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Interview: L.A. Riots Novelist Ryan Gattis Sees 1992’s Mayhem Through the Eyes of Gangs and Firefighters


On Tuesday, the day before the 23rd anniversary of the LA riots in 1992, Breitbart News interviewed Ryan Gattis, a lecturer and writer at Chapman University who is the author of the new novel All Involved: A Novel of the 1992 L.A. Riots.

The publisher describes the book thus:

All Involved is the first major American novel to paint a fully-realized portrait of Los Angeles under siege during the six days in 1992 when violence erupted in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts. It has been called a “monumental achievement” by Dennis Lehane, and features 17 different, first-person narrators whose stories intertwine over the course of the chaos.

Gattis offered some perspective on riots such as the current one in Baltimore and the LA riot in 1992 and, in the process, adumbrated his own journey toward greater understanding:

Breitbart News: Were you surprised about what’s going on in Baltimore?

Gattis: No. Not really. It’s tough. With something like the LA riots, it being historical fiction and it taking as long as it did to write, I had time to sit with it as far as these things that have been going on so frequently lately. I don’t even have time to process before something new happens somewhere else. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty terrible pattern.

Breitbart News: Some people tend to assume that there’s some sort of pervasive racism that’s causing this instead of looking at every event as a singular event. Is there any rational way to defend destroying other people’s property as a form of protest?

Gattis: I don’t think it is rational. In some cases, I don’t even know if it’s about protest. One of the things I found so fascinating studying the LA riots is that although there were protests almost immediately after the verdict, where there were three acquittals and one no-decision essentially reached, those things of course can start peaceful but then they can become something else. The thing that was so fascinating about what happened in LA is, as I recall, there were protests all over the country after the King verdict and even some rioting in other places, I think San Francisco in particular, San Francisco, Oakland area. But obviously what set LA apart was the absolute length and scope of the violence. It was outrageous.

Breitbart News: Was it better organized? It seemed so much was orchestrated by outside people.

Gattis: It’s difficult because, even to this day, we can’t really say what was orchestrated and what wasn’t. In some cases, it’s simply hearsay. However, the thing that LA had in abundance in ‘92 that thankfully has changed fairly significantly since then, is simply the sheer numbers of gang members. There were over 102,000 gang members. There were certainly crews who were looking to take advantage of the chaos, but that was what was so fascinating about the LA riots, at least from my perspective as a novelist: it fairly quickly morphed into something that was about crimes of opportunity more than it was about protest. Once some of these areas were no longer protected by police or really there were no emergency services either, they were vulnerable. And the other thing and unfortunately this is a fact of human nature, the other thing that happened at least that I could tell, was petty resentment, and small squabbles, and interpersonal difficulties when a justice vacuum is created and those things get settled in some pretty scary ways.

Breitbart News: Did your sympathies change while you were writing?

Gattis: I don’t think I went in necessarily with any sympathy. I tried to go in as blank as I possibly could. I just tried to be open. It so happened that I primarily spoke with former gang members first. And that was really fascinating for me, coming from a fairly conservative military family. I grew up in Colorado Springs. What I found was, initially I thought it would be a huge negative for me, going into some of these communities and talking to people being an outsider, but what I found was it was actually a tremendous positive because if I had been from Los Angeles, or I had been from a certain neighborhood in Los Angeles, there would definitely be people who wouldn’t speak to me. The thing about Angelenos in general is that everybody has an opinion about the riots. In a way, I imagine that in any number of other places when disaster strikes, whether Katrina in New Orleans or 911 in New York, it’s such a massive part of the local psyche, and everybody had some experience with it that it’s a very closely held part of local lore. And I didn’t have that at all, and I think in some cases people were actually surprised.

Breitbart News: Was it more difficult because the first person you meet, you tend to have sympathies with, as opposed to those who come later in the interview process?

Gattis: That’s a fantastic point and I think, at the risk of using a silly phrase, once I put boots on the ground, once I was inside South Central, talking to people, eating dinner with families, of course, you can’t help but feel for those people and the issues. That was big. It was really interesting, I had written days one and two and I felt pretty strongly about it; I knew I needed a shift of sorts on day three, something that had less to do with the gang stories, but I didn’t know what it was yet, but I was under the gun. I wanted to write as quickly as possible, just because I had so much momentum, and my wife said, “You need to stop now. We have to go to Hawaii”—because her best friend was getting married, and it had been scheduled for a very long time. You know, it’s not often when you feel you have that kind of momentum in your writing, so I was very, very selfish, so I said, “You know I can’t go. I have all these things to do.” My wife made it very clear that that wasn’t an option.

