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Ryan Gattis on his new novel 'All Involved'

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The novel of the summer revisits the gang warfare, racial tension and torched cars of the 1992 LA riots. Here, its author Ryan Gattis describes the true horror that inspired All Involved

I was 14 years old, safe in Colorado and watching on TV, when Los Angeles burned in 1992.

Its images remain clear in my memory: a man torn from his truck in the middle of an intersection and hit in the head with a brick; a bleeding man with his face spray-painted black; hordes of people clambering in and out of stores, carrying all they could. The scale was so massive that I wondered – even then – if what happened to Rodney King could adequately explain the chaos.

It was years later, and with much research, that I realised it did not. Explaining the riots as black vs white is a vast oversimplification. King’s televised beating (and the subsequent acquittals of the officers involved) wasn’t a match for the worst civil disturbance by damage alone in the history of the US. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

There were too many other contributing factors that had built up over time: a Balkanised populace with many cross-racial and cross-ethnic tensions (notably, conflicts between African-American and Korean-American communities), an economic recession, draconian patrol and policing practices frequently staffed by those who lived outside the areas they policed, a justice vacuum on the judicial side that was perceived not to punish commensurate with the crime.

There was something more too, though – an insurmountable matter of geography.

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When the officers recorded attacking Rodney King were acquitted demonstrators protested the verdict in front of the LAPD HQ

Too big to rule

At nearly 5,000 square miles, Los Angeles County is simply too big, and policing practices are often decisions borne out of necessity. There aren’t enough officers to adequately cover all of it. In 1992, there were 7,900 members of law enforcement and 102,000 gang members. Conflict, and possibly even large-scale chaos, was inevitable. Whether it was the Zoot Suit riots of the Thirties or the Watts riots of the Sixties, LA has always had a riot problem. They are very nearly cyclical and share similar roots. When underlying problems of racial targeting and suspect policing practices persist, however, it’s only a matter of time until the city boils over, as was the case again in 1992.

During the riots that took place after King’s videotaped LAPD assailants were acquitted (or a verdict was not reached) on all crimes, the following occurred: $1.1billion in property damage, 11,113 fires, 10,904 arrests, 2,383 injuries and 52 riot-related deaths. For me, the last number never fit the terrible scale.

The 52 deaths over six days of chaos – during a year of 2,589 murders in the county according to the LA Times, more than seven per day – were completely nonsensical. It was only by digging that I discovered that killings in areas with little to no police or emergency assistance were adjudged not to have been riot-related. That was when I knew I needed to write about what happened in areas when police, ambulances and fire services were somewhere else.

I reached out to some acquaintances I’d made through an LA street-art crew I’m a member of, and asked if they would be willing to speak to me confidentially about their earlier years.

I had no idea it would send me on a two-and-a-half year journey to write All Involved and grant me an unprecedented look into this world. In the summer of 2012, I was told to take a bus to Lynwood, adjacent to Compton in the heart of what used to be called South Central Los Angeles. I was meeting someone who needed complete anonymity, and there were rules: I had to come alone; I could only ask questions when I was told I could; When I spoke, I had to be 100 per cent honest, no matter what; and lastly, I needed to operate under the assumption that whomever I spoke to knew all there was to know about me.

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Gang related

I’d been speaking with former Latino gang members for nearly four months, and word got 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 opportunity to speak to someone of sufficient stature in this particular realm. If I didn’t make a good impression, there would be consequences – not for me, but for those who had vouched for me.

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 before passing into an empty area that made a wide moat around a single, corner table. 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, 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 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 a football player tripping on acid in my student council class elbowed me and tore my nose out of my face. So I did.

My story always has one of two effects on people: it either repulses, or it draws my listener closer. He was the latter, leaning in and asking incredibly specific (and insightful) questions about my injury and treatment.

This happens to me sometimes, experiencing empathy in unexpected places, with unexpected people. When I talk with people who have had similar experiences of physical pain and recovery, though, 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. He needed to know what I wanted to write. I told him I’d written some gang fiction (he’d heard of Kung Fu High School; his friend’s daughter had read it and loved it), but this time I wanted it grounded in reality particularly the gang background of Los Angeles. “So tell me the story then,” he said.

The story had boiled inside me for months, but I’d not yet written a single word of prose. I told him what I had in my head: when a female gang member’s brother is killed on the first night of the 1992 riots, she must figure out who did it before deciding how and where to retaliate. As I told it, gaining momentum for the shootout in the end, he stopped me here and there to call bullsh*t on various details, but when I described 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.

I’ve met many more former gang members since, both male and female. At every first meeting I’ve told them I didn’t want to know any facts about crimes they may have committed.

What I wanted to know was how they felt in moments of extreme stress. I wanted to hear their worst fears. I wanted to hear what gave them hope.

This group of former gang members became known both collectively and individually as Alvaro – a male name that means ‘truth-speaker’ in Spanish. This singular pseudonym grew out of necessity for the safety of those who spoke with me, as it would be difficult to identify any one person if they were all known by the same name. I found their input absolutely crucial to writing the first two days of the novel, but before I could continue, my journey took a turn.

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Businesses burn in Koreatown on day three of the riots

Asphalt war zone

Instead of writing Day Three as I’d planned, I had to attend a wedding in Hawaii. It was there that the father of the bride, a retired LA 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 LA, I met him and other retired firefighters, nurses, former highway patrolmen, and more. Time and again, local facts of the era 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” (as described by US District Judge Terry J Hatter Jr) known as the Lynwood Vikings existed within the LA Sheriff’s Department and engaged in “racial hostility” and “terrorist-type tactics” while on duty; two, Navy Seal team medics did their internships with the LA Fire Department due to the number of combat-related injuries the LAFD treated daily. Both facts underscored the reality that LA in the late Eighties and early Nineties was an asphalt war zone.

Each 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 LA no one saw on TV during the riots, the marginal LA left with little-to-no emergency assistance, the LA without enforceable laws.

The title of my novel is taken from the slang for someone who is part of the Chicano gang life here in Los Angeles, but it’s something more, too: its latter half is also LAFD jargon for a conflagration, ie 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.

Which is apt.

Because this also pertains to the 17 different first-person narrators, and the peripheral characters woven throughout the novel, the ones who – regardless of circumstances – are swept up in the chaos. They are the voices of this era in Los Angeles, doing what they can to survive.

In this way, All Involved is a time capsule about the individual, human cost of the riots: the struggles, difficulties, and even hopes of Angelenos during the most dangerous time in the city’s history.

All Involved by Ryan Gattis is out on 21 May (Picador). ryangattis.com

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