Critic’s Notebook: Literature of 1992 L.A. riots is fragmented


One of my favorite pieces of writing to emerge from the 1992 Los Angeles riots is a poem by a writer named Nicole Sampogna, called “Another L.A.” In it, the poet traces the odd dislocation of living on the Westside while so much of the city burns. “They send us home early, again,” she begins, “supposedly for curfew sake, / but I know it’s to beat the traffic.” And then: “over there the smoke rises, / horns blare, streets scream, / shoot, loot, / bash windows, bash heads, / lights out / knocked out / by a black & white with a baton. / but, here / will the pizza man deliver after sunset?”

There it is, the dislocation that so often marks Los Angeles, and never more profoundly than when the not-guilty verdicts in the LAPD beating of Rodney King came down 20 years ago. Depending on where you lived or the part of town in which you found yourself, the atmosphere was static or chaotic, suspended or engaged. I remember, on the second afternoon of the conflagration, watching as a Fairfax district neighbor sunned herself on her small front lawn, while in the distance, sirens screamed. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, perhaps in the way it reflects Sampogna’s sense of the city as disoriented, in which we connect (or don’t) “to the other LA with the flip of a switch.” How in such a place do we evoke the larger story? How do we find common ground?

This was the central question raised and left unanswered by the riots — and it remains essential to Los Angeles. But 20 years later, the shelf of books addressing the disaster is threadbare, conditional even, as if we’ve never figured out how to write about these events. Sampogna’s poem appears in a small anthology called “The Verdict Is In,” edited by Kathi Georges and Jennifer Joseph and issued by the San Francisco independent publisher Manic D Press. It’s long out of print, as is Jervey Tervalon’s 2002 collection “Geography of Rage: Remembering the Los Angeles Riots of 1992,” which gathered recollections by 39 writers (disclosure: I am one of them) on the 10th anniversary of the tumult. On my desk are a handful of other titles that deal, in one way or another, with the upheaval: Wanda Coleman’s “The Riot Inside Me,” with its heartbreaking title essay, Lynell George’s “No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels,” which opens with the astonishing “Waiting for the Rainbow Sign.”

“I’ve already seen the look,” George writes of her passage through a city stunned by violence. “Driving through the Silver Lake hills to avoid Sunset Boulevard’s panicked snarl, I climb along the incline. People are out jogging and walking their dogs, even though fires have moved closer, are no longer a distant TV hell. The higher I climb, the more I see residents take note of my car’s make and color; they mentally record the license number, but more importantly my unfamiliar deep-brown face, any distinguishing marks. They look at me as if they will at any moment join together to form a human barricade if I make a wrong or abrupt move.” In Granta, Richard Rayner offers this self-lacerating perspective: “Los Angeles was a lot like South Africa. The apartheid wasn’t enshrined by law, but by economics and geography, and it was just as powerful. In Los Angeles I was afraid of blacks in a way I never had been. I behaved in a way that would have disgusted me in New York or London. I was a racist.”

This is all terrific stuff, vivid and honest, which is what happens when writers enter their discomfort zones. And yet, what strikes me most is how, not unlike the city it describes, such material reveals itself to us in pieces — which are another metaphor. In that regard, it seems oddly fitting that the most comprehensive literary response to the riots remains Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” a theater piece, written and performed by an outsider who channels the cacophony of voices at the city’s heart.

Cacophony is one of the standard tropes by which we view Los Angeles, a city defined by its unknowability. But if that’s part of the personality of the place, what I have in mind is something more specific, something about the fire this time. It’s the difference between the 1992 riots and the Watts riots, which George referred to as “bold-faced, italicized,” when I asked her recently for her thoughts.

In the wake of the Watts riots, Budd Schulberg helped to found the Watts Writers Workshop, mentoring African American writers such as Coleman, Quincy Troupe, Eric Priestley and the performance poetry group the Watts Prophets. In the wake of Watts, the city catalyzed around a variety of elements, not least the iconography of the fires, of L.A. turning inward to devour itself. “The city burning,” Joan Didion wrote in her 1967 essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” tracing the line of a more extensive history, “is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself: Nathanael West perceived that, in ‘The Day of the Locust’; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.”

No equivalent sense of history emerges when we think about 1992. Instead, we are left with fragments, snapshots, the loose tiles of what former Mayor Tom Bradley liked to call “the glorious mosaic,” which the riots revealed to be a lie. That’s true even of King’s memoir “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption” (HarperOne: 245 pp., $25.99), which seeks to capitalize on the 20th anniversary of the riots but never offers a coherent point of view. It’s unfair, perhaps, to expect this of King, who was thrust, or thrust himself, into a situation beyond his control. Nonetheless, it’s also emblematic of the vagaries, the displacement, the lack of a collective vision, our inability even now to take a broad, inclusive perspective on the riots and what they mean.

All of this begs one last question: What, if any, responsibility does literature have to current events? It’s a mistake to parse writing so overtly, to expect it to function as anything other than an oblique lens. And yet, it’s also impossible not to think about E.M. Forster’s “buzz of implication,” the impression on a writer of his or her time and place.

Other books have touched on the 1992 riots; you can find a bibliography on the Internet. Most are academic or legal, but some are more than that: William T. Vollmann’s “The Atlas,” which features a brief essay about driving into L.A. on the night the fires erupted, or Michael Connelly’s novel “The Concrete Blonde,” in which a serial killer’s victim is found beneath the ruins of a building that was burned. Even there, however, the riots exist on the periphery, as backdrop rather than centerpiece.

To some extent, that highlights the disposability of memory in Los Angeles, although more to the point is the diffusion with which we continue to approach this event. Either way, I keep coming back to Sampogna, to Coleman, George and Rayner, and their sense of “our (dis)connection,” of the riots as a story we have never quite known how to tell.