You know, sometimes you need the other partner, and it works both ways, so have some perspective. And I definitely did not have perspective. I was so deeply into trying to plan the novel that I wasn’t seeing the big picture. But anyway, we went to Hawaii, and I actually got to do more research in terms of catching up on the reading I wanted to do.

At this wedding, I think I had a lemonade in my hand. The wedding was over, it was cocktail hour, this older gentleman, I would say, gosh, he was probably 65, 66, he makes a beeline for me and he gets right up in my face and he says, “I hear you’re writing about gang members.” And I’m just thinking, “Uh oh.” And my next thought is, “Am I about to get into a fight with the father of the bride?” My wife will never talk to me again. It turned out he was a retired LA firefighter. He made it real clear to me that I had no business writing about the riots and only writing about gang members. He said if I didn’t talk to firefighters and policemen and find ways to get other sides to the story, it would be “half a book,” and he made it really, really clear to talk to firefighters. I think it was their finest hour in a way. Because LA really could have gone to heck for 11,000 fires, we could have lost LA.

The firefighters went straight into the teeth of it, many of them facing sniper fire; one firefighter was even shot in the neck—just incredible stuff. So, this gentleman really made me rethink the way I was structuring the book; I came back and I had a completely new take on it. I need to talk to some nurses, firefighters, CHP because it actually fell to highway patrol more than any other policing body in the Southland to actually escort the firefighters; sheriffs and LAPD were out doing crowd control. So, I found that completely fascinating. I needed to be pushed to see it from multiple perspectives, but once that happened, I felt, “Wow, okay, I get it. There’s really no other way to write this book about LA and this era without trying to come at it from as many perspectives as possible.”

In ’92, which was the worst year in the history of Los Angeles for homicide, there were over 3000 murders. 3,000. It’s absolutely shocking. I remember looking at the stats for the riots and something like over 11,000 fires, over 10,000 arrests, over 2,000 people hurt, and 52 deaths. I just stared at that and I thought, there’s absolutely no way on earth that last number is true. It’s just not possible. And it was later when speaking to firemen, that I kept hearing time and again that it was true. Because the firemen, they don’t just put out fires in LA, they also do emergency medical services, and they also pick up bodies for the coroners office. So, if anybody would know if that number is BS, it would be the firefighters.

I talked to one firefighter who said, “Yes, I came across a portable morgue during the riots.” It was a refrigerated semi-truck trailor. I said, “Oh, my gosh, how many bodies were in there?” And he said, “I don’t know, ten, fifteen.” What day was that? He said, “Three?” He didn’t really know.

The thing about firefighters, and one of the reasons why firefighters and former gang members agreed that policemen need to live in these areas, is because when firefighters are on duty they do live in these areas. They live in the station houses, they shop at the local markets, and that was just fascinating to me that both sides—I found something incredible in my research, that both sides, generally speaking—the former gang members greatly respected the firefighters. As far as civil servants, that was the pinnacle for them because they knew how much firefighters did for them. There’s even a moment in the book when one of the gang characters says, “If anybody attacks a firefighter, it’s over for you. Goodbye.”

The fireman I quoted in Day 3, the battalion chief, Ron Roemer, I heard from him frequently, “Yeah, we would pick people up and fix them, right there on the street. They’d be stabbed or shot. And then a month later, I’d see them again. We’d fix them up again.” Unfortunately again, I think it’s easy for police to feel somewhat distant from the cycle of violence whereas the firefighters see it. They try to fix people, and if they don’t see it, they have to take them to the morgue. There’s this incredibly sad perspective that they have as a result.

Breitbart News: You want to let the emotion inform your writing so it can be passionate, but at the same time, it must be easy to lose perspective because the emotions can take you away from being objective; how much do you let that permeate you as a human being, because you can’t ignore it?

