Review: Set The Night On Fire

Mike Davis and Jon Wiener are clear that Set The Night On Fire is a mix of memoir and history of protest in Los Angeles. Most authors who issue such a disclaimer take it as license to play pretty loose with the history side of things, but thankfully this isn’t the case here. Night is sound research lightly spiced with personal recollections.

There’s a lot of research here. I suspect they would balk at the idea that this is a comprehensive history of LA civil rights protest, but I think that’s largely modesty. This is a remarkable trove of information, sources, and anecdotes.

They cover a lot of ground, too, digging into corners of protest movements that include Women’s Rights, Black Rights, Student Rights, Chicano and Latino Rights, Gay Rights, Japanese and Chinese Rights, and a few more. Many of these are outside the consciousness of LA emigrants – I had no idea of the extent of the High School protests or the existence of the Century City Police Riots – and seeing them laid out is impressive.

Part of the power is seeing just how widespread this agitation was. It’s widespread in terms of both the players and the techniques. I don’t mean to high tumult under “techniques,” Davis and Weiner make it clear that these were violent times. The LAPD killed activists, activists killed activists, and activists planned to assault LAPD. There were also widespread peaceful protests. Chaos may well be the rule and not the exception in this world.

Night is packed full of information and reflection, but it is a tome. This is more a reference than a page-turner. Each section is a book in itself, and it can be a lot to digest at once. The level of detail, especially on the internal strife of the groups, can also rattle the narrative some, depending on what you think the story is, of course.

Overall, a fascinating work.

Strongly recommended.

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