Set the Night on Fire by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener (Review)Historians in the News
tags: racism, California, Los Angeles, 1960s
In the mid-1960s, California occupied a singular place in the American popular consciousness as a perpetually sun-drenched, wave-lashed paradise populated by tanned white people. TV shows such as 77 Sunset Strip competed with teen movies such as Beach Party and Bikini Beach to buoy up the myth, while a succession of classic Beach Boys hits hymned California’s endless summer.
This airbrushed image helped distract from the reality of an openly racist society. Glendale, for instance, was, as Mike Davis and Jon Wiener put it: “Los Angeles County’s most notorious ‘sundown town’: no blacks were allowed to live there, apart from a few servants, and any person of colour on the streets after 7pm was automatically arrested.” Across the state, black people dared not set foot on all but a few beaches for fear of arrest or violence from white gangs. At the time, California’s non-white population was more than a million people; they were all, as Davis and Wiener put it, “edited out of utopia”.
The image of a California dreamscape, nevertheless, survived intact until August 1965, when the so-called Watts riots left whole blocks burning across the black ghetto of the same name, before spreading through black communities from Venice Beach to San Diego. The violence left 34 people dead, many of them innocent bystanders shot by police, and more than 1,000 injured. On one night alone, as Davis and Wiener attest, 10 unarmed black civilians were shot dead, including one man who, sheltering inside his house, “had been hit by 11 shotgun blasts by 15 cops”.
Watts was a rebellion rather than a race riot, with police brutality, endemic racism and urban poverty as its main causes. The social conditions that prevailed in black areas of California were all but overlooked in the mainstream media, though, with the Los Angeles Times describing it in distinctly colonial terms as a “guerrilla war” and comparing it to “the Mau Mau eruption in British East Africa”. For all that, as the authors point out, the burning and looting that left Watts in ruins was seen as a victory of sorts by many black people in the neighbourhood and beyond. It precipitated a street-level cultural renaissance there with the formation of community arts projects including the Watts Writers Workshop and the Underground Musicians Association, which was led by the visionary free jazz pianist Horace Tapscott.
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