Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear and, most recently, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (co-authored with Jon Wiener), is a “Marxist-Environmentalist” and international socialist writer, professor, urban theorist and critic who has charted the history of Los Angeles to much acclaim and a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as much controversy. Gillian McCain and Ariella Thornhill spoke at length with Davis. The following are some salient excerpts from that conversation.
By Gillian McCain and Ariella Thornhill
Mike Davis came of age in an age of insurrection. He cut his teeth in some of the most effective and notorious activist groups of the Sixties. From CORE, to SDS, to the Communist Party, Davis was in the center of a multiracial movement to bring change to America.
During a lengthy interview with Gillian McCain and Ariella Thornhill, Davis reflected on these groups and the mentors and leaders that were crucial to his political development.
A day before the unprecedented uprisings after the George Floyd murder, the legendary writer, activist, and organizer shared anecdotes that remind us that history never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.
Davis on dropping out of Reed College:
“I dropped out of Reed because I couldn’t write a word and I was just overwhelmed. I mean, the first person I met at Reed was a girl whose father was, well, I think he was head of the Harvard Medical School or something, and I’d gone to a very ordinary, blue-collar high school and within a matter of a few days I knew I wasn’t going to cut it at Reed. And so I met a girl and we stayed drunk for five weeks and I was living in her room in the women’s dorms. I think we were the last two ever expelled for something called “intervisitation.” [Laughs] A wonderful, a wonderful world. I was the first one in my family to go to college and [after dropping out] particularly on my mother’s part I was persona non grata back in my own town.”
Davis on joining SDS:
“I had been active for a few years in high school in the Congress of Racial Equality in San Diego. I have Black relatives by marriage. And I, of course, joined CORE in Portland the minute I got there and one of the people in CORE was the labor historian Jeremy Brecher. As I was being expelled, he said, uh, “Well, you know the-”, and he was the only SDS member, I think, in the whole Pacific Northwest at this point, and he said, “Well, you know, they need bodies in New York City.” So being unwelcome at home, I took what little money I had left and I boarded a Greyhound bus wearing a pair of huaraches, a Mexican sandal, and arrived in New York in I think the beginning of November – in one of the coldest winters in the 20th century. And I worked in the national office until the end of March.
SDS was then in the midst of its transformation from being this little group of students attached to a Social Democratic organization called the League for Industrial Democracy to becoming an independent, autonomous student organization that started to grow at the speed of light. Most people in the national office were working on the first March on Washington against Vietnam, which occurred I think that April, but my assignment was to help organize the demonstration at Chase Manhattan Bank in ‘63.
Chase Manhattan had led a consortium of National Banks that had bailed out South Africa after the Sharpeville Massacre and we wanted to have an Apartheid demonstration, one that focused on American complicity in Apartheid, so Chase Manhattan was the target. And I was, of course, totally lost, inexperienced, we didn’t have enough money but it paid twenty-five dollars a week in New York, which is not enough to pay rent, really. So I couldn’t even take the tube. I had to walk most places back and forth. I saw a lot of New York. But there was a Friends of SNCC chapter in New York City that joined us and worked with us and was headed by a woman named Elisabeth Sutherland. Years later, I’m in the Bay Area and there’s a meeting at which the legendary Chicana activist, Betita Martinez, is speaking. So I go to the meeting and she jumps down and says, “Hey! You’re that little kid from New York!” And I said, “Elizabeth!” “Betita now,” she said. And it was a terrific group of people. We also worked with South African students. We had a sit-in at the bank and we had real-time information on the banks, the inside reaction. As it turned out, amongst the New England SDS chapters, were three members who were sons or daughters of the board at Chase Manhattan bank, plus David Rockefeller’s daughter, Abby, who was a key fundraiser and contributed to SDS anti-war movement, SNCC. Anyway, after that was over, I was sent to Berkeley and Oakland.
