By Joseph Tsidulko
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By Dennis Romero
In ’73, when the Teamsters tried to organize the tour-bus drivers, a bitter strike ensued. One day, a scab drove a bus through a picket line and knocked down one of the strikers. Davis got arrested for beating up the driver. As part of the strike settlement, he was fired and charges against him were dropped. He decided to go back to school. Attracted by the radical teachers he’d met during the strike, Davis enrolled at UCLA as a 28-year-old freshman on a scholarship from the butchers union to study economics and history.
At UCLA, Davis was part of a group of older students and younger faculty that included Jan Breidenbach, now the director of the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, then in her late 20s and returning to school from years abroad. "All of us," she recalls, "were involved in larger political projects, against the war and for social change." She says Davis "was probably the smartest person I’d ever met. He couldn’t remember to buy mayonnaise, but he had a photographic memory for great blocks of information, and an ability to connect them up, that was amazing." Breidenbach became Davis’ second wife. I asked her why she thought Davis has been married so many times. She paused, wanting to say something that might sum up Davis, with whom she is still friendly: "It’s the triumph of hope over experience."
Until he was almost 30, Davis says, he never thought about writing. "When I was a little kid, I talked too fast and slurred my speech. They thought I was mentally retarded." Robert Gottlieb, who now teaches urban studies at Occidental College, says that when he first met Davis in 1967, in SDS, it never occurred to him that Davis would become a writer. Davis claims he was functionally illiterate when he arrived at UCLA, but he soon began to write. His first successful paper was a comparison of Richard Nixon and Watergate with the 18th Brumaire, the coup that brought Napoleon III to power. The first paper he published was about sabotage and the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), whose dream of "One Big Union" flared briefly across the American West during the widespread labor violence around the time of World War I.
Three years after arriving in Westwood, the marriage was over and Davis was gone, to study Irish history at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. During the 1970s, anybody in the U.S. who wanted to pursue a serious study of Marxism had to go to Great Britain, with its powerful trade-union movement and Labor government. Suzi Weissman, who now teaches Russian politics at St. Mary’s College and hosts the KPFK current-events show Beneath the Surface, was in graduate school at the University of Glasgow in 1973 when a letter arrived out of the blue from Mike Davis, explaining himself. She laughs: "We felt we’d discovered a working-class hero."
Davis and Weissman became flatmates, huddling around the fireplace in their freezing living room all night, reading. Alone among that highly politicized coterie, Weissman remembers, Davis was already deep into the study of the natural sciences. Davis began spending more and more time in Belfast, as he became gradually more caught up in the Irish nationalist cause. He came back to UCLA, finished his bachelor and graduate course work, and passed his Ph.D. exams. He returned to Belfast in time for the 1981 hunger strikes protesting the presence of English troops. He married an Irishwoman, lived in a row house and fathered his first child, Roisin.
Later in 1981, Davis moved to London to join the editorial committee at the New Left Review, an intellectually rigorous, independent Marxist periodical written and edited by and for people who, in the words of UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener, "take Kapital, Volume 1, very seriously." Davis started the Haymarket Series at Verso, the New Left Review’s publishing arm, specializing in radical studies of North American politics and culture, where he published major works by younger, nonwhite L.A. journalist-essayists, such as Lynell George’s No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of the Angels and Rubén Martínez’s The Other Side: Notes From the New L.A. He also ä published his own first book, Prisoners of the American Dream, a bleak look at the future of the American working class in the era of Ronald Reagan.
When he came home in 1987 to finish his Ph.D., UCLA, he says, wouldn’t let him submit the manuscript that became City of Quartz as his thesis, and informed him he’d have to do his classwork all over again. With that, he gave up pursuing his doctorate. He went back to driving trucks for a year, then joined the local migrant-professor circuit, piloting a beat-up Toyota between his home in Echo Park and Pitzer College at Claremont, where he taught the history of urban gangs; the Cesar Chavez Center at UCLA, where he lectured in Chicano studies; Cal State Northridge; Pomona; USC; and SCI-Arc, the vanguard Southern California Institute of Architecture. For the last 10 years, he says, "I’ve been trying as hard as I can to get an ordinary academic job."