IT’S 20 YEARS SINCE LOS ANGELES LAST BURNED, far worse than in 1965 (the Watts Riot) and more destructively than in 1943 (the Zoot Suit Riots) or in 1871 (the Chinese Massacre). L.A. may burn again, even if as many believe, the igniting brutality of the LAPD has been dampened. Still, the disparity of prospects for ill-educated youth and the city’s working poor is greater today than it was in either 1992 or 1965. L.A.’s permanent social fractures generate enough tinder, and self-immolation becomes us. It’s one of our hateful characteristics, along with a sick fascination with apocalypses and self-inflicted amnesia.
Most of us don’t care to remember. But in Watts (even after 47 years), you can still see places — like faint smudges — where businesses had been burned out or failed soon after the fires. And in neighborhoods south of downtown, 20 years after the Rodney King verdicts, lot-size gaps still hole the streetscape. They hardly get a second glance. In north Long Beach, where news helicopters rarely hovered in 1992, the city put up low, three-rail white fences around the emptied lots, looking like corrals for ponies. Our places remember better than Anglo L.A. ever will.
For one thing, places don’t get bored. In our distracted recollection of the events that followed the acquittal of four police officers who clubbed Rodney King into compliance with the LAPD’s formal modes of submission, our L.A. is located unhelpfully between the representations in commission reports and the intensely personal, sudden, and fleeting sensations of those who stood in and around the flames. As spectacle — even as a moral spectacle in the monologues of Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 — the events of 20 years ago are nothing but moments. What the words riot, civil disturbance, rebellion, or uprising should have meant to us we have displaced, partly by the lingering trauma and partly by forgetfulness. Memory for L.A. is an empty can to be kicked down the road as we wait again for whatever.
Tomorrow has always been this city’s unreachable destination. As one civic booster early in the 20th century put it, Los Angeles has “everything in the future.” True enough in 1992 and today as well: everything tomorrow and nothing today, where we actually live, and little of substance from the past, either. For Angelenos, the death of Kendrec McDade, the random shootings of black residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida (reminiscent of the shooting of young Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper in 1991) are insufficient as reminders or as sparks. But not for every Angeleno.
In 2002, Jervey Tervalon (in his introduction to Geography of Rage: Remembering the Los Angeles Riots of 1992) could write that the common bonfire had made survivors in common:
We lived through it, were scared and furious, considered bailing on Los Angeles, and feared that this explosion of rage was just the precursor of more unrest. … We struggled with the fragmented opinions of hows and whys; the city was too colored, too poor, too vicious, too divided to pull itself back from the abyss of the largest civil disturbance in the history of the United States. But L.A. resurrected itself. We got along well enough for the economy to blossom once again, and those that fled to greener or whiter climes were replaced with browner or blacker or yellower faces, and the city didn’t miss a beat. It was still too large, too dangerous, too expensive, too smoggy, but we weren’t going anywhere.
By 2007, black Angelenos no longer wanted perseverance in the ashes of Peter Ueberroth’s failed Rebuild L.A. (Ueberroth, former president of the organizing committee of the Los Angeles summer Olympics, sought to transform the economics of poverty in South Central Los Angeles. He failed to attract the corporate investment he needed. Rebuild L.A. lasted until its charter expired in 1997.) That year, Tervalon wrote in the L.A. Weekly that “Latinos have replaced African-Americans in these neighborhoods and schools, and I wish them luck. I hope that Los Angeles is kinder to them than to the black folks I knew in the Los Angeles I loved.” In 2012, with the ruins of wholesale foreclosure all round, not even the sprawl of not-quite-middle-class African Americans to the farther valleys and high desert provides enough relief from their anxiety. In a recent poll by Loyola Marymount University’s Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, substantially more African Americans than white Anglos were certain that little or no progress has been made to resolve racial and ethnic conflicts.
Ask Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries and you’ll learn that any kindness found in L.A. today is the result of faith or habit. Any luck belongs to those who already have it.