SDS: REBELS WITH A CAUSE
SDS at this point had something called Economic Research and Action Project. And the strategy was to build an interracial movement of the poor in Northern Cities to be a kind of second front for SNCC in the South and this was a very serious, absolutely committed attempt to- Well, put it this way: I wrote a letter to Herbert Marcuse because Jeremy Brecher told me he’s the smartest man around and if I wanted to know Marxism I should write to him. So I sent him a letter just telling all the great things we were doing including our community projects. Marcuse wrote back saying, “I’m sure you’re a great bunch of kids, but why are you doing the war on poverty’s work for it? This is what the government should be doing. I think you should be doing something that’s a little more oppositional.”
Anyway, these projects really didn’t go anywhere. But I was sent to Oakland, to see if we could open a community project in African American West Oakland and it was a bit of a fiasco. I talked a girlfriend and other friends of mine into quitting everything to work on it but I soon discovered it wasn’t going anywhere, so SDS sent me to Los Angeles, again with the idea that we were going to march into the Black community and be helpful. So, at this point they were building a freeway through Pasadena – through the Fair Oaks community. This is a historic African American community, this existed since the 1880s and it’s where Jackie Robinson’s mom lived and so I went over there and met with her and she’s just an incredible, noble woman. And she kind of patted me on the knee and said, “I think it would be better for you to go organize some white kids against racism. This community can take care of itself.”
Marcuse wrote back saying, “I’m sure you’re a great bunch of kids, but why are you doing the war on poverty’s work for it? This is what the government should be doing. I think you should be doing something that’s a little more oppositional.”
So, I ended up moving about a half mile from the USC campus, which is the only SDS chapter in Southern California, headed by a remarkable woman named Margaret Thorpe. And she was the daughter of a railroad worker from Arcadia, California in the San Gabriel Valley and we managed to raise money and with Women’s Strike for Peace was our benefactor throughout this period, headed by a wonderful woman we talk a lot about in the book called Mary Clarke. She turns out to be the aunt of the writer Rebecca Solnit. But anyway, Mary took me under her wing, we got enough money and we went to this – what would once have been a stables to one of the great estates – just north of USC and that became this ramshackle SDS office. But again, I had no idea what we were doing. And so I met a guy who has always been a major figure in my life and I’ve always thought of him kind of as my big brother, Levi Kingston.”
Davis on Levi Kingston and the culture of radicalism that developed around Pogo’s Swamp:
“Levi grew up in the Pueblo del Rio projects. I think he’s Trinidadian in his ancestry and after high school he went to sea for a couple years, and this was an enormous influence because he’s around all these radical sailors, an integrated group. I don’t think Levi had seen a white person, apart from a cop or a social worker, in the whole period he grew up in South Central. And then he’d come back in 1960, ‘61, ran a coffee house near LACC called Pogo’s Swamp. Like in the cartoon.
…it’s where Jackie Robinson’s mom lived and so I went over there and met with her and she’s just an incredible, noble woman. And she kind of patted me on the knee and said, “I think it would be better for you to go organize some white kids against racism. This community can take care of itself.”
And the coffee house was mecca for a group of radical students at LACC, including a guy named Ron Everett, who later changed his name to Ron Karenga, and the founder of the US Organization, which was the largest Black Power group following the 1965 Rebellion. But anyway, this group of kids, they got together and it included Franklin Alexander, who became the head of the Che-Lumbumba of the Communist Party, and a great group of other people, eighteen to nineteen. Some of them became Freedom Riders later on. But they organized, first of all, protests against the execution of Caryl Chessman, the rapist, who became a best-selling novelist. And Pat Brown had finally been convinced to pardon him by his son Jerry who was in seminary in San Francisco, but the pardon arrived too late and he was executed. But, before that, they’d done a series of protests. Then they went on and they organized protests at Woolworth’s, because Woolworth’s, which were the largest five-and-dime chain in the US and had lunch counters. Woolworth’s were everywhere, even in the place I grew up, there was a Woolworth’s. They were the target of sit-ins by the Southern Student movement, the group that became SNCC, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And so, the LACC students started organizing parallel protests at Woolworth’s. And this group was the kind of major seedling for so much of what developed later on and it was a strikingly integrated group and Levi was the, how should I say it – he was the impresario of all this, because he ran the coffee house. And he had this extraordinary knack for bringing people together. So when I arrived to work with Margaret Thorpe, Levi showed up. He was kind of my Mephistopheles, I guess is the word, who showed me the ropes in LA, took me all around – everywhere from, you know, strange, underground Beatnik parties in this castle-like mansion in Pasadena that had a dungeon, I’ll never forget that. But he also introduced me to so many of the activists in South Central and Levi and I were together during the August uprising and because we were near USC, we were walking down the street and somebody took a pot shot – a couple of pot shots at us – I assumed they were probably shooting at Levi. I assumed these were probably fraternity guys. But most of what I know about LA is originally learned as kind of an apprentice to one of the city’s greatest and absolute most dedicated organizers. [My] book is dedicated to Levi. He died a few weeks before the book appeared. Levi spent his whole life, from his return from the Merchant Marines, organizing in South Central and in the very last months of his life, he was in a nursing facility. He was organizing the people – the residents of the nursing facility, writing off letters to city officials protesting the awful conditions there. He did not die of Coronavirus, but, talking to him in the last few months of his life, he was saying just, you know, these will just become mortuaries if there were ever an epidemic. He saw all that coming.”
