Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
—Bette Davis, All About Eve (1950)
He was, as they say, an ‘incompressible algorithm’, one of the most complex people that I’ve ever known. One of the kindest, one of the most tempestuous; one of the wryest, one of the most serious.
—Mike Davis, ‘Remembering a Friend’ (2017)
Suffolk county, new york, October 2000 was my introduction to the brutalizing racist blood sport of ‘beaner-hopping’.footnote1 I spent an early morning being chauffeured around small Long Island towns by Mike Davis. He took me to corners where dozens of Latino men gathered, shoulders hunched in the chilly autumn air, waiting for vans to pull to the curb, size up the muscle available, and direct a chosen few labourers to cram themselves into what space was left inside. They would be taken to various job sites, paid off the books a minimal wage for a day of drudgery, hauling, heaving, hammering or handling whatever they found themselves tasked to work with. Mike explained how these largely undocumented workers would make their way to 5am modern-day ‘shape-ups’, week after week, often returning empty-handed to their cramped living quarters. Their thoughts were of home, knowing that families and extended kin in Mexico or Guatemala might go hungry that week for lack of a remittance.
Violence was on the rise against this floating reserve army of labour, which subsisted beneath the surface relations of dominantly white, seemingly affluent, communities. Anglo youth gangs from privileged high schools had taken to targeting the immigrant, largely Spanish-speaking poor at random, running the bicycle-riding newcomers off the road, taunting and pelting them with beer bottles tossed from tyre-squealing cars. According to Mike, the harassment and physical intimidation was escalating: pepper-sprayings, beatings with baseball bats, even pot-shots with bb-guns were not unusual. He told me this with anger and despair as we discussed Magical Urbanism, his latest book, which explored the consequences of putting the new Latin American immigrants ‘where they clearly belong: in the centre of debate about the future of the American city.’ It ended with Mike’s characteristic belief that class struggle and class organization could overcome the burden of oppression carried by all peoples of colour, including Suffolk County’s 21st-century ‘tired, poor, huddled masses’ of downtrodden, displaced peoples from the global South. They would rise, he felt, as they had to, creating a ‘labour-latino alliance’ like the one that emerged in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. ‘Class organization in the workplace,’ Mike concluded in Magical Urbanism, was ‘the most powerful strategy for ensuring the representation of immigrants’ socio-economic as well as cultural and linguistic rights in the new century ahead. The emerging Latino metropolis will then wear a proud union label.’ But Mike knew full well that Suffolk County, and much of America, was a long way from la. As he glanced out the window at the often forlorn-looking street-corners, their massed ‘menials’ desperate for just one day of miserably remunerated work, Mike’s shoulders drooped and his countenance darkened. There was in his demeanour worried acknowledgement of what Suffolk County’s Latino immigrants were up against.footnote2
Cause for concern was clearly warranted. The official statistics, inevitably inadequate, showed that anti-Latino hate crimes jumped 40 per cent across the United States between 2003 and 2007. In 2008 an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, was murdered in Suffolk County. A 37-year-old drycleaning store worker who regularly wired money home to his relatives, Lucero was killed by a marauding mob of white youths proclaiming themselves the Caucasian Crew. They assailed their victim for hours, stalking him, frustrated when he evaded their intimidations and racist slurs. Eventually Lucero’s tormenters came across him again and cornered the now terrified man. When he struck back with a belt, a 17-year-old star football and lacrosse player pulled a knife and fatally stabbed the Ecuadorian worker. The ‘beaner-hopping’ Mike told me about in 2000 became national news. ‘I don’t do this very often,’ one of the juvenile killers told police. ‘Maybe once a week.’footnote3
I was with Mike because of a tragic death of a different kind. The Humanities Institute of suny–Stony Brook was hosting a conference on ‘Radical Ideas in Conservative Times’, commemorating the life and work of Michael Sprinker. A Marxist literary critic of breadth, indefatigable editorial outreach and boundless generosity, Sprinker was the co-founder with Mike of Verso’s Haymarket Series, dedicated to expanding left-wing understandings of the North American experience. Sprinker’s support of my writing in the late 1980s and 1990s meant a great deal to me. His death in 1999, before he reached fifty, of a massive coronary brought on by an almost decade-long battle with multiple myeloma, hit Mike particularly hard. He thought Sprinker ‘the best friend I’ve ever had’; his death he considered ‘simply an obscenity’. Mike valued people over all else. Once he befriended someone, a conscious act that usually entailed a political assessment, Mike’s loyalty was rock solid.footnote4
The recent recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius grant’, Mike was teaching at Stony Brook at the time of the Sprinker conference and asked me to lecture to his students. After our reconnaissance of Suffolk County we went to lunch at a suburban diner and, done with the fare, we departed for his afternoon class. As Mike pulled out of the parking lot on to a two-lane thoroughfare, I realized we were going in the wrong direction. I saw an arm jerk the steering wheel, and before I knew it the truck bounced over a median. We were travelling across a grassy boulevard, dodging shrubs and, after a few seconds of uneasy rattles and a final clanking descent, we were back on the road, proceeding in the opposite direction. The truck was apparently none the worse for wear. I was probably more shaken, though I tried not to show it. With Mike it was always a bumpy ride.footnote5 He did not just ‘question authority’. He abhorred it. All the more so if it originated in bourgeois power. Rules were there to be broken; risks taken; there was little if any reverence for strictures and conventions, unless they related to traditions associated with family life, or had been laid down to advance struggle and revolutionary resolve.