Even as black L.A. began a problematic diaspora out of post-riot neighborhoods to the Inland Empire, the irony of “we weren’t going anywhere” played out in the vernacular culture that followed the fires. Ice Cube’s The Predator (1992), a rap cycle of fury and contempt, was directed at the distant, indifferent shore where privileged Angelenos live, even if the privileged were thought to include Korean grocers. “We Had to Tear This Motherfucka Up” was Ice Cube’s explanation, a theme of tragic necessity remixed by other rap and hip-hop artists. “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992), with sampled news reports and riot sound bites, rescripted the burning of L.A. as racial solidarity of a sort, although that wasn’t true either, as anyone who watched the looting on television could see. Ice-T in “Disorder” (1993) sang “Injustice drives you crazy/It drive L.A. insane/In this generation/hatred is the name” with the chorus repeating “War! LA ’92!” The target of black rage was already generic, however real were the reasons, and the politics-by-other-means grotesquely limited. “Gangsta rap” might sing of Glocks and a stoic acceptance of fate — 2Pac rapping “I see death around the corner” — but the misogyny, nihilism, and self-absorption of gangsta poets hustled the memory of “tearing up” L.A. into mere soliloquy.
Fiction and memoir, too, mostly failed to deliver a usable 1992. Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, writing a 20th anniversary retrospective of the riots and the literature it produced (Los Angeles Times, 22, April 2012), found only fragments, cacophony, and the city’s habitual desertion of history. Ulin praised two books as brave approaches to the “story we have never quite known how to tell”: Tervalon’s Geography of Rage (a collection long out of print) and Lynell George’s No Crystal Stair, with its fine portraits of the suffering compounded with George’s memoir of her own confusion and estrangement as the events of 1992 unfolded:
For hours I’ve been transfixed, watching childhood landmarks swallowed up in the surprisingly liquid aspects of billowing smoke and flames — stores, streets, memories, futures. I’m watching my old neighborhood blister, turn to embers, rendered entirely foreign. I hear the fear in the voices of my relatives and friends who’ve been trying to track the course of the flames, guess the trajectory of anger.
Ulin also noted Richard Rayner’s motor tour of the burning city in his essay “Los Angeles” (included in Ulin’s 2001 anthology Another City: Writing from Los Angeles). The rioting had begun as a matter of black rage, it seemed to Rayner, but then it had morphed into “property redistribution” by the poor of all colors. It had ended as a public entertainment in which at least 58 people were killed.
Ulin (as well as Libros Schmibros proprietor/librarian David Kipen, commenting recently on KPCC) could recollect only a few post-riot novels, and in the them, the fires are primarily a lurid backdrop: Michael Connelly’s Echo Park and Concrete Blond, Héctor Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier, Gary Phillips’ Violent Spring, Paula Woods’ Inner City Blues, and Bebe Moore Campbell’s Brothers and Sisters. Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle is a satire of male blackness and gangsta posturing. What Korean American novelists said of their community’s desolation — 2,100 businesses ruined, five Korean merchants killed — I do not know.
“Not knowing” in media-saturated L.A. is our only universally shared condition. We have a literature about Los Angeles in which a city we partly recognize is sometimes monstrously, sometimes beautifully re-imagined, but we have no literature yet of Los Angeles, not even a shared grid of the stories from which such a literature might arise. And so, we must begin.
A particularly poignant and relevant starting place for assembling this necessary grid of stories is Aris Janigian’s unexpected novel This Angelic Land (which takes its title from a line in William Blake’s America – A Prophecy). Unexpected, because Janigian’s previous novels — Bloodvine and Riverbig — have dealt with the Central Valley and conflicts within the valley’s Armenian community. (Novels that I’ve enjoyed, and said so in a book jacket blurb for Riverbig. Janigian is a friend of a friend, which is how I came to be acquainted with his early career as a writer. I also share a publisher with Janigian – Berkeley’s wonderful Heyday Books. His latest novel is published by a new, nonprofit imprint, West of West Books, founded by Janigian and Mark Arax.) And unexpected, as well, because This Angelic Land reframes the fires of 1992 not as an uprising against oppressive white institutions or through the doomed romanticism of gangsta gunmen or in the form of a metaphor for the tattered loyalties of the black bourgeoisie but as a historically conditioned collision of dispossessed tribes on a patch of contested ground. For contested ground is what Los Angeles has been since its capture by the U.S. Army in 1847.
