a novel of the 1992 L.A. riots
29 April – 4 May, 1992: six days, seventeen characters, one city ablaze. Ryan Gattis’s novel All Involved is a fictionalised account inspired by the L.A. riots of 1992. Here are some of the facts behind that story.
Los Angeles, 1992
On the west coast of America, in California, is Los Angeles County. In 1992, it had a population of 9.15 million. That is some 2 million more people than lived in London in 1991, and 1 million more than London in 2011.
Within it is the city of Los Angeles, whose population is close to 3.6 million in 1992. Imagine that city, how it stretches for hundreds of square miles, its population density as high as 10,000 people per square mile in one particular area, South Central.
Now imagine what might happen when those 3.6 million people see four members of their police department, all white men, pulling a black man from his car and beating him. At the trial, three of the policemen are acquitted. The jury fails to reach a verdict on the fourth.
That was Los Angeles in 1992; that’s how things stand at the beginning of Ryan Gattis’s novel All Involved.
Though the events of All Involved are fictional, the seventeen characters we encounter over the six days of rioting portray a terrifyingly plausible series of events; of crime and opportunity; of race, revenge and loyalty.
Ryan Gattis is a novelist, lecturer at Chapman University in Southern California, and member of L.A. urban art crew UGLAR.
tension rising: What caused the riots?
In the narrative that the media presented at the time, the assault of Rodney King and subsequent acquittal of three of the policemen charged was widely cited as the main cause of the riots; to many, they are known as “the Rodney King riots”. But as Mikey, one of the characters in All Involved, says, “everybody’s got a Rodney King in his neighbourhood, somebody the cops beat like a drum for good or bad reasons. He might not be black, either. He might have brown skin instead.” The King incident was just indicative of wider behaviour.
A media-driven riot
There’s something very pure and true about everyone waking up on the second day and thinking that it’s all over, they’ve had their fun, because surely the cops will be out in force today. But the cops weren't out in force. People turned on their TVs, saw that it was a free-for-all, and thought, “If there aren't any cops anywhere, I want to do that too. Why not? I’m poor, I’m sick, I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m desperate.”
That’s why it’s often referred to as a media-driven riot.
Live where you work
Another major factor was one which had been building since the ’50s when the city of L.A. unincorporated a big chunk of South Central. In the ’80s, the Sheriff’s Department was subcontracted to police these unincorporated areas such as Lynwood and Compton. Because the officers didn’t live in those areas, didn't know the residents and were often racially different from them, it devalued the lives of those residents. Crack cocaine was also on the streets, the gangs were getting bigger and bigger because there weren't a lot of jobs, and there were still people who were looking to take advantage of certain immigrant groups.
The Korean community
On top of that, you also have a very industrious and aspiring Korean community, many of them immigrants but some Korean Americans as well, opening businesses in several of the black areas and in Koreatown. There was a tremendous amount of struggle and difficulty for them: often the immigrants didn’t speak English particularly well and they came from a very different respect culture. Clashes were inevitable.
Latasha Harlins was an African American teenager who was shot in the back by a Korean store owner, Soon Ja Du, in March 1991, a year before the riots and less than a fortnight after the Rodney King incident. The CCTV video footage that captured her murder seems to show a conflict between Harlins and Du, in which the latter, who usually left the running of the store to her husband and son, looks threatened. But it appears that Latasha sets down on the counter whatever it is she was thought to be taking, before turning to walk out. As she’s turning and walking out, when she’s five yards away, Du pulls out a gun and shoots her in the back.
Because of the video footage, the black community thinks that justice will happen when it goes to trial – why not, when everyone can see what happened? The owner was found guilty, but of the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter as opposed to murder. The judge at the time didn't even sentence her to prison, instead giving her five years of probation. It really was a blow to the black community in L.A.
On 3 March 1991, Rodney King had been watching a basketball game at a friend’s house. On his way home, he drove along the freeway at such a speed that a highway patrol car began to follow him, signalling for him to pull over. Fearing he was over the legal limit after drinking earlier in the evening, he did not stop, and more cars and a helicopter began to pursue him and his two passengers. He was cornered at Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street and all three men eventually got out of the car.
