By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
A scholarship got him to Reed College in Portland, where he lasted for about two weeks before getting kicked out for living in his girlfriend’s dorm room. During his brief Oregon sojourn, however, he met a guy who turned him on to the Port Huron Statement, the primal visionary political analysis by the 1960s New Left. "It was like Paul on the road to Damascus," Davis remembers. "I caught a Greyhound bus to New York and went to work for SDS."
With Students for a Democratic Society, Davis became a full-time revolutionary. Dispatched to his home turf as SDS’s first Southern California regional organizer, he put together demonstrations against Dow Chemical in Torrance, which manufactured incendiary napalm to use against the Vietnamese. Carl Oglesby, who was president of SDS at the time, told Davis he was the organization’s most "meat-and-potatoes" guy, the epitome of the revolutionary foot soldier. Davis met his first wife in SDS, with which she’d just spent the 1964 Mississippi "Freedom Summer" trying to organize tugboat crews on the lower Mississippi.
State Senator Tom Hayden, the main author of the Port Huron Statement, says that in the early ’60s, most Americans viewed SDS members as "little better than gangbangers" and dealt with them accordingly. SDS never espoused nonviolence, and Davis was no longer reading Gandhi. He suffered the first of what would become five politically connected arrests, this one for unlawful assembly. He’s also faced charges of battery, armed robbery and carrying a concealed weapon, none of which ever stuck.
As the Vietnam War grew increasingly insane, SDS strove to "bring the war home." After the 1968 Chicago "Days of Rage," which saw a few hundred SDS members rampaging through the Loop, smashing windshields and trashing storefronts, before splintering into various above- and below-ground cadres, Davis left the group, and he remains ambivalent about its accomplishments. "The New Left weren’t heroes," Davis now believes. "We lost. The civil rights guys were the real heroes. The ’30s guys were the real heroes." For Davis, the ’70s — when the ’60s radicals began to infiltrate the organized-labor movement — was a far more important time.
At the end of 1967, Davis joined the Communist Party. Especially during the years that it was led by Dorothy Healey, the Southern California District of the Communist Party was the U.S.’s most rebellious party local, breaking with the national party over the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Davis, however, was too radical even for Healey, who fired him from the party-owned Progressive Bookstore in 1969 for bum’s-rushing a Soviet consul who Davis thought was spying on the store. Davis makes no apology for his anti-Soviet bias: "My heroes were the Bolsheviks who had been killed by Stalin."
A Teamsters Union program taught him to drive an 18-wheeler, and he spent the next three years in a 240-foot tractor-trailer ferrying Barbie dolls all over Southern California. Ron Schneck, an over-the-road trucker for 25 years and now a teacher at Dorsey High School in L.A., met Davis in a C.P.-sponsored Workers and Peasants Club in early 1968, right after Schneck got back from Vietnam. "Mike always had this tremendously powerful analytical mind," Schneck recalls. "People listened to him wherever he went. He was a sharp dude, but he was no different than thousands of others of us at the time who were working to make a more egalitarian, nonracist world."
s yet there was nothing to indicate that Davis would emerge as L.A.’s dark prophet. Since the days of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Arroyo Set, mainstream Los Angeles intellectuals, with a few honorable exceptions — Louis Adamic, Carey McWilliams and Richard Lillard — have generally functioned as cheerleaders for capital and boosters of Southern California as a White Man’s Paradise. For an unreconstructed left-winger, an activist committed to a wide range of radical causes, to assume the status of the city’s most influential intellectual required an organic, almost tortuous evolution.
Davis traces his obsession with Los Angeles back to the late ’60s. He was living in communal squalor in a decrepit mansion on Crown Hill, a neighborhood just west of downtown in the final stages of being redeveloped out of existence, when he met "a character out of a John Fante novel," a smalltime gambler who told him endless stories of downtown and Bunker Hill before the freeway era. In the early ’70s, he got a job driving a Gray Line tour bus, which required him to talk his charges through the SoCal fantasy-scape of Disneyland, the Farmers Market and "Hollywood by Night." The gig tapped into the performer in Davis but offended his sense of social reality; he soon responded by supplementing the commercial tours with unofficial, underground group explorations of local sites of labor violence, such as the McNamara Brothers’ 1910 bombing of the L.A. Times, and of culture collision, stopping at the site of the 1870 massacre of scores of Chinese by white mobs. He wouldn’t begin to write his first piece about Los Angeles, "Sunshine and the Open Shop: Ford and Darwin in 1920s Los Angeles," until 1979.
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