(N)iggaz start to loot and police start to shoot
Lock it down at seven o’clock, then again it’s like Beirut
Me don’t show no love cuz it’s us against them
– Dr. Dre, “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”
Beirut/Los Angeles; Los Angeles/Beirut: Janigian patrols the lethal boundary that barely separates gunmen in both cities, carrying with him the burden of the Armenian genocide and all the lesser genocides that preceded and followed 1915 in a bloody trail to L.A., where the exiles halted, unprepared to release their memories into prose. The most hopeful of the exiles — including Janigian’s memoirist/quasi-narrator Adam Derderian — sought reinvention in L.A., the global capital of third and fourth chances. After all, Adam informs his older brother (who is the storyteller outside Adam’s story), “The power to invent required the power to ignore and forget.” But invention on L.A.’s terms comes with a price.
Ignorance makes our sunshine perpetual, our paydays always on the come. And forgetting slides another round into the receiver of the Glock, slides a sometime porn actress into a booth in the bar Adam has mysteriously ceased to own, turns the news commentary he hears into drivel, and turns Angelenos like Adam and the Derderians into targets.
The Derderian family — including an aunt widowed by a sectarian reprisal — had fled Beirut for the ghetto-as-souk of L.A.’s Little Armenia when Adam was a boy. There, by the precise calculations of the schoolyard “brown bag test,” he was too swarthy to be merely white, the black kids said, and too white to be anything but. In 1992, in crossing the grid of the city with a Kurdish friend to reassure his parents — sure that the first evening of burning was Beirut all over again — Adam passes from white to colored and back again, from businessman to looter to son, from Anglo to Armenian, and from a witness to the intolerable present moment to an inheritor of the equally intolerable past. In each gap through the city’s net, these serial Adams measure a part of the common longing that barely holds the tribes of L.A. together. That longing can be lethal (Adam is the survivor of a suicide attempt), and when longing is answered by nothing more than palm trees and climate, it’s incendiary. Before Adam arrives at his terminus as a riot statistic in the hills above fiery Los Angeles, he has questioned the immunity he sought as an Angeleno, the premises of his city, its faithlessness and his weak faith, and his reasons for — somehow — remaining here. He’s sat with neighbors arming themselves, his parents armed with worry, hipsters and bohos armored with L.A.’s mixture of cynicism and innocence, and with the wise man Adam names the Wizard, vastly aloof.
This Angelic Land does not answer the disputed claims of a particular history although the sufferings of history signify something. Rather, this is a novel of grace . . . and grace in several dimensions, including palm trees and climate and all they imply about the sweetness of the ruined paradise that is our Los Angeles. There’s the grace of belief, a communal faith that hovers at the novel’s edges. There’s the grace — rarely consoling — of family. There’s the bitter grace of memory and the redeeming grace of comrades and the easily misplaced grace of self-awareness. There’s the grace of America, too, but it’s hard to discern through the smoke of 1992. And there’s the grace — or the luck — of survival, although that hardly leaves anyone in the novel at peace. Each was the survivor of something in getting here, a survivor of this place in staying, and now the random survivor of 1992’s tormented carnival of fire and fun. Survivors have their guilt and their illusionary justifications for surviving, but they have survival in common. And if that’s not enough on which to build a home for exiles, it’s something, nonetheless.
Janigian refuses to dissolve L.A. into any combination of its clichés or to accept hallucination as an explanation or to leave out what he has the capacity to include (sometimes to the detriment of the narrative). He has a nice way of sorting the easy graces from the ones that might break your heart, that might prepare you for the grace to make you whole again. Being whole could be true of our L.A. too, but Janigian is too smart — too burned by memory — to deliver wholeness as a conclusion. No one gets L.A. right except, Janigian suggests, those who stand slightly detached from it, who are half exiles and homeless still, but who have the capacity for stories. Perhaps he’s right, and that is a place from which to start negotiation of the terms of our engagement on this contested ground.
In “Parker Center,” an essay in Tervalon’s Geography of Rage, Lisa Alvarez describes a serious young man on the first night of the riots, carefully pouring gasoline around the base of a palm tree not far from the LAPD headquarters. Alvarez sees the young man wedge some newspaper as kindling into the cut fronds that cover part of the trunk. Alvarez, while realizing her foolish pathos, pleads with the young man to spare the tree, so harmless, so L.A. He informs her that the tree is fake, as all of L.A. is fake. And when the young man makes the palm another evil candle for that first night of rioting, he’s justified. He tells Alvarez, “If it was real, it wouldn’t burn. What’s real doesn’t burn.”
This Angelic Land makes L.A. more real. It’s not the perfect novel of 1992, but it’s a necessary one.