CW: police violence
It's a survey of 1960s Los Angeles radical politics. This is a long book; Los had so much radical politics back then. As you read the history, you find out why there was so much. Back then, an Angeleno who said "Maybe we could treat [ black | brown | Asian | Latino white | queer | teen-aged | female | et al ] people with dignity" was quickly classified a radical by the local press, police, and political machine. When you ask, how was this group radicalized; the answer is either "We wouldn't consider their goals radical today, but The Man of the 1960s felt differently." or "The Man of the 1960s felt they were radical, convinced some of Los' impressively-violent local law enforcement to [ harass | hospitalize | murder ] them, and the group fought back."
Los Angeles was worse off than most of the world back then, equality-wise, but Angelenos couldn't rely on help from the more-enlightened outside world. The outside world was better, but it wasn't much better. The FBI was still under control of J. Edgar Hoover, and quite ready to [ harass | hospitalize ] these groups, certainly wouldn't help them. During this time Ronald Reagan became governor of California, voted in because he condemned those Berkeley folks who said the USA wasn't winning the war in Vietnam. Going through this book, occasionally you read about some USA federal legal authority standing up against LAPD; but it's rare and surprising. You might hope the USSR would help some of these groups, and it sometimes did. But often the USSR would put conditions on aid: pretend the USSR was a positive example of a nation treating its people well. So a radical group that wanted USSR money to spread influence would sacrifice credibility—and thus lose influence.
This isn't a feel-good history; but it is interesting. You won't read about these marginalized groups coming to power; it's just that eventually a new mayor comes along who doesn't get votes through group-baiting. There's no grand triumph; just a letting-up of violent persecution; the establishment of some Ethnic Studies departments at universities.
But it is interesting.
- L.A. had the nation's first police raid on a women's health clinic.
- You get a bit of the unhappily-nuanced history of workers' unions used for racism. Andrew Saunders was a black Teamster who moved from New Jersey to L.A. It was OK to be a black Teamster in 1960s New Jersey; but not in L.A. Death threats and vandalism ensued.
- Venice's canals were a toxic mess. To scour them clean, L.A.'s street maintenance team opened ocean gates to flush the canals with seawater. "The reaction of the seawater with the bacteria and organic matter in the stagnant canals produced…a vile gas… peeling paint off of many homes."
- The former president of the National Association of Realtors, then in L.A., wanted to "preserve neighborhoods," and thus didn't want to allow black people to be real estate brokers. And who was going to stop such a policy in those days?
- California's Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963 made it illegal for landlords to discriminate on the basis of race except when renting out single-family homes. (This is topical; some months ago, California ended most single-family home zoning, partly because of the racist motivation behind that zoning.) Then in 1964, Californians voted for by a wide margin (2:1) a proposition to resume letting all landlords discriminate by race. In one of those pleasantly-surprising instances of the federal government doing the right thing, the USA Supreme Court declared that proposition unconstitutional.
- The Renaissance Pleasure Faire started out as a fundraiser for radio station KPFK (the L.A. sister station to the S.F. Bay Area's KPFA)‽ Nowadays, I'd guess the demographic intersection between RenFaire fans and Pacifica Radio fans is pretty tiny; but back then things were different.
- L.A. had the first officially-recognized Gay Pride parade.
- "Why would gays organize first in L.A. rather than New York? In part, the answer requires understanding the difference between the LAPD and the NYPD. The LAPD treatment of gays was worse—more systematic, more thorough, and more relentless—because the LA police were not corrupt… In New York City, the gay bars were run by the Mafia, and the Mafia paid off the police to leave them alone most of the time and provide advance warning of raids… A patrolman would stop by Stonewall once a week to pick up the envelopes filled with cash… The LAPD in the Thirties and Forties had been a notoriously corrupt institution, but it was famously cleaned up by Chief Parker after he took charge in 1950." (Not that you should think Chief Parker was clean; he stayed in power by collecting, fabricating, and using blackmail material on local politicians.)
- Back in 1939 (before the focus of this book, the 1960s), HUAC was hunting for commies in the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal-era government program that encouraged theater arts. A HUAC interrogator asked national director Hannie Flanagan: "Who is this Christopher Marlowe? Is he a Communist?" Now I want to start a rumor that Marlowe was the real author of Das Kapital.
- I'd already learned that the Peace and Freedom Party wanted to run Eldridge Cleaver as a USA Presidential candidate; but this book hammered home what a bad idea that was. Cleaver was not yet 35, the Constitution's minimum age for a President. They could have chosen Dick Gregory; not as big a name in politics, but over 35 and thus capable of getting onto ballots without asking state election organizations to ignore the Constitution. But they chose Cleaver and stormed off into irrelevance.
- I was reading the history of Gidra, a newspaper—these days we'd call it a 'zine—that covered Japanese-American topics (and, later, Asian-American topics). I read that a historian wrote "Gidra was an odd name for a newspaper… because it had no known meaning… The absence of meaning gave it an existential appeal." And I sheepishly thought oh gee whiz I'm such a low-brow, I assumed it was an alternate anglicization of Ghidora, the tree-headed dragon kaiju from Godzilla movies. But then I kept reading and that was where the name came from; that historian just wasn't low-brow enough to catch it. And I thought about how decades later, a couple of L.A.-area writers considered calling their new 'zine "Mazinger" but worried that folks wouldn't know about the anime. They called their 'zine Giant Robot instead. (The book also talks about the Mexican slang term "pocho", but not in the context of 'zine names, though there was a 'zine named Pocho around the same time of Giant Robot… none of which was in the 1960s and so I've drifted pretty far off topic Anyhow)
- On the one hand, back before Title IX there weren't many lady doctors, so in the underground, you had women teaching each other how to examine their own lady-parts and figure out abortions. On the other hand, some women of color had to figure out that they wouldn't really be denied welfare if they didn't submit to sterilization.
- Whether you think the death of Ruben Salazar was an assassination or you think it was police incompetence, you have to agree it was pretty messed up.
As I was reading this book, one of the authors, Mike Davis (a.k.a. City of Quartz guy), was diagnosed with terminal cancer. That didn't help to dispel the bummer aura over this history.