After leaked audio recordings of Los Angeles City Council members saying that all sorts of bigoted babble sparked a political earthquake, I received an email from a very missed voice.
“Although the tape was recorded a year ago,” Mike Davis wrote to friends, family and myself on Oct. 13, “its release correlates with the better-than-expected performance of progressive candidates in the June primary and should be interpreted in that light.” ”
We last spoke in July, when we both spent hours at his home in San Diego, chatting about his life and, well, life. Mike had decided to stop chemotherapy. The author of so many books that predicted today’s Los Angeles at its best and worst – City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Magical Urbanism – wanted to spend his last days with his wife and children reading , do not write.
So his surprise note about what he described as “the sewer explosion at 200 N. Spring” (referring to the LA City Hall address) was a joy. Though short, it was classic Mike: Unsparing. Brilliant. Strange. caring. Prophetic.
Davis blasted the four paragons of Latino political power — then-Los Angeles Labor Federation President Ron Herrera, then-LA Council Chair Nury Martinez, and Councilors Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León — for attempting to to dilute black political power in the city.
He described Martinez — who called councilman Mike Bonin’s black son a “Negrito” and likened the boy to a “monkey,” mocked LA County Dist. atty George Gascón for siding “with the blacks” and also devastating Jews and Armenians – as the “sublime cyclops” of their cabal.
He hailed a rising left in LA for “posing a threat not just to mainstream Democratic figures, but to the ethno-dynastic fabric of local politics more generally.” And he ended by translating Martinez’s insults against Oaxacans, whom she dismissed as small, dark and “ugly,” into a declaration of solidarity with a heartfelt “Nosotros somos oaxaqueños!” — we’re Oaxacans — while jokingly referencing his own diminutive stature.
I congratulated him on his usual foresight and promised to visit him again after the election.
I never had the opportunity.
A mutual friend texted me that Davis died Tuesday at the age of 76 from complications of esophageal cancer. I was sad for about a minute, then remembered the late union leader Joe Hill’s famous slogan: Don’t grieve, organize!
That’s all Mike ever wanted from his readers, even in the face of the sinking. Especially in his face.
Today’s Los Angeles is what Mike long warned about, only more dystopian. The white power structure, which he repeatedly railed against, has become more diverse but no less self-sustaining. Law enforcement continues to target communities of color, even though the base is now predominantly Latino. The environment, a subject that particularly troubled him, continues its precipitous, man-made decline. To paraphrase Mike’s most infamous essay, it’s not just Malibu that burns every fall — it’s the whole damn state, all of the time.
This chaos is what the most superficial Davis readers, who despite his protestations have consistently called him a prophet of doom, will say he hit the nail on the head. They ignore the inspiration to fight that his true readers found in his warnings.
He’s the only intellectual I know with fans in academia, in factories, on the street, and in politics, all fighting Davis’ good fight for people power. Mike spoke in her classes, showed up at her rallies, answered her emails, promoted her causes, invited her into his home, and never asked for anything in return. Though Davis left Los Angeles for San Diego more than 20 years ago, then fired by naysayers and climbers who derided his bourgeois Jeremiahs as alarming nonsense, his modern justification gave activists comfort that they, too, might one day win.
Mike was more than a muse to her. He was one of them.
I think that’s what prompted Mike to send this email to me and others in his circle. The widespread outrage over the LA City Council’s racist tapes is a cross-cultural, classless movement that the city hasn’t seen in decades, but that Davis elucidated in his latest book, Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties Year 2020 was celebrated by co-author and longtime friend Jon Wiener. That he was paying attention to what was going on in his final weeks speaks to his beliefs — and his joys.
He will go down in history as the most influential California chronicler since Charles Fletcher Lummis, who was the 19th-century sunshine of 20th-century Davis’ Noir, to borrow one of Mike’s most famous lines.
Many will compare Davis’ skeptical gaze to Joan Didion’s—but she never offered a solution to our problems, and her fans were almost exclusively literary figures, not the people who shape Los Angeles today and envision a better tomorrow.
A better comparison is Carey McWilliams, whose 1946 book Southern California: An Island on the Land is the best socio-cultural analysis of the region ever written. Hailed by Davis as a “one-man think tank,” he was in every sense the crusading writer Davis was, grappling with racism and labor exploitation at a time—from the Great Depression to the dawn of McCarthyism—when it was more difficult .
But McWilliams left California in the early 1950s to become the nation’s editor—too early to have created such a large and sprawling school of students as Davis. Only the most dedicated history nerds remember his legacy. Davis touched on too many areas of life to ever fade.
I want to say that we will sorely miss Davis at a time when he is needed more than ever, but that is not true. Every time there’s a protest against hate and corruption, every time workers strike for better wages and working conditions, every time people push for a fairer California, every time someone unearths long-hidden stories or long-held stories Narrative dismantled, there he will be – a modern day Tom Joad.
Shortly after the news of his death, I replayed the recording of my conversation with Mike from the summer. I marveled again at his wit, heart, memory and insight.
What I kept rewinding to play was at the very beginning, trying to thank him for calling one of his books “By a Fan” nearly 20 years ago, at a time when I wasn’t even had a full-time job as a reporter. He wouldn’t hear it.
“First of all, I want to say thank you she for stalking the sheriff,” Davis said, referring to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. “It was the most wonderful thing The Times has done in years.”
He could have basked in my admiration, but instead he praised me. And he wasn’t done yet.
“Although sometimes you have to be a little apprehensive when you see someone outside your door,” he added.
We both laughed and then hung out for the rest of the afternoon.
Mike, I’m not mourning your death. I write.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-26/mike-davis-tribute-city-of-quartz Before he died, Mike Davis weighed in on the leaked L.A. City Council audiotape