Mike Davis, who chronicled L.A. and warned of disaster, dies at 76


Mike Davis, an author, activist and self-defined “Marxist environmentalist” whose greatest fears drove him to anticipate riots, fires, pandemics and other disasters, especially in Los Angeles, died Oct. 25 in San Diego. He was 76.

His death was announced by his friend Jon Wiener, a historian who eulogized Mr. Davis in a tribute for the Nation magazine and previously partnered with him to write “Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties” (2020). Mr. Davis revealed over the summer that he was terminally ill with esophageal cancer.

“Although I’m famous as a pessimist, I really haven’t been pessimistic,” he told the Los Angeles Times, which called him the prophet Jeremiah of Southern California. “You know, [my writing has] more been a call to action. An attempt to elicit righteous anger against those whom we should be righteously angry against. But now, there is a certain sense of doom. This is not the time or history that my kids should inherit, you know?”

Raised in San Diego County, Mr. Davis came from a working-class and conservative background, and was a onetime member of the military-oriented Devil Pups youth program. Radicalized by the civil rights movement, he volunteered for the Congress of Racial Equality, burned his draft card to protest the 1965 U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, joined the Communist Party and became an organizer for the left-wing group Students for a Democratic Society.

“I was like Zelig in the events of the period,” he told the New Yorker in 2020. “I was at every demonstration and several riots, just there in the crowd, rank and file.”

Mr. Davis was faulted at times for ideological bias and errors in his books, but his dark takes on Los Angeles and broader subjects often proved justified. His 1990 book “City of Quartz” condemned the race and class divides of Los Angeles and labeled the city a “carceral” society, prisonlike and overseen by an oppressive police force. The police beating of Rodney King in 1991, and the riots following the 1992 acquittal of his attackers, made his book seem like prophecy.

His later works included “Ecology of Fear” (1998), which foresaw the growing catastrophe of wildfires in California, and “The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu” (2005), which warned that a deadly pandemic was increasingly likely.

Michael Ryan Davis was born in Fontana, Calif., on March 10, 1946. His father worked as a meat cutter, and Mr. Davis followed him into the business before working in his 20s as a truck driver.

He later graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles and moved to Britain, where he was editor of the New Left Review in the 1980s before coming to Los Angeles to drive trucks and eventually write and teach.

Mr. Davis was divorced four times before marrying Alessandra Moctezuma. She survives him, as do their twin children, James and Cassandra Davis; and two children from his earlier marriages, Jack and Róisín Davis, according to the Times.

In the New Yorker interview, Mr. Davis said capitalism was unfit to handle public health and environmental disaster, but still believed a better world was possible.

“This seems an age of catastrophe, but it’s also an age equipped, in an abstract sense, with all the tools it needs,” he said. “Utopia is available to us. If, like me, you lived through the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, you can never discard hope.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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