On appearing on the show Nine on the Line:
Margaret and I were appearing regularly on a program called Nine on the Line, where we debated Young Americans for Freedom. I was also on the first – Melvin Belli, was the most famous defense lawyer in San Francisco. He’s an institution; this flamboyant guy with his office that looked like a set for Oscar Wilde or something. And they put him on TV to run a talk show and I got invited on the first show and Kirk Douglas was on and now, Kirk Douglas later came out against the War in Vietnam, very honorably, but at this time he was actually going around the world through USAID, defending the Johnson administration in Southeast Asia and I was on first then he was on and then afterwards, I’m leaving the studio and he comes up to me and he pokes me in the chest and said, “Listen, kid!” – and he’s shorter than I am which, you know, I expected him to be like eight feet tall. He says, “Listen, kid, you’re just a commie dupe” or something like that. And I was breathless and I didn’t know what to say, except that I loved his role in this anti-war film that he’d made with, I think, Stanley Kubrick called Paths of Glory. It’s about the trial and execution of some French soldiers who refused to mount a suicidal attack in the First World War. So I just looked at him and I said “Well, Mr. Douglas, why did you make Paths of Glory?” He was speechless.
On the draft:
“I show up at the Induction Center in Downtown Los Angeles where LA’s old -second newspaper, The Herald Examiner, is located. It was just mayhem. Everybody was pretending they were sick or ill or, they were all, you know, there’s guys crying. It was amazing. But, I passed the physical even though I had, I had mononucleosis at the time and weighed about a hundred and twenty pounds. You know, they didn’t care. So they shepherded us into this room and you get this like pamphlet or form and it lists all these subversive organizations and you have to swear on the bottom that you’re not a member of any of them. And some of them are absolutely crazy, like Hungarian American Folksong Society and so on. And 80 percent of them at least are, you know, ethnic organizations associated with the Communist Party and so this place took about five minutes and there’s an African-American Marine Sergeant who was handing out these to be signed and everybody finished fine and I handed mine to him and said “I’m not signing this, sir.” And he looks at me and he leans over and softly, he says “Son, there’s no shame in being illiterate. I’ll help you sign it if you want.” He was genuinely a really nice guy, but I told him, I said “No, I belong to several of these organizations and I’m not signing.” And he said, “No shit! Are you kidding me?” He says, “Wait till I tell the Lieutenant about that!” And so all these other guys that were pricking their fingers, put blood in their urine and so on, they all ended up being shipped out. But they cut me loose, as “temporarily morally unsuited” or something, I forget what the category was. The very same time, Roy’s up in Oakland at the Induction Center there. He turns up at the Induction Center – again, he’s a very burly guy, he’s wearing a Mother Hubbard dress, rouge, lipstick, he’s taken a bunch of drugs. He comes up before the Army doctor and he says, “I’m a drug-addled homosexual” and according to Roy the doctor didn’t even look up. He just says “Don’t worry, son, the Army can straighten all of that out. Next!”