Gattis: In this case, you used the perfect word, “permeate,” and that kind of transmission doesn’t happen unless you’re open. I was open to it, and I was really into what I would say is the psychology of survival, really getting a sense of how some of these places work, Lynwood in particular in ’92 and the types of bargains perhaps that folks needed to make, gang members or not gang members, in order to survive.

Breitbart News: Quite often a novel is just as true as something considered non-fiction. How do you get the spirit of what happened?

Gattis: That was my one goal. How do I get to the spirit of this chaos, and the spirit of this pain, and worry and anger and sadness, but also this hope and love and family and loyalty and really try to penetrate each character to the point that the reader can feel that he or she knows why they’re doing what they’re doing—that it feels that it has a logic, a propulsion to it. That was always the goal.

Breitbart News: Why do you think some families did participate in gang violence and others didn’t? Religion?

Gattis: First, there is no easy answer to this question, but I would say there are almost two axes we’re dealing with and they’re not necessarily related. You know it’s not as if one is a north-south and the other is an east-west and we can plot points on it, but I would say one has to do with age: the younger people were at that time, I found, that the more likely they were to potentially participate.

Breitbart News: Is that because of adolescent immaturity?

Gattis: I think that’s part of it. They are less enlightened as far as risk is concerned.

Breitbart News: And easily led, too?

Gattis: Absolutely. There’s also the willingness to be part of a group that we exhibit far more frequently as adolescents than we do as grownups. Beyond that I would also say that there were elements of class. Folks were far more likely to strike out in the day or night, and it was usually day; if families were looting, it almost always happened during the day. Things at night were almost always personal.

In the book, Anthony talks about the three types of “burns,” the fires people were setting. According to him, those types of things would take place at night. Gang activities tended to happen at night. I think it’s just, generally speaking, when people have something to protect, they are far less likely to go out and try to take something. But when people have nothing, or they have that perception that they have nothing, they are far more likely to go out and try to take something.

It was also very difficult because I think at time, apart from the incredibly negative incident that happened with the LAPD and Rodney King and the rather unfortunate media reporting in terms of cutting off the entire context of that particular video, I think it was a time when people had a certain faith and trust in law enforcement; this was pre-Rampart. To this day, it still shocks me that people don’t know much about Rampart outside of LA County because that was terrifying stuff.

Very, very few people paid attention to what happened there; some of the summary court judgments against LAPD, against the city, against the county, because of things the police officers were doing. Everything from murder, to stealing drugs, to selling drugs. I mean it was unbelievable. Completely unbelievable.

But again, now that that’s happened, I think it’s easier to look at things and say, “Maybe not every police officer is good.” Unfortunately, LA has a very long history of corruption, all the way back to the police chief who was called “Six Gun.” It’s not great. But the thing that I found, of course, that I never knew about was the Lynwood Vikings, the sheriff’s department gang. That one was particularly terrifying.

I sat down with a former gang member. You know, not everybody would talk to me. Sometimes people would walk away. That’s okay. That happens. But this particular guy sat down and said, “Hey, what do you know about the Lynwood Vikings?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Google it,” and he left.

I went home and spent about five hours on the LA Times archive reading everything I could about a group that a federal judge called a new-Nazi white supremacist gang within the LA Sheriff’s Department. He levied a huge fine against the city for employing these people and allowing them to basically attack citizens in some pretty nasty ways. I mean the Sheriff’s Department in general has been kind of a worrisome area. It’s not exactly the cleanest; In Los Angeles in particular there’s actually quite a bit of evidence about racism in the LAPD or the LASD. The thing that made me particularly sad was to hear that, especially in ’92, no one knew about the level of corruption.

Breitbart News: Why do members of the community treat the police like enemies?

Gattis: Well, in some cases, they actually are enemies. There are documented cases of Lynwood Vikings, driving into Lynwood, Compton, these areas in South Central that got annexed to Los Angeles in the 50s to disenfranchise black voters. Driving in, turning off their headlights, and shooting into the parks because it being California and having good weather all year round, the gangs would tend to congregate in parks, and kind of treat them like turf. The sheriffs knew this, they’d roll in, they would shoot, and they would leave with the hope that perhaps the gang that got shot at would think it was the other gang shooting at them.

