Getting to Freedom City (Review)Historians in the News
tags: racism, Los Angeles, 1970s, 1960s, radicalism, Protest
Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties
Mike Davis & Jon Wiener
Verso, $34.95 (cloth)
In the summer of 1969, my mother decided we were moving to Los Angeles. Her friend Luther, an older Black gentleman and fellow devotee of the church established by Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), had moved there the year before and sent her letters extolling the city’s virtues. It didn’t take much convincing. My mother regaled us with Luther’s stories, adorning the walls of our tiny New York tenement apartment on 157th and Amsterdam with clippings from Sunset Magazine and Better Homes and Gardens—images of palm-lined streets, beaches, the Hollywood Hills, gorgeous rooms flooded with sunlight. She imagined herself meditating at SRF’s beautiful Lake Shrine property in Pacific Palisades just blocks from the ocean. “The flowers and the weather,” she told me recently, “reminded me of growing up in Jamaica.” LA would fulfill her dream of having a house, good schools for her children, freedom from violence, and spiritual peace.
But in 1969, all that was only a dream. A single mother with three kids, she survived on low-wage jobs and occasional public assistance. It would take two years for her to board a plane bound for LAX with nothing but a suitcase and a couple hundred dollars. She made the journey alone that summer of 1971, while my siblings and I were with my father in Seattle.
My mother spent her first weeks in Hollywood with Luther before moving into an empty apartment above her aunt’s on Ninety-Fourth and South Figueroa Streets. South LA did not at all resemble the pictures that had fed her dreams. Instead of rolling hills and pretty rooms, she found a vast concrete landscape framed on the east by the Harbor Freeway and crowded throughout with dilapidated homes, liquor stores, fast food joints, churches, a smattering of tall palm trees, and Black people everywhere. And cops—lots of cops. She recalls counting fourteen patrol cars lined up on her block one evening.
My mother had fled to LA in search of peace, but instead she found a war zone. Six years after the Watts rebellion, the police patrolled the streets of South LA like a victorious occupying army. But as Mike Davis and Jon Wiener make clear in their monumental new book, Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, the police under Mayor Sam Yorty treated the entire city like it was under siege. “No other major city outside of the Deep South,” they write, “was subjected to such a fanatic and all-encompassing campaign to police space and control the night. Along with minorities, many young whites were also routinely victimized, leading hatred of the LAPD to grow into a common culture of resistance.” When cops terrorized middle-class white kids for roaming Sunset Strip at night, their cries of “Free the Strip” quickly evolved into “All Power to the People” and “No More Murder of Black People.”
The image that lured my mother and millions like her to the City of Angels was painted by racial segregation, patriarchy, sexual norms, classism, and an iron fist used to crush dissent. And yet, the pervasiveness of state violence is not the whole story—it may not even be the main one. Set the Night on Fire is, above all, a historical account of how a rainbow of insurgent social movements tried to peel back the glitter, dismantle the police state, and replace elite white rule and its regimes of segregation, militarism, patriarchy, and conformity with a society oriented toward “serving the people.”
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