While a confrontation between King and the police officers occurred, an onlooker, George Holliday, videoed the increasingly violent encounter from his balcony.
Four police officers, Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno, were charged with use of excessive force. Sargeant Koon, who was the officer in charge and who did not hit King, was charged with “willfully permitting and failing to take action to stop the unlawful assault”.
When it went to trial, there was a feeling that because the Harlins case hadn’t gone their way, the King one had to – what more could be needed besides video evidence?
The trial of the four officers took place in Simi Valley of neighbouring Ventura County. On 29 April, 1992, the jury gave their verdict: all four officers were found not guilty of assault; three were also acquitted for using excessive force. No agreement was reached over the fourth officer, Laurence Powell.
Generations of mistrust and anger, which had its roots in the Watts Riots of 1965 when nothing got solved, rippled through the city.
That was at 3.15 p.m.
Six days of chaos
Roughly an hour after the not guilty verdict for the police officers who beat Rodney King, violence erupted at the corner of Florence and Normandie in South Central. When the LAPD retreated, the mob took over the intersection as news helicopters hovered above it. Reginald Denny being dragged from the cab of his tractor trailer and being beaten by gleeful gang members provided some of the most shocking images in American television history, and set an ominous tone for what was to come.
Ernesto Vera, April 29, 1992, 8:14 p.m.
I’m in Lynwood, South Central, somewhere off Atlantic and Olanda, putting tinfoil over trays of uneaten beans at some little kid’s birthday party when I get told to go home early and prolly not come back to work tomorrow. Maybe not for a week even. My boss is worried what’s happening up the 110 will come down here. He doesn’t say trouble or riots or nothing. He just says, “that thing north of here,” but he means where people are burning stuff and breaking out storefronts and getting beat down. I think about arguing, because I need the money, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere, so I don’t waste my breath. I pack the beans away in the truck’s fridge, grab my coat, and leave.
Day 1, All Involved by Ryan Gattis
A dusk-to-dawn curfew is established in the city and a riot area determined in South Central Los Angeles. The National Guard is called in but does not deploy until the afternoon. However, widespread looting begins in earnest that morning, with much of it aided by news coverage showing little to no police presence in affected areas. That evening in Koreatown, abandoned by police, the citizens take up arms to defend themselves and their property.
1,000 citizens gather for a peace rally at Wilshire and Western in Koreatown after a long night of shoot-outs and arson in the neighbourhood. Rodney King speaks out against the violence but the riots have spread all over the city, with incidents reported far beyond the original riot area, in Hollywood, Beverley Hills, West L.A., and Pasadena.
Engineer Anthony Smiljanic, LAFD, May 1, 1992, 2:41 a.m.
Now, in a run-of-the-mill emergency situation, we send a fireman to the hydrant, he opens it, and we squirt. But in the thirty or so hours since this riot kicked off, we’ve been learning this all over the Southland: you send one to the hydrant, he gets hassled, so you send two to the hydrant, and they get hassled too, so it’s gotten to the point where you don’t even bother opening a hydrant without two escort cars, each one blocking both ends of the block.
Day 3, All Involved by Ryan Gattis
As the first batch of 6,000 looters is set to be arraigned in court, the process is delayed until the middle of the afternoon because of the sheer volume of cases. Another peace march takes place in Koreatown, this time 30,000-strong. Curfew is extended indefinitely as the first Marine Corps units arrive in Compton.
The National Guard, bolstered by the military, asserts control of the city, effectively ending the period of rioting and looting. As the unrest winds down, the harbour freeway off-ramps, which have been closed since the evening of Day 1 so that people would not accidentally drive into the riot area, reopen.
The curfew is lifted and people in L.A. return to work. Many, however, showed up at a state employment office instead. It is estimated as many as 40,000 people lost their jobs as a result of fire and burnt businesses.
the aftermath and moving on
Did L.A. residents feel that the riots achieved anything?