Criminal policing in that area of LA that I was researching really did exist. It becomes difficult of course, because if you have a few bad eggs that are doing that, or even worse, appear to have institutional support, that can very easily turn a community against them. And another thing that I think was one of the saddest things that I learned, and also eye-opening, at least for me, was, here was the crazy thing, I heard from former gang members and I heard it from firefighters almost verbatim, was that one of the problems in Los Angeles, whether LAPD or sheriffs, is that these folks tend not to live where they police. They don’t understand the 24-hour problems of these neighborhoods because they’ve deemed them unsafe, which sends an incredible message to these communities. It says, “You are not valued.” I suppose in some small way if we were talking about values earlier, at the very least civic values, it’s hard to have civic values if society doesn’t value you, or at least it’s easier not to have them if you view society as against you.

I actually had someone tell me, the police here are part-time, but crime is full time. You can’t show up and then leave because a lot of these cases, especially the murder cases, so desperately depend on witnesses, and unfortunately when communities don’t trust law enforcement, when faith in a certain area is low, that’s actually worse in proportion to community trust because people don’t feel safe. So they’re not going to talk.

Breitbart News: I don’t know how you resolve police not living in the areas they police because they don’t feel safe either.

Gattis: I don’t either. I think potentially it’s a numbers issue and one of the issues that seems to be major among the police unions is pay. I think there must be award stipends to officers who live in these neighborhoods. Just pay them more. There’s a dramatic difference with a neighborhood with zero law enforcement officers living there, clearly exhibiting to the community, “we are stand-up citizens, we are going to raise our families here.” But the other big one, unfortunately, is schools. Schools in these areas are awful. There are no after-school programs. Again, it’s areas within the greater LA area that never seem to make progress because they’re not getting investment on the level that would allow them to be successful longer-term. But even something as small as five to ten police officers who live in a given neighborhood or a given area, these are folks who would almost immediately be the highest paid folks in that particular area and they would ideally keep a chunk of that within the community. By doing that we would be raising boats. It’s an incredibly complex sociological question. There’s something to be said for people who care enough and are just brave and “stand-up enough,” as my grandfather would say, to actually be there.

Breitbart News: Literary questions. When you wrote the novel did you have a clear beginning and end?

Gattis: I definitely had the beginning, but I did not have the end because initially I thought, “Oh, the character who sparked me to want to write this was Payasa, a female gang member. Initially, I wanted to write this character and I got knocked back by a few people I had discussions with who said, no, women aren’t involved. You probably can’t do that. And I tried so desperately to let go of that notion, because if it wasn’t authentic then I had to let it go. The one thing I wanted to guide this book was authenticity. And I couldn’t—I heard her voice, so to speak, and I just got to the point where I had to write it down, and I did.

Breitbart News: Sometimes there’s a higher truth that should be expressed even if it’s not entirely authentic.

Gattis: That’s a great point. My wife, who actually used to work for the DA’s office, would call me out sometimes. I had written one particular character who was just terrifying—didn’t really have anything else going on. And she shut me down. She said, “No you can’t write it in that way.” I said, “What do you mean? I’ve met plenty of people like this.” And she said, “I don’t care. It’s literature.”

It’s literature. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard. And she was incredibly helpful. Initially, I wrote Payasa in because I just couldn’t stand it. I had to get that voice out. She was haunting me, so to speak. I got it out, and I kind of pitched it to some of those folks who had told me, “No, you can’t do that. It doesn’t make sense.” I verbally went through the story. I said, “This happens. And then this happens and she decides to do this.” And every single one of those people who had said no before, suddenly said, “Oh wow, I like her. Wow. She’s interesting. That’s cool.”   Then I knew, wow, I’m on the right track and I need to keep following my gut.

Payasa really goes on this journey of vengeance, so to speak. I knew I had to write the section of her innocent brother who is not in a gang dying. I knew that had to be first, and then I wrote her other brother, so, Day One is just the siblings. There are only three of them, and I honestly thought it would be a novella. That was it. Day One of the riots. Just these three siblings and what they go through in this four-hour period or less.

