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Radical Movements in 1960s L.A.

A review of "Set The Night on Fire", an inspiring book that points to a new generation of activists who remain unbowed by conservative historiographies.

Often in histories of the era, state universities like Berkeley garner all the attention, but in Set the Night on Fire Davis and Wiener recalibrate to draw readers’ attention to junior high and high school, community college, and Cal State campuses where black and brown activists demanded better educational resources, expanded curricula, and protested for the creation of Black and Chicano Studies Departments. 

If in Suburban Warriors Lisa McGirr revealed middle and high schools as a means by which the New Right organized in Orange County, Davis and Wiener excavate the activism of the city’s Black and Latino youth in L.A. County. “In fact the seventh-to-twelfth grade and junior college protests were arguably the most original and populist social movement of the entire decade in Southern California especially when considered in their full multiethnic spectrum.” In particular, the book acknowledges the role these protests played for Black youth, an aspect often ignored or obscured when discussing the high school “Blowouts” of the late 1960s, which often focus on the Chicano Movement.

Protest spilled out in parts of L.A. County where one might least expect it, such as at Valley State in San Fernando Valley, today Cal State Northridge. A 1969 protest led to the largest mass arrest on any campus in Southern California during the 1960s. The protests, the results of white, Black, and Latino activism, eventually led to the creation of both Chicano and Black Studies Departments at the university. However, the authors are also careful to note that though the movement grew out of anti-war protests, race intervened between the largely white SDS members, Black Student Union (BSU) activists, and those belonging to the Chicano MECHa (“El Movimento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlán”) organization. The latter two, argue Wiener and Davis, “didn’t share the SDS goal of transforming the system; instead, they wanted a share of the benefits of the system, which they had never had—a college education that served the needs of their communities.”

The authors do not ignore issues of sexuality and gender in Set the Night on Fire, but they receive far less attention than race and class. Accordingly, the chapters on the latter are stronger and more prominent than the former. Within race, Asian Americans prove they are the exception. They function as a spectral presence throughout, really appearing only in one of the chapters in the book’s final section entitled: “Other Liberations.” At times, the flow of the book can feel too episodic, an additional criticism that some have raised with Davis’s larger body of work. 

The two authors have also attempted to infuse more cultural history into the book than is usual for a Davis text; the history of The Freep, Ash Grove, Gidra, KPFK, and the cultural resistance in Watts that followed 1965 all receive coverage. Ultimately, though Davis and Wiener cling to a certain Marxist outlook, Set the Night on Fire clearly engages the issues that Avila and others have raised with Davis, notably the greater focus on place and more prominent role attributed to culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors that mediate and impact people’s lives.