IT IS surely the SA nightmare. Marauding mobs, looting, raping and killing. The police, military and emergency services stretched to breaking point. Roads torn up, barricades, petrol bombs and arson.
However, this is not Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban or some other SA city in crisis in some dystopian moment in the future. These are the Los Angeles riots of 1992, when law and order collapsed completely for almost a week, to inspire Gattis’s powerful fictionalised account a full 23 years later.
The immediate trigger of the riots was the acquittal of four white police officers after an attack on a black man, Rodney King, in the wake of one of the most notorious racially charged trials in American history.
Following a high-speed car chase through Los Angeles after police had tried to stop him for erratic driving, King was eventually cornered by them.
He was then savagely beaten while supposedly resisting arrest, to be hospitalised with skull fractures, brain damage, broken bones and smashed teeth.
In a first precursor of the power of social media, grainy video footage of the arrest, shot by a bystander from his balcony, became an instant media sensation, igniting the anger of LA minorities.
King later won a multimillion-dollar civil suit against the LA police department. However, the officers were acquitted of criminal charges by a jury consisting of 10 whites, a Latino and an Asian. In the fury that erupted after the verdict, 53 people died, more than 2,300 were injured and there was property damage of almost US$1bn.
This is the factual framework upon which Gattis stitches his masterful fictionalised account. It follows the lives of 17 characters over those fateful six days in a series of vignettes. The characters range across the racial spectrum and include a homeless man, a nurse, a fireman, a graffiti artist, various gang members, shopkeepers, and an anonymous policeman.
The result could easily have been a disjointed pastiche of superficial reportage. Instead, Gattis skilfully turns it into a fascinating kaleidoscope out of which tumble the fears, dreams and realities of the cross-section of these diverse Angelenos.
The novel is not simply about gangs in pitched battles with the authorities. For the violence, like its SA historical counterpart, is often internecine.
As one gangbanger puts it, “Every single cop in the city is somewhere else and that means it’s officially hunting season on every ... fool who ever got away with anything and damn, does this neighbourhood have a long memory.”
Gattis is unsparingly bleak and South Africans will find that the narrative constantly evokes memories and analogies from their own traumatic recent history. All Involved — the title comes both from gang slang for being part of the gang underworld and Los Angeles police department-speak for an incident that has spiralled out control — opens with the sickeningly brutal killing of Ernesto, a blameless cook who has two gangbanger brothers.
He is ambushed on his way home from a 12-hour shift and beaten nearly senseless with a baseball bat. The assailants, from a rival gang to that of his brothers, then drag him behind their car, eventually to finish him off with a knife.
The emergency services are too busy dealing with survivors to bother with the dead, so the body lies at the side of the road for days. A nurse, who had tried to save him, eventually pays for a private ambulance company to take his body to the morgue.
The 1992 riots were not the first in LA’s history, and intermittent civil disturbances in recent years in the US show that racial and deprivation faultlines still run deep and are potentially explosive.
As one character puts it: “After Watts [riots], the same thing happens as before and still nothing changes”, with the present riot merely repayment of “a bank loan. With interest.” But the city “never learns nothing”.