owned a big building, but it’s rent-controlled, so they depend on the businesses [the Chinese restaurants on the ground floor]. He said, “We’re just weeks away from liquidation. We’re going to lose everything.” You just know that looking over his shoulder is someone licking their chops to buy it up because prices will never be this low again.
There will be a liquidation of much of the class of small landlords. People who are renters will be forced out, and the urban real estate market will be restructured towards giant real estate trusts. Developers will have even more control over the city. The crisis is almost an extinction event for your neighborhood bistros and traditional small businesses, but it’s a huge business opportunity for those who have the wealth to move in and clean up.
The fear is that Los Angeles will turn into midtown Manhattan, where it’s just Chase banks, $15 salad emporiums, and CVS drugstores. On the local level, Los Angeles has been governed by either conservatives or spineless neo-liberal politicians. What do you think are the things that we should advocate for in terms of local public policy to ward off this cultural destruction?
Any profound urban reform is impossible as long as the cities are completely in the control of the market. I’m a follower of Henry George in that regard, the great California radical who thought the California economy was completely hobbled by landlordship. A municipal land bank would be a solution, but also an emergency break on gentrification and displacement. Right now, we have to escalate this struggle for rent control — this reframes it in a new way. This small business situation is just horrible. It’s going to just hollow out the city. We should be demanding that workers in the city — essential workers — receive priority and personal protection. I worry about the homeless, the undocumented populations, and those in the county jails. All the organizations in Los Angeles that are based on and struggle for essential human needs — that represent workers, renters, small homeowners, small business people — need to come out with an alternative program. There’s an American historian named Mark Naison, who wrote this great book on Communists in Harlem in the ‘30s. He’s been advocating for years that New York should do a survey of abandoned, little-used derelict buildings in the city, and use eminent domain or emergency laws to rehouse homeless people. In L.A., you’d find tons of these under-used or abandoned places. His proposal was that it was obscene to have hundreds of thousands of people on the street when you have the physical facilities to rehouse them.
READ MORE: The Rent Strike That Sparked a Movement
You also lived in New York, San Diego, and Austin during the ‘60s, but what was so special about L.A. that made you decide to devote your latest book to it?
It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I was involved in the Civil Rights movement in San Diego since age 16 and went on to work for SDS for some years; I was the first SDS organizer in Los Angeles. What’s always struck me about the depiction of the ‘60s is that it never tells the central story. It never talks about the real people who were in battle.
I’ve also realized that Los Angeles differed from other places and student movements. UCLA had one big blow up during the invasion of Cambodia, but otherwise student movements in Los Angeles were in working-class junior colleges and the two Cal-State systems. As I started to do research, it became apparent to me that the really exceptional thing about L.A. was the high school, and even junior high school kids. There were the Chicano blowouts in high schools, as well as the fact that all the Black schools in Los Angeles went on a strike. One of the biggest struggles took place in a junior high school — cops brought in to beat up 12-year-olds, and the 12-year-olds fought back.
When I started the project, my intention was to interview everybody I could find, but then I got sick and couldn’t travel anymore, and Jon Wiener, my co-author, saved the day. We had a natural division of labor; I worked on traditional narratives of Black and Brown liberation struggles, which were the real engine of the ‘60s struggles in L.A., and he wrote about counter-cultural institutions like the Los Angeles Free Press and the free health clinics of the Women’s movement.
I argue that there were several turning points within the ‘60s. I approach history like military history, it’s a battle, and the battle has alternative outcomes and possibilities. The battle takes place and reshapes the alternatives ahead. The crucial battle was carried out in Los Angeles in the ‘60s, and for us, the ‘60s includes up to Tom Bradley’s [mayoral] election in 1973.
When does L.A. in the ‘60s really begin for you?
In 1963, the United Civil Rights Committee was formed in Los Angeles. They tried to win victories across the board in education, housing, and employment for equal rights and integration. It failed and was followed by wide backlash that included Proposition 14, which repealed California’s fair housing law. That was the context in which the ‘65 Rebellion occurred, the other turning point.
Then, later in 1969, Tom Bradley was ahead in all the polls running against L.A.’s right-wing and increasingly racist mayor, Sam “the Man” Yorty. Then Yorty unleashed this over-the-top, George Wallace-type, racist campaign saying that if you like Tom Bradley, you’re putting Eldridge Cleaver in power. Bradley lost. That had huge consequences because it foreclosed the hope of winning the demands that had been raised in 1963, and again in the ’65 Rebellion — chances of winning them through this system.
