Fellow Travelers: Recalling the Radical Presence of Mike Davis
by Nicholas Schou
Mike Davis will always be foremost remembered for City of Quartz, his noirish and discipline-busting 1990 study of Los Angeles which still ranks as the best book ever written about L.A. and perhaps of any city. Of course, that’s as it should be, although the thing about Davis is that everything that he wrote was brilliant.
Prisoners of the American Dream, his first book, provides a masterful history of how racial cleavages within the U.S. working class uniquely enabled the failure of radical movements to achieve a cohesive culture of labor unity in the 20th century. Magical Urbanism is rightly a staple of the Latino studies canon, while The Monster at Our Door, a 2005 treatise on the danger of avian flu viruses, which Davis penned while teaching at UC Irvine, essentially predicted the 2020 coronavirus epidemic.
And then there’s my personal favorite: Beyond Blade Runner, a limited-edition, art paper-quality folio he produced at some point in the early 1990's whose graphic illustrations featured social-ecology maps with concentric rings of social control circling the City of Angels and its quasi-fascist architectural and spiritual core, Bunker Hill. I bought my copy of this long-lost item at Occidental College’s bookstore when I was a student there in the early 1990s, right around the time I first saw Mike Davis.
This sighting occurred not at a book signing or college lecture but rather at a makeshift baseball diamond near Oxy’s Interfaith Chapel, where Davis happened to be pitching balls to his tomboyish young half-Irish daughter, Roisin, to whom he would later dedicate one of his books. I hadn't met Davis yet, but my
friend, a fellow wannabe Marxist scholar and radical student activist, recognized him. We were both members of Solidarity, a Trotskyist splinter group of the Socialist Workers Party, and a faculty member of
the group at Oxy later invited us to a political discussion at Davis’s house in nearby Pasadena, where I first spoke with him and traded perspectives on the organizing tactics of Local 11 of the Hotel Restaurant and Employees Union (now Unite/HERE) in downtown LA.
My dad’s best friend from college, David Koff, happened to be the chief researcher, videographer and propaganda guru for Local 11, which is how I came to participate in its rallies on behalf of immigrant workers in Los Angeles, as well as those of Justice for Janitors, and later, in 1994, to work as a research analyst at the union. In early 1992, Koff produced a roughly thirty-minute documentary short for Local 11 that described the terrible social and economic conditions facing hotel workers in LA.
Koff titled the film City on the Edge and sent VHS copies of it to every possible organization that might be planning a convention in the city’s newly opened Convention Center, where Local 11 was also engaged in union organizing. The film featured footage of the Rodney King beating as well as the LAPD brutalizing union workers at protests. Koff also interviewed Davis, who argued that the militantly anti-union stance of hotel owners was contributing to LA’s unique circumstances of instability. If not properly addressed, he prophesied, the next point of social conflagration would inevitably produce civic unrest and riots.
“The average tourist in Los Angeles these days might as well be visiting white South Africa,” remarks Davis, who is seen speaking in front of a graffiti-decorated brick wall in Bunker Hill. “He or she will encounter approximately the same levels of security, fortification and paranoia. Hundreds of affluent communities are now protected by
gates, walls and private police, while on the other side, in the inner city, whole neighborhoods…have been barricaded off by the police and become narcotics enforcement zones. Everywhere public space is disappearing…the city just literally bristles with malice.”
We all know how things turned out just a few months later. I actually witnessed the first day of the LA Riots as the protests at LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters transformed into an uprising and columns of vandals roamed wildly downtown, burning palm trees, erecting barricades, toppling police cruisers and spray-painting anti-cop
slogans like “Kill Daryl Gates” on random edifices.
A decade later, and then a decade after that, I wrote about the experience for OC Weekly, reflecting with greater emotional and historical distance on the anniversary of the riots. Writing for the Weekly is how I really got to know Davis, after he ended up teaching at UC Irvine and immediately made himself available as a resource. I met him
on campus to learn about the research he was doing on the evolution of avian flu viruses for his aforementioned upcoming book and ended up writing a feature story about the university’s important work on understanding how the mutation of avian flu strains posed an apocalyptic threat to global health.
