When the police officers who were filmed beating Rodney King were acquitted on April 29, parts of the city exploded into an orgy of violence, looting, arson and murder that lasted for five days.
The logical conclusion, then, was that the anarchy was a nihilistic response to an oppressive, racist culture, but Ryan Gattis offers an alternative reading. The arson, believes fireman Anthony Smiljanic, is ‘mostly planned and it’s one of three things — grudge, mayhem or insurance.’ The riots, argues Gattis in a preface titled ‘The Facts’, provided ‘a sinister combination of opportunity and circumstance,’ and the five days of rioting, during which 60 people died, ‘was a long time for scores to be settled.’
The story opens with Ernesto Vera, a Mexican-born ‘civilian’ (ie, he’s not a gang member) who has lived most of his life in LA. The aspiring sushi chef leaves work early on the first night of the rioting, but never makes it home: Ernesto is brutally murdered and dumped in an alleyway simply because his killers can’t find Ernesto’s brother, the gang member Lil Mosco.
Ernesto’s sister, the 16-year-old gang member Payasa, vows to avenge her brother’s death, and so begins a thread of tit-for-tat violence that runs like a bloody seam through All Involved.
Rival gangs engage in raids and drive-by shootings in the vacuum created by the absence of law and order, as power struggles and turf wars escalate into full-scale carnage. Each chapter offers the perspective of a different character, among them Big Fate, the leader of Payasa’s gang, and Lil Creeper, a junkie with a vested interest in fanning the flames.
These are juxtaposed with the civilians’ point-of-view. We see the riots from the cab of Anthony Smiljanic’s fire engine, from the hospital emergency room where Gloria Rubio is a nurse, and the back seat of a car patrolling Koreatown, where high school student John Kim argues the case that America was created by individuals who were prepared to band together into militias and posses to take a stand against lawlessness.
Even as Gattis moves the action forward, however, the story is constantly harking back to the historical conditions that created the tinder-box sparked by the LA riots. Here lawlessness is fomented, as often as not, by the powers-that-be.
The riots, we’re told, are cyclical because the authorities ignored the oppressive poverty and policing policies that caused the ‘Zoot Suit’ riots of the 1940s and the Watts riots of the 1960s. The result is successive generations abandoned to ghettos with little to hope for and nothing to lose (as the novel opens, the doomed Ernesto makes his way home through ‘a neighbourhood with a gun store that sells single bullets for twenty- five cents’).
Gattis’s LA is a parallel, invisible America, a war zone in which strength and power are the only currencies that matter. In this context the bizarrely convoluted justifications for murder begin to make perverse sense and the relentless nature of the tit-for-tat violence takes on a hypnotic quality.
Not that Gattis is romanticising the protagonists or their actions. There is a chilling, deadening tone to the story, such as when a shoot-out leaves some gang members wounded, ‘still a few breathing, enough for the [ten-year-old] little homies to step up and earn stripes.’
Gattis ends the novel on an optimistic note, with a teenager observing LA rising from the flames ‘as something broken and pretty and new’. Two decades on, however, this vividly detailed and haunting account of the LA riots functions as an enervating but absorbing warning from history.