When I sent it to my primary agent in London, I thought, “she’s not going to get it. There’s no way in heck she’s going to understand this world. It’s so very different from what she’s ever known.” And she came back within three days. I sent it to my American agent at the time. My American agent never got back to me—never even responded. Whereas, my London agent, Lizzie, within two days had her reading on it and notes and had two other people in the agency, their reading on it and notes and her response was, “Oh my God, you have to write the entire six days. You have to do it. You don’t have a choice.”

I can honestly say, I was at a time in my career, my very recent career, where I thought I was done being a novelist. I hadn’t published a novel in nearly 10 years. She had been working with me for free all that time. I just didn’t know if I would ever write a novel again, and when she came back with that kind of positivity and saying, “you were born to write this,” because she’d been my agent for 14 years at that point, I thought, “This is it. This what I’ve been waiting for.”

It flowed from there, and the way I proceeded, I knew I needed to replicate the structure, so I basically kept each day to novella length and I made sure I had three characters, except for the very end there are only two.

The reason it took me so long to publish is because I had spent over seven years writing a very long book. I got completely lost in the research, and we could never sell it. I finally got to the point where I had to give up on that book.

At least for me, I can look back on it with healthier eyes. That was basically my post-grad work, and it taught me how to not write a novel. And after that, I wrote a couple of novellas set in Little Tokyo, set in Los Angeles—just hard-core noire.

Breitbart News: Did you get to the point where you could smell the finish line?

Gattis: Yeah, I think it was midway through Day 5. I was very close to the end and I thought, “I can do this.” I knocked out Day 5, I got going on Day 6, and I stalled. I thought, “Oh crap.” I remember it very clearly. I was at my desk at home on a Sunday morning, and my wife had an appointment to go to at noon, and I turned to her and said, “Nothing’s coming to me, can we just go to Lynwood?” She looked at me and said, “Absolutely, if that’s what you need.” So we went to Tom’s Burgers in Lynwood and ordered some breakfast. We sat down and I’ve never been one to write in public, but it just hit me. I could just feel my characters nearby, and it’s really that last big scene where a bunch of characters are together at the end of the novel. Once I had that, that’s when I think I had to write two more chapters and then I was done.

Breitbart News: Were there any characters you felt closer to?

Gattis: I think I got close to all the characters, and in some cases, that was disturbing because there are a couple who are really not good people. They are just terrifying.

Breitbart News: What made you feel close to them?

Gattis: I had to commit. I had to do my utmost to be in their shoes from a fictional perspective and understand why they did what they did. I had to do the best I could do to withhold judgment so that the reader could make up his or her own mind, because at least in my experience, the best books don’t judge their characters. They let you figure that out for yourself. They trust me enough to let me decide if I like this character or that character. It’s such a hot-button issue anytime you’re talking about urban violence, but when you have gang members in there who are obviously benefitting from this type of chaos…

In ’92, it was very difficult to withhold that, but I think that all I tried to do was just make their journeys as true as I possibly could and let them make those decisions and then have to live with them and really sit with them. If there’s one thing that’s really good about the book, it’s that: I didn’t jump in there and try to color the reader’s judgment about any of the characters, even these truly horrible characters. My wife called me out for that; she said, “I know you’ve met some sociopathic, psychopathic people, who don’t seem to care about anyone or anything, but you can’t write that.”

Breitbart News: Although every person in his heart believes that he’s doing the right thing.

Gattis: Exactly. That’s what I tried to do. With this one particular character that I had to completely rewrite, what I found was, it was almost as if I wrote his first section as if he were pure bluster, as if he were trying to prove his mettle to somebody. Then, when my wife called me out on it, I went back and looked at this character and realized how sad he was and how terrified, and how ill-equipped he was to deal with the death of his siblings; he had no choice but to act out and attempt to do the honorable thing, at least according to the code of the neighborhood.

Breitbart News: Did you go through normal postpartum depression when it was over?

Gattis: Yes, definitely, because the writing process was so fluid. The writing process the last several years has never been this easy, but that was mainly because by the time I actually started writing, I had already done over a year and a half of research. But for five or six months of that I didn’t know I was doing research. I was just talking to people. A lot of that coincided with me joining Uglar Works, this street art crew here in LA.