Again, when remembering Davis, it’s impossible not to highlight his persistently prescient prognostication. But there’s another side to Davis that I most powerfully recall, and which was crucial to my own evolution as a writer and journalist. It wasn’t just the mentorship that his published works provided to anyone curious and intelligent enough to gobble up for themselves, he was also, as an individual person, unfailingly generous and proactive in his support for the efforts of the younger cohorts of activists and likeminded writers who he cultivated.
Including me. When I met with Davis at UC Irvine in 2005, I told him about the recent suicide of journalist Gary Webb, whose 1996 “Dark Alliance” story alleging CIA complicity in LA’s crack plague had ignited a firestorm of controversy that ultimately ruined his career. Davis, who had just undergone his own gantlet of unfair criticism, sympathized with Webb. He also believed what happened to Webb deserved to be chronicled in a book. And thus was born the idea for Kill the Messenger, my 2006 biography of Webb that was turned into a 2014 film by the same name starring Jeremy Renner.
Nobody wanted to publish Kill the Messenger. Sandra Dijkstra, Davis’s literary agent down in San Diego, passed on the book, stating in a rejection letter that Webb’s story, while sad, would be unlikely to resonate with a national
audience. Unmoved, Davis acted as my own agent and continued to pitch the book to various publishers, all
of whom passed until Nation Books got wind of it and agreed to forward me a $2000 advance to write a 60,000-word book.
Once Hollywood got wind of the book deal,
Universal Studios optioned it for a film project, and Dijsktra rushed me a contract for my next book,
Orange Sunshine, a chronicle of Laguna Beach’s acid-drenched hippie era and its residents LSD
revolutionaries, Timothy Leary and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.
Davis provided me with blurbs for both books, even musing that my name was a pseudonym for a certain Thomas Pynchon. In other words, I owe my book writing career to Mike, just as much as I owe to him my general viewpoint on what the LA ska/punk band Fishbone aptly termed the “reality of my surroundings,” including LA itself and its status as America’s most radical city.
A final debt I owe Mike is his 1994 article for The Nation magazine on the so-called San Clemente Six, a group of Latino teenagers in Orange County who were wrongfully prosecuted in a racially tinged murder trial after a white teen was tragically killed during a high school beach brawl. I wrote about the case as a cub reporter for the Weekly in 1996, two years after Davis exposed it, and for years, I continued to wonder about the fate of the six convicted defendants. The case sprung back to my attention during Trump’s campaign for presidency when the mother of the murdered teen stood on stage at one of his events and claimed that her son would still be alive if Trump had been president back then and had erected his mythical wall to keep the Mexicans out.
Earlier this year for Red Canary magazine, I published a follow-up on the San Clemente Six, and how one of the defendants, Rogelio Solis, who threw a clod of dirt at a car containing the victim, whose skull had been pierced by a flying paint roller, was still in prison nearly thirty years later.
When I sent Mike the story, despite the fact that he was in extreme pain from his final, unsuccessful round of chemotherapy to kill the esophageal cancer he’d been battling for years, he forwarded it to everyone he could think of: activists, scholars, magazine editors and book publishers, telling them of his sorrow that he couldn’t do
more to help expose the injustice of the case and urging them to spread the word and help get Rogelio out of prison. He also emailed me back, thanking me for staying on the story. “All power to you,” he added.
A few weeks later, an Orange County judge reversed Rogelio’s conviction, and for the first time in three decades, he walked out of prison a free man. Again, I sent the story to Mike, who immediately replied, thanking me for sharing the great news. Shortly after he sent that email, Mike chose to end his chemotherapy and spend the rest of his time on this earth reading, listening to music and enjoying the company of his wife and kids. To his very dying days, he practiced what can only be called radical presence, a man who never turned his back on a good cause and was always happy to celebrate even the tiniest victories for justice.
Mike Davis, presente!
Nicholas Schou is the former Editor-in-Chief of OC Weekly and an investigative reporter whose work has led to the release from prison of wrongfully convicted individuals as well as the indictment and imprisonment of a Huntington Beach Mayor. Schou's work has appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic, Newsweek, Salon, and the Los Angeles Times. He is also the author of several books including Kill the Messenger, which was made into a 2014 Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner, and Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World.