Ryan Gattis: I’ve spoken to a number of people about what they thought the riots accomplished. What I got told time and again was that it helped people understand L.A. better, understand how fractured it is, how there really are blocks of certain types of people in all these areas. Koreans and Korean Americans all live together; over here you’ve got African Americans living together. There wasn’t enough dialogue, there wasn’t enough community discussion and finding ways to be together. When disaster struck, people realised it had happened for a reason and that they needed to find a way for it not to happen again; it ended up creating dialogue and unity in unexpected ways.
Can you talk a bit about the peace marches that took place during those six days?
RG: One of the most fascinating things that took place in the last few days of the riots were the peace marches through Koreatown. On 2 May, 1992, 30,000 people, primarily Koreans and Korean Americans but really all kinds of Angelinos who just wanted to say, “Hey, this is not the community we want to live in. It’s entirely too dangerous, it’s entirely too scary”, took part in the march.
What is the state of the city today?
RG: Now, we’re in a much more wonderful place. Crime here is the lowest it’s been in a really long time, the gang numbers are going down, in some ways because the economy is significantly better now than it was in ’92. The most important fact is that when people have something useful to do, 99% of the time they’re going do that instead [of getting into trouble].
Researching and writing All Involved
Ryan Gattis was a teenager growing up in Colorado at the time of the riots. His initial experience of those events in the spring of 1992 was very much at a distance; like most people around the world, he had no choice but to take it and understand it in the way the media portrayed it. “I can honestly say I think it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen on television. I’d never seen anything like it, I didn't even know that could happen or could exist.”
How did you come to write All Involved ?
RG: In the L.A. Riots of 1992, there were 60 riot-related deaths. For me, that number never fit the terrible scale. With research, I found that killings in areas with little to no police or emergency assistance were adjudged not to have been riot-related. They were simply homicides. So when news cameras were trained on the intersection of Florence and Normandie, or when police and ambulances were somewhere else, a city with only 7,900 members of law enforcement for more than 102,000 gang members erupted.
Although I did not wish to endanger myself, I believed there was a story worth telling about the Latino gangs of Los Angeles, so I reached out to some acquaintances I’d made through an L.A. street art crew I’m a member of, and asked if they would be willing to speak to me confidentially about their earlier years. It began casually, and I had no idea that such conversations would spawn more, sending me on a nearly two-and-a-half year journey to write All Involved and granting me an unprecedented look into this world.
Can you describe a meeting you had with a gang member?
RG: In the summer of 2012, I was told to take a city bus to Lynwood, adjacent to Compton, in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. I was going to meet someone who needed complete anonymity. There were rules:
I was to come alone.
I could only ask questions when I was told I could.
When I did speak, I had to be 100% honest, no matter what.
I needed to operate under the assumption that whomever I spoke to knew all there was to know about me.
I knew these rules well because I had been speaking with former Latino gang members for nearly 4 months, and word had gotten around that a white-boy fiction writer wanted to know more about this world. This was why I had been summoned, and it was made clear to me that this was my one and only opportunity to speak to someone with sufficient weight in this particular world. If I didn’t make a positive impression, there would be consequences – not for me, but for those who had vouched for me.
I didn’t sleep the night before. I was terrified that I’d do or say something wrong, but I never once considered missing the meeting.
It simply wasn’t an option.
The restaurant was packed on a Wednesday night, Spanish bouncing off every wall. As soon as I walked in, I was recognised. It wasn’t difficult. I was the only Anglo in the whole place. Without a word, a man standing by the door gestured for me to follow. We snaked past full tables until we passed into an empty area that made a wide moat around a single table in a corner. He gestured for me to sit. As I did, I tried to speak, but he held his hand out.
“Phone,” he said.
When I handed mine over, a man I’d not seen previously walked past the table and took it.
As soon as it was gone, the questions came rapid-fire: who was I, where was I from, what did I do, and what did I want? As I answered with total honesty, I found my gaze drawn to a particular disfigurement (one obviously done with a sharp knife) on my interrogator’s skull, and I knew I had to tell him the story of what happened to me when I was 17, when my nose was torn out of my face.
So I did.
This happens to me sometimes, experiencing empathy in unexpected places, with unexpected people. When I talk with people who have had similar experiences, we compare them. We build a bridge between ourselves, one earned by pain on both sides, and we meet in the middle. We connect.