He (Kirk Douglas) says, “Listen, kid, you’re just a commie dupe” or something like that. And I was breathless and I didn’t know what to say, except that I loved his role in this anti-war film that he’d made with, I think, Stanley Kubrick called Paths of Glory. …….. So I just looked at him and I said “Well, Mr. Douglas, why did you make Paths of Glory?” He was speechless.
I was working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and with the American Friends Service Committee doing draft counseling and Levi Kingston started coming around to these sessions and he says, “What’s going on?” He says, “You’re just getting these middle-class guys out of the service, so more poor White and poor Black guys die in Vietnam.” He said, “This stuff-,” ‘cause we were going through just the requirements and the details and how to become conscientious objectors, so he took it in a totally other direction and started something called the Freedom Draft Movement, which was the first of what became a whole national network of Black anti-draft groups. Because there’s no, you know, Chicano, Black kids – none of them ever heard about conscientious objection and he started feeling the first of these. I mean, again, as in so many things, he was really a pioneer but he was also my conscience. So I started thinking about this, “Why indeed is SDS spending all this time trying to save White middle class kids at colleges from the draft? Maybe we should go in, okay? Or maybe we should resist.” This was right about the time of that the first draft. Active draft resistance was occurring and would later grow into a valuable component of the anti-war movement and all of us had friends who ended up going and spending time in federal prisons for draft resistance.
Anti War Demonstration Los Angeles June 1967
On running a communist bookstore:
The Communist Party in the ‘40s had bookstores all over the country. One of the survivors was something called the Progressive Bookstore at 7th and Union. Just West of Downtown, a block and a half from the FBI Headquarters. And these were the days when Bunker Hill Redevelopment was forcing thousands of old, sick people out of Downtown and they spilled over into the MacArthur Park District. And I was given basically a Party stipend by running the bookstore. There was an older woman who was the bookkeeper and I quickly discovered how the Soviet Union financed Communist Parties around the world. Volumes of the collected works of Lenin, which sold for like, I forget, literally only like three and a half dollars. We paid eleven cents for them. But the bookstore became something of a nightmare, particularly for the people in the Communist Party who had opposed Dorothy’s leadership all along. The kind of hardliners, party liners, Russophiles. Because I just ordered every Left wing book under the sun, you know, Trotsky, Bukharin, Social Democrats, Mao Tse Tung. Because I wanted to appeal to young radicals. So they would have available books from all sides. And I was uh, oh I dunno, four or five months into the job and the FBI used to come by, poke their noses through the door and usually not say anything. Sometimes they’d just smile, they’d just look around to remind us that they were just up the street and watching us.
But one day, this guy comes in and I’m with my best friend, a guy named Ron Schneck, who’d just gotten out the Navy. Working class Jewish guy, went to high school in Dorothy High School in the Crenshaw area, same high school he later taught at for years and years. And we’re kind of, we’re kind of little wild men in this period. We had like rifles hidden in the basement. By the way, what’s stored in the basement in the Communist Party bookstore? Endless volumes of Stalin’s major work on the history of Bolshevik organizations in the Trans-Caucuses. No one, believe me, no one ever read what the Communist Party had ordered in the late ‘30s ‘cause that’s all that there was in the basement. And our two guns which nobody but other young Communists knew about. So this guy comes in, you know, and he dressed just like an FBI guy, he looks kind of like an FBI guy and he starts taking notes. He spends like a half hour in the store, he’s taking notes on everything. So I turned to Ron and I said, “Listen, let’s wrestle this guy out of here.” So we threw him out of the store, I mean we physically pushed him out. Later that night I get a call from Dorothy and she said, “Well, you’ve always wanted to be a working class hero. Now you have to go out and get a job and become one.” And I said “What?” And she said, “You’re fired!” I said, “What did I do?” She says: “I’ve been contacted by Gus Hall and-” Gus Hall was the Chairman of the Communist Party – “has heard from the Soviet Embassy that their cultural attache has been attacked by young Trotskyists or Maoists in the Party’s bookstore.” So, that’s – that was my first, brief career in publishing. I’ve had several since.
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