Mike Davis, 1946-2022Historians in the News
tags: California, Los Angeles, urban history, radical history
Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.
Mike Davis, author and activist, radical hero and family man, died October 25 after a long struggle with esophageal cancer; he was 76. He’s best known for his 1990 book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz. Marshall Berman, reviewing it for The Nation, said it combined “the radical citizen who wants to grasp the totality of his city’s life, and the urban guerrilla aching to see the whole damned thing blow.”
And the whole thing did blow, two years after the book was published. When the Rodney King riots broke out in LA in 1992, frightened white people rushed home, locked the doors, and turned on the TV news. Mike, however, was driving in the opposite direction, with his old friend Ron Schneck at his side. They parked, got out, and started talking with the people in the streets about what was going on. Then he went home and wrote about it.
Mike was a 1960s person, but he didn’t come from a liberal or left background. His father was a meat cutter and a conservative, and as a young patriot, Mike briefly joined the Devil Pups—the Marine Corps’ version of the Boy Scouts. His life was changed by the civil rights movement. In 1962, when he was a junior in high school, a Black activist married to his cousin took Mike to a protest organized by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), picketing an all-white Bank of America branch in San Diego. Soon he was volunteering in the CORE office there. He started college at Reed, but left to go to work for SDS.
As an SDS organizer in the late ’60s, Mike was part of the largest mass arrest in the history of 1960s protest—at “Valley State,” now California State University–Northridge, in 1969, when 286 were arrested after a peaceful sit-down of 3,000 students protesting the school administration banning all demonstrations, rallies, and meetings. “What I remember most vividly about the arrests,” he said 45 years later, “was the ride to jail in a police bus. The girls started singing, ‘Hey Jude, don’t be afraid.’ I fell in love with all of them.”
City of Quartz was his masterpiece. Published in 1990, it opens with a description of a visit to the ruins of the socialist city of Llano del Rio, founded in 1914 in the desert north of LA. There, on May Day 1990, he finds two twentysomething building laborers from El Salvador camped out, hoping for work in nearby Palmdale. “When I observed that they were settled in the ruins of a ciudad socialista, one of them asked whether the ‘rich people had come with planes and bombed them out.’” They asked what he was doing out there, and what he thought of Los Angeles. “I tried to explain that I had just written a book…” And then you turn the page, to chapter one, the unforgettable “Sunshine and Noir.”