This was one such moment. It ended the interrogation and started a conversation.
“So tell me the story then,” he said.
It had been boiling inside me for months. Even though I’d not yet written a single word but I told him what I had in my head: when a female gang member’s brother is killed, she must figure out who did it before deciding how and where to retaliate.
When I was describing the finale, he cut me off.
“You want to pull a shooting,” he said, “you don’t swing it like that!”
He commandeered the hot sauce, the boat of sugar packets and the pepper to illustrate how my characters could drive to someone’s house, shoot them, and get away with it. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
What about the other characters – firemen, nurses, locals – how did you research their side of the story?
RG: Instead of writing Day 3 as I’d planned, I had to attend a wedding in Hawaii. It was there that a retired L.A. firefighter accosted me during cocktail hour. He’d heard I was researching the 1992 riots and he got in my face about it. He didn’t want me writing just about gang members, making them heroes. If I was going to write about the riots, I needed to do it right. I had to include people who were trying, desperately, to pick up the pieces, even as the city crumbled around them.
He was absolutely right.
When I returned home to Los Angeles, I met with nurses, retired firefighters, former highway patrolmen, graffiti guys, and more. Time and again, local facts expanded my understanding of the riots, its dangers and its scale, and two of them blew my mind. One, a secret “neo-Nazi white supremacist gang” known as the Lynwood Vikings existed within the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and engaged in ‘racial hostility’ and ‘terrorist-type tactics’ while on duty (U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr.; Source: L.A. Times). Two, Navy SEAL team medics did their internships with the L.A. Fire Department due to the number of combat-related injuries the LAFD treated on a daily basis. Each fact was a harrowing thing to learn, but this was precisely how these discussions grounded me in the historical background necessary to describe 1992, helping me to weave a story of the hidden L.A. no one saw on TV during the riots, the marginal L.A. left with little to no emergency assistance, the L.A. without enforceable laws.
Where did the title All Involved come from?
RG: The title of my novel is taken from the slang for someone who is part of the Chicano gang life in Los Angeles – the gang capital of the world – but it’s something more too: its latter half is also LAFD jargon for a conflagration, i.e. a burning building is involved.
Perhaps most crucially, it’s also a description with the ghost of the third person plural: (We are) all involved.
All Involved by Ryan Gattis
In All Involved, Ryan Gattis’s fictional account of the L.A. riots, he weaves a heart-stopping narrative from the perspectives of characters whose stories of the riots were never told. In six sections, each covering a single day, we follow the intersecting lives of seventeen people: gang members, firefighters, nurses, law enforcement officers and graffiti artists, every one changed for ever.
L.A. graffiti: a way to escape the gangs
Towards the end of the novel, Termite, a.k.a. Freer, takes some paints and goes in search of a bus – a graffiti artist’s dream as a place to make his mark. A lot of the research for this section of the novel came from Ryan Gattis’s experience of working with urban art crew UGLAR. Here, he speaks to fellow member and L.A.-based graffiti artist Evan Skrederstu. With thanks to Steve Grody for allowing us to illustrate the interview with images from his book Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art and for explaining their significance.
What was graffiti in L.A. like in 1992?
Evan Skrederstu: The number of graffiti writers and the size of crews increased dramatically at that time. A lot of people who got attached to it just wanted to be a part of something, wanted to get out and destroy something, see their name up – they weren't worried about advancing the art of graffiti.
One crew, OFA (Official Freeway Assassins), had over 500 members, so you have these massive numbers of graffiti guys rolling around through gang-related neighbourhoods and, of course, tension builds. So they start carrying guns, and this carries over into the territory of the neighbourhood gangs. At a certain point, some of the crews were conducting themselves so close to how gangs were that they would either turn into their own neighbourhood or get absorbed into [existing] neighbourhoods.
A lot of the graffiti writers I knew from the time would get asked over and over to get into gangs, but their whole reason for getting into graffiti was they didn’t want to have any bosses. They didn’t want their parents telling them what to do – or teachers; they just wanted to run wild. The minute you’re in a gang, you have boundaries; you have tattoos that distinguish you. And you’re probably not going to live that long, so your freedom is cut down dramatically.