It’s at the same time that Evelle Younger, the district attorney, had the LAPD and the F.B.I. jump on the Black Panther party with the strategy on how to destroy it from the outside and from the inside. It led to the shootout at the [L.A.] Black Panther party headquarters. If you look at the ‘60s that way, there are important strategic lessons that remain relevant and nothing excited me more than what happened last year with the teacher’s strike. On one hand, what teachers and students were fighting for were exactly the same issues that they were fighting for during the ‘60s — a plan to improve quality of education, to eradicate huge class loads, to fix high schools that seem designed to not graduate students of color. These are the same things they’re fighting for more than 50 years later.
The other thing that excited me so much about this successful struggle was it showed the existence of a culture of memory. Loads of kids turned out to be the grandkids of ‘60s activists. On the Eastside, kids know about the blowouts, they know about “El Movimiento.” On the Southside, kids are intensely interested in the Panthers, and that was shown in ’92 as well.
Definitely. I know rappers with Huey Newton tattoos. 2Pac was essentially Panther royalty.
There’s this continuity with the 60s, a surprising continuity in some ways compared to the popular culture of much of the city. The real function of writing this book is not to celebrate the counterculture and delve into the usual clichés or write about the leadership, but to do an actual movement history and plot the development of its ideas, tactics, strategy. While at the same time, doing this analysis of the reaction to it and the growth of a successful counter-revolution. In all important things, the movement was defeated in Los Angeles except in one way that no one could have predicted: the fact that tens of thousands of young people had been involved in a movement. Many of them carried on as activists in one way or another, and they passed it on to their kids.
What strikes you as markedly different between the activists of this generation versus those of the ‘60s?
In the first place, the often-overlooked activism in the high schools has continued, and with that, a couple of generations of blowouts over Prop 187 and over anti-immigrant laws. I have two kids in an inner-city high school and their friends are mainly Black and the children of Mexican, blue-collar workers. They’re a fantastic generation, not just in their values which are so advanced, but also in their militancy, their defiant spirit. That’s the volcano that’s still there.
Friends of mine on the left will go on for days about political correctness, identity politics, and their horrible experience with it; I actually think that’s trivial. The point is that this is about equal rights for everybody, and again, my younger kids’ generation are fiercely egalitarian about this.
What I find missing in the left as a whole, is the solidarity for the poor, ex-colonial world that was so defining for my generation, and then again in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s during Reagan’s Contra Wars in Central America. It became the hallmark of the large solidarity movements of that time.
Here we are in a situation, with the attack on civil rights, and the downward mobility of college graduates, and suddenly socialism is everywhere. Did you hear once during the primary debates, from either Warren or Bernie, any discussion of global poverty? The American lot has shaped itself unconsciously around this America First-ism, which is a cancer in our culture. Writing about the coronavirus and doing interviews about it, this is something I’ve been insistent about, and even provocative, because I take a very critical position on it. I haven’t heard anyone in the larger progressive movement talking about our responsibilities to Africa or the South Asian nations in terms of medical aid. The Obama administration at least pulled out all the stops on its mission to stop Ebola in Africa, but what have the Democrats proposed to do, now that the real killing season is beginning, in the slums of Africa and South Asia?
What gives you hope at this current moment of history?
I always get asked about hope, but hope has never been a category I’ve thought much about. I think the necessity of struggle does not depend on hope at all. This is partially because of where I grew up, in East San Diego County, and the fact that even in my own family there were Republicans. When other people in the ‘60s used to talk about the revolution, I’d say “In which country?”
I grew up used to being part of an embattled minority and now it’s a real cultural difference. I have a friend of mine in San Francisco who told me that he has never met a Republican. I still hang out with guys I went to second grade with, and I was recently down at the VFW in Campo, this little town on the border, for the memorial of a friend who had just died. I knew tons of Republicans and Trump supporters inside, so I don’t think you need rations of hope. What you need is a deep commitment to resistance and a fighting spirit and anger. Anybody who mortgages their activism to something like the success of a Sanders campaign, that isn’t a commitment.
On the other hand, it’s impossible for me to be bleak and pessimistic because in the ‘60s, I saw things that I thought were impossible. I saw the equivalent of social miracles; I discovered the bravery of ordinary people, which humbled me. Right now, we have examples of that everywhere. This is not a time for despair. We’re in the ring, and you have to be ready to go for as many rounds as it takes.
Bernie Sanders is probably the first genuine progressive to get that close to the Presidency since perhaps Henry Wallace. That’s a radical shift from you being described on Bill Moyers only a decade ago as the “last Socialist in America.”
In all of his public statements, he’s kept reminding his base that the struggle has just begun. Imagine if Bernie had won but was unable to take back the Senate. He and his agenda would be sitting there isolated in the White House with a 24/7 assault. Biden can win back the Senate because he can get the moderates, and it puts the position of the movement in a more powerful place, which is the permanent opposition inside and outside the political system.