I’m not a visual artist, but we met and we sparked and they said, “Hey do you want to be part of what we do?” And I said, “Absolutely.” And we’re now certified with the city of LA, and six murals have been decriminalized. So we do city work; we’re all over and I’ve seen parts of the city that I never would have seen before. I think I’ve gotten the texture of things. The funny thing about being an artist and going to a new place and putting up a mural that is positive and community building and can potentially be a point for conversation, you’d just be amazed at people will just come out of nowhere and want to talk to you and want to meet you and, in many cases, want to thank you, saying, “it’s not often we get something like this in our community.” That was profound for me, and I met a lot of people that way who I never would have met otherwise.

Breitbart News: What would you want different groups to take from the book, the gangs, the policeman, the typical citizen?

Gattis: I never really thought about that question. I wanted to be true to the characters and people would get what they wanted, but I must say it was definitely important to me to write about an area of LA that, to my mind, has never really been written about before or seen on television.

That’s what I wanted to do. There are definitely places in Los Angeles that Angelinos don’t go, and South Central and perhaps East LA, and that’s changing as some incredible restaurants are springing up in East LA.

I was always grateful and to the point of almost feeling guilty to be able to go to some of these areas; in some of these cases, I couldn’t have gone to these areas at night without some protection of sorts from the people who invited me. But they lived there, so I was okay as a result of that. But then, I would get in my car and drive away and I would be so struck by the fact that I just talked to somebody who grew up 13 miles from the beach and had never been there. Not even once.

Thankfully, it’s better now, but in ‘92 some of those areas were very much prison-like. They had their own rules, their own rule of law because there were so many little justice vacuums dotted in these neighborhoods where certain gangs held sway. There’s even one character in the book who relates it to a medieval ethic; he even talks about how certain gang members were like knights because they would dress in a flamboyant name and it was important to shout out your name and where you were from. Because he was slightly older and slightly more accomplished, he had some freedom and he had taken his daughters down to Medieval Times for a birthday and he had seen that and to him it just triggered, “Oh wait, this is what my neighborhood is like.”

Breitbart News: So robbing the store was like storming the castle.

Gattis: Without question. There are a few little moments like that in the book. They band together, the car is a battering ram. When I started this journey, I thought I was going to find demons, especially given some of the stuff I saw on television or even just some of those images. The Denny image really sticks with me. It’s really awful and I thought, I just really want to know some hows and whys, but then I got there and all I found were humans and, honestly, 90 to 95% of the time, because there’s definitely a thoroughly bad element and it will thrive just about anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a white-collar company like Enron or South Central, that’s part of humanity, too. But I really had to do some soul-searching as I spent time talking to these folks and the good news, I suppose, in a way, is I never wanted anybody’s story. I was very straightforward with them: “Look man, I don’t want your story. I’m an author. I want to write my take on this. I want to write my characters.”

What people so kind to help me do is they remembered details. They remembered how people dressed. How the smoke smelled at that time. They remembered the music people were listening to. I think once trust was gained, I was able to actually ask people, “Hey, what were you most afraid of and what were you most hopeful for? What did you most love?” Once we got to that point, it was truly magical in a way because it was no longer about me being from Colorado and them being from LA, it was about connecting as human beings and me trying to understand, as best I could, where they were coming from without judgment.

I guess the one thing that really made that possible was me sharing the violence I’ve been through in my own life. When I was able to say, especially to someone I’d just met, “When I was 17 years old I was hit so hard in face it tore my nose out. I had to have 2 facial reconstructive surgeries. I couldn’t smell or taste right for over a year afterward because of the nerve damage.”

When I was able to share that, the first guy I shared that with had a fairly obvious knife scar on his skull, and I needed to make it clear to him, I know you look at me and maybe you see a white guy, maybe you think I’ve had everything good, I haven’t. I’m not here to glorify him, I’m not here to make it seem that this stuff is all good, because it’s not, but what I’m here to do is try to do justice and hopefully honor and respect my characters and hope that they are true to that world. Along the way I was lucky enough to assemble this group of folks who came from tremendously different backgrounds all across LA and I just figured, if I could get these people excited about the book, if I could get them to trust my vision, then, if it felt real to them, it would feel real to anyone.

I say to people, if you can come to this with an ounce of openmindedness and openheartedness, it will change you. My journey completely changed me by writing this book. I think of the world as a very different place than I did when I started.

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