Bus bombing was the big thing because it travelled. It’s the same reason people advertise on the freeways or on the buses: the crazier the place, the more people are going to notice it. So there was a whole subculture just in buses, crews that revolved around bus bombing.
What did the community back then think of the graffiti?
ES: Although they’re part of crews, taggers (people who just write their name) are up against everyone, and were especially back then. The community didn’t like graffiti – there was no appreciation for it like there is now – it was all gang-related as far as the public was concerned. The gangsters didn’t like it because it didn’t do anything good for them. The cops obviously didn’t like it because it was a pain in the ass. So a tagger who was in the city in the middle of it in ’92 was up against a lot of odds.
If you didn’t end up in jail or dead then you won, you’re doing good. If you did, then hopefully somebody’s going to do a piece [of graffiti] and your name’s going to be up on a bus for a month.
What does graffiti in L.A. today owe to the events of ’92 and its after effects, if anything?
ES: It’s hard to pinpoint stylistically or culturally what came out of a six day period, but those six days are an exaggeration of the period and what came out of it was people pushing a stronger breed of graffiti artists. That’s what L.A.’s known for – climbing bridges and freeway signs, going higher and further because it made the stakes higher.
Unfortunately, a lot of the guys who pushed ahead and made the most progress [artistically] have been forgotten because they didn’t want to do interviews or be filmed – they wanted to keep it as a private thing and let the work speak for itself. As we know, in history, if you’re not willing to jump in front of a camera or throw your name out there enough, sometimes, no matter how much you did, you get overshadowed by the people who are willing to do that.
As well as talking to several people who experienced the riots, these books were also invaluable in researching All Involved and make invaulable further reading for anyone interested in finding out more about that time.
Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith. A stunning piece of documentary theatre consisting of monologues lifted straight from the many interviews Deavere Smith conducted in the aftermath of the riots. The play was first produced in New York in 1994 and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play.
2. Fires and Furies: The L.A. Riots by James D. Delk. Major General Delk was a senior military commander at the time of the riots and his book was invaluable in researching All Involved, not least for all the statistics that inform the novel.
3. Official Negligence: How Rodney King And The Riots Changed Los Angeles And The LAPD by Lou Cannon. Lou Cannon was Los Angeles bureau chief for The Washington Post during the riots. This book is a tough read; it’s depressing and is almost exclusively about the mistakes the LAPD made.
4. The Tattooed Soldier by Hector Tobar. The last few chapters of this novel take place during the first day of the riots. Tobar is a brilliant writer and a journalist for the L.A. Times who lived through the riots. L.A. is a city of immigrants and his book captures some of the multi-cultural stories of the riots and shows how very strange things can intersect and happen in this town.
5. The Killing Season: A Summer Inside an L.A. Homicide Division by Miles Corwin. Corwin is a former crime reporter for the L.A. Times who spent a whole summer embedded in a homicide department of the LAPD. He’d go to every stop – two in the morning, three in the morning, there’d be a body on the pavement and he would just write what he saw. The writing is gorgeous and heartbreaking.
Acknowledgments: With thanks to the authors of the books listed in the Further reading section, whose work provided invaluable background information; Evan Skrederstu for talking about the L.A. graffiti scene so engagingly, and Steve Grody for allowing the use of three images from his book Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art. Figures relating to UK population come from Census data. Video and image credits (where not attributed in context): Columns of smoke rise from scattered fires during the 1992 Los Angeles riots (video) © Corbis; Police officers stand on the perimeter of a protest during the 1992 Los Angeles riots (video) © Corbis; Looters remove goods from a supermarket in South Central Los Angeles, April 30, 1992 (photo) © Steve Grayson/WireImage/Getty; Then and now photographs: Top: businesses continue to burn out of control in Koreatown on the third day of the riots. Bottom: Korean American businesses along the street in Koreatown, Los Angeles, in 2012 © Reuters/Hyungwon Kang; Further reading background image shows firefighters putting out fires © Douglas Burrows/Hulton Archive/Getty. All Involved logo designed and drawn by Chaz Bojorquez.