Above all, the continuation of the movement in the streets is imperative; we’re in the midst of one hell of a labor and civil rights upsurge. This event is radicalizing a broad section of the working class, and it’s possible now to argue for radical and socialist solutions. Because of health bills, I’m back teaching at the University of San Diego, which is a large, expensive and fundamentally conservative, Catholic school. I was teaching athletes and kids in ROTC uniforms, but I was stunned to learn a majority of them supported Sanders. They were defiant and bitter over his defeat and I felt like here I am, trying to convince the breadcrumb fighters to support the social Democrats back in 1930. They don’t want to support Biden; it’s going to be really hard to get them to vote in November.
No one really likes Joe Biden, but at this point, it’s either that or the collapse of the Republic.
This should not be interpreted as a defeat. It all ends in victory. I was going to write something about the primary season, so I went back and looked at every state and I added in one side: Warren and Sanders as the left, and everybody else as the right. The only ones to the left of them would be the Bolsheviks, and I wasn’t sure how to define Yang.
At the end of the day, there is close to parity in the Democratic party between the progressives and the other side. Some states were progressive, the majority of his states were always 45-55. Progressives emerged from the primary season in a much stronger position than when they went in. The single accomplishment of the Sanders campaign in the primaries was the astonishing support that was created amongst blue-collar Latinos and their kids. That to me is a seismic shift.
It’s difficult to explain sometimes, but you have to fight the near while at the same time fighting the ultimate enemy. There are a million reasons to vote for Biden, while at the same time fighting him and the implied resurrection of the Democratic establishment. Fight him day-in and day-out, ensuring that if he wins, he will come into office having made commitments to the most essential demands of the Sanders campaign. That would give tremendous traction to not only the political system, but also outside of it in the streets. Force him into that and he will do this largely because he understands how little support he has from people under 40.
I see this as an extraordinary tragedy for ordinary people in this country, but it opens up historical possibilities that we haven’t seen in a very long time, and are different from those of the ‘60s. We’re in a country where young people of color have so much more social weight than before.
Ecology of Fear is nearing its 20th anniversary. Why do you think it’s had such a sustained effect on the psychological consciousness of Los Angeles?
I considered Ecology of Fear to be an example of failed writing, in the sense that it was interpreted by my critics to be the opposite of what I was trying to say. For instance, I got accused by a prominent L.A. writer of “disaster pornography,” especially the chapter where I read every disaster novel in California. What I was trying to do was show that consistently, the subjects of these books are racist ones, but it wasn’t seen like that.
However, the fundamental conditions continued; everything that blew up in 1992, the base conditions are there. Daryl Gates is gone, but the inequalities only deepened, forcing blue-collar people further and further east, over the hill into the Inland Empire. Within the city, there’s a huge population of people just like in 1992, that have no savings, no rent. We’re going to see an explosion of homelessness as a result of this.
There is also this inherent paranoia about nature in Southern California that began with a total misunderstanding of California as a Mediterranean landscape. People came with other expectations, so with the first earthquake and the first drought, paradise turns into hell on Earth. If I were to advocate for simple reform, it would be for a mandatory class in high school — a semester about the natural history of California. Before all of this, last year, I was contemplating writing something about what happens when it all falls apart, and what are the duties of the left. We’ve created a generation that’s defined itself by its radical stances and demand, but how will it deal with the catastrophic times ahead? I must confess, I’ve always seen catastrophic events ahead.
What has surprised you that didn’t come true about City of Quartz or Ecology of Fear?
What was unexpected was the incredible energy that the Latinization of Los Angeles has brought to its neighborhood and its landscape, and the reemergence of the set of values that are based on public space, the heart, and the outdoors. I wrote this book called Magical Urbanism, trying to draw attention to both the work of Chicano urbanists and Latino urbanists, which is being ignored mostly by people who consider themselves urban theorists.
But above all, this urban renaissance is imminent in the immigrant communities and communities of color in the United States. So suddenly, their emergence in L.A. seizes a social justice movement and an alternative urbanism. In City of Quartz, I did not foresee the growth of the progressive labor movement and it becoming a decisive factor in L.A. politics. I did get to participate in early parts of that, getting arrested with “Justice for Janitors” and then again with the hotel workers. Just the marvelous rank-and-file and people, and the labor movement is still there. It has its problems and contradictions, but so many of the students that I had at Riverside had parents that were involved in one campaign or another, or were even union activists. This has been the profound change for the better in Los Angeles.
What advice would give to a young activist with dreams of changing the world?
We must never cede the streets. Never give up the streets.
This article appears in Vol. 2, Issue 2 of The LAnd. Click here to pre-order your copy.