This new book could not have come out at a more apposite time, unlike poor William Sitwell’s The Restaurant, the History of Eating Out, just when you couldn’t. For the past weeks there have been demonstrations, not just in the US, but in the UK, about the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, but the problems are endemic across the States. The Los Angeles Police Department is like no other police organisation in the world, let alone in the US. It has 10,000 officers, policing some 4 million inhabitants, which compares with 36,000 in the New York Police Department serving 8.5 million citizens. Policing in the United States is conducted by around 18,000 federal, state, local and city departments, all with their own rules, and every state has its own nomenclature for agencies, and their powers, responsibilities and funding vary from state to state. There are more than 800,000 sworn law enforcement officers now serving in the United States, which is the highest figure ever. About 12 percent of those are female.
The LAPD has an appalling record of racism, brutality and corruption, and many of the films that portray their behaviour, seem less to be works of fiction, and more based on reality. In fact, in the sixties, under Police Chief William Parker’s seventeen-year stint as ‘warden of the ghetto’, they collaborated with the makers of a popular crime programme, on both radio and television, Dragnet, and offered LAPD cooperation in production, as long as they vetted the scripts. Known as ‘Whisky Bill’, he was an ‘obnoxious, sloppy, sarcastic drunk,’ and kept dossiers, not just on mobsters, drug dealers and gamblers, but on Superior Court Judges, politicians, Senators, Congressmen and the Mayor, with a view to blackmail, whilst ‘monitoring and influencing local political affairs.’ One FBI agent described him as a ‘psychopath in his desire for publicity.’ In one supremely arrogant statement, he said, ‘ I think the greatest dislocated minority in America today are the police . . . Blamed for all the ills of humanity’, adding ‘ there is no-one concerned about the civil rights of the policeman.’
That sets the tone for the book, and every page contains acts of racism, bigotry, inequality, violence and intimidation against gays, blacks, anti-Vietnam and ban-the-bomb protestors, women’s movements, students, civil rights marchers, Latinos and ordinary peace-abiding citizens of Los Angeles. The authors state that there were three important turning points that subdivide the long decade: ‘the rise and fall of the United Civil Rights Committee in 1963, the most important attempt to integrate housing, schools and jobs in LA through nonviolent protest and negotiation’; 1965 saw the so-called Watts Riots; the third was in 1969, which began as a year of hope with a strong coalition of white liberals, Blacks and newly-minted Chicanos supporting Tom Bradley for mayor, against Sam Yorty. A surprising fact to emerge was, that after Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, the Southern civil rights movement began to lose national attention, and Martin Luther King was not invited to a meeting at the Justice Department that included other civil rights leaders. He asked for a meeting at the White House, but the new president had no time to see him, citing a crisis in Berlin and a planned invasion of Cuba by the CIA as preoccupations.
It would be difficult to do justice to this 800-page chronicle in 800 words, but it is a remarkably well-researched volume, which chronologically itemises each and every twist and turn in the muddled patchwork of American history, which, judging from the events over the past few weeks, informs us that there is still a long way to go in terms of equality, poverty and justice for all.
Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties
Mike Davis and Jon Wiener
788 pp. £25