The 1960s live on in U.S. memory as an era of counterculture rebellions and the civil rights movement that changed the course of the nation’s history. The mass uprisings that took place from coast to coast have been immortalized in myriad films and books, but these often focus on well known figures rather than the everyday Black and Chicano youths that fueled the movement. In their new book, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the 1960s, renowned historians Mike Davis and Jon Wiener set out to capture the complete history of the city's revolutionary political scene by focusing on the working class Americans who are so often left out of the story. The book also goes into great detail about the Chicano Movement, also known was “El Movimiento,” which is also often neglected by historians. Wiener, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, joins Robert Scheer on this week’s Scheer Intelligence to discuss the book he co-authored as well as how it relates to the most recent Black Lives Matter protests.
“Our heroes are the working-class young people of the great flatlands of Los Angeles,” says Wiener. “This is not about the movies, it's not about surf culture, it's not about rock 'n' roll or the scene in Hollywood or in the canyons.
“The core of this book is a chronological narrative of Black and Latino [people] organizing in struggle. It's a movement history that starts in 1960, when young Black people in L.A. were inspired, like you and I were, by the Civil Rights Movement in the South, by the sit-in movement and the Freedom Riders. That's the spine of the book. And then around that, we discuss all the other movements of the era: the antiwar movement, the women's liberation movement, the gay liberation movement; the Asian American movement appears at the very end.”
As Scheer praises the book, published by Verso earlier this year, and discusses how it informed his view of an era he also partly experienced in Los Angeles as a young journalist, he ties the analysis of Wiener and Davis’ book to the present-day uprisings that have taken the world by storm.
“There's a tendency to celebrate the sixties as a very great, crusading, changed time,” begins Scheer. “And I accept all that. But it has occurred to me in this last six, seven months that we are actually going through a much more profound time of change, particularly in terms of America's most egregious problem of race.”
“I have to agree,” responds Wiener. “I've come to exactly the same conclusion. If you look at what Black Lives Matter accomplished in the past few months, this summer, ever since George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day weekend in Minneapolis, they have had demonstrations everywhere in America. Not just the big cities where there's majority minorities, but in all the little towns all over the place.
“The other thing I would point to is Black Lives Matter has actually had some impressive success, much more than we had at the time,” Wiener adds.
Wiener points to the fact that mass protests led Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was planning to increase the LAPD’s budget, to ultimately cut $150 million from the police department’s funding.
“Now, we say that's nowhere near enough; that's a drop in the bucket. But you know, the whole idea of cutting the budget of the LAPD--this was unthinkable six months ago. We have to give Black Lives Matter credit for keeping their eye on the ball, for organizing the right kind of pressure.”
The two go on to discuss the American communists who helped to shape L.A., along with movements such as the gay liberation movement, which were rejected by many on the left in the 1960s, and went on to have huge success. Listen to the full conversation between Wiener and Scheer as they grapple with the lessons to the past and analyze a time Scheer calls “more exciting politically and more encouraging, maybe, than the sixties.”