Los Angeles, March 3, 1991: The Beginning of Viral Videos and Citizen Journalists

28 years ago tonight, George Holliday was awakened by the sounds of yelling, helicopters, and sirens coming from the street behind his bedroom.  The then 31 year old  plumber who was born in Argentina and not yet a U.S. citizen sleepily wandered out to his back balcony to see what all the commotion was about.   What he saw shocked him.  Police officers were surrounding an African American  man on his knees, wildly swinging their batons at him. They were striking him repeatedly without hesitation.  Holliday went back inside to pull his brand new Sony Handycam out of its original packaging, returned to the balcony and hit record.  The man’s name was Rodney King, and although Holliday was unaware of it at the time, he was making one of the most watched videos in human history.

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

Holliday recorded for nine minutes.  In the first 90 seconds, the police struck King with their batons over 50 times. King had been attempting to flee the L.A.P.D. because he had been drinking. He feared the consequences of a D.U.I. as he was already on parole.  His criminal history included beating his wife while she was asleep, and robbing a convenience store with a tire iron.   The pursuit lasted over eight miles, often at speeds over 100 mph. Police would later say they believed King to be on P.C.P. or “angel dust” which makes one impervious to pain. In the video, it appears the officers continue to strike King well after he has stopped trying to elude them or fight back.  Holliday wasn’t quite sure what to do with the video, so he did nothing for a few days.   He then called the Los Angeles Police Department, who didn’t express much interest in the tape. Holliday decided to go in person to local television station K.T.L.A. to show them what he had.  They cut the first ten seconds of the video, where the police contend that King charged at them, then showed it on their nightly news.  Soon, all the major networks began airing it.  C.N.N., still in the infancy of the 24-7 news cycle started showing it nearly non stop.

People of color in Los Angeles and other urban areas were extremely upset, but felt they were about to be vindicated.  “See…..we’ve been telling you about this for years…..now you can see how it really is.  This happens all the time to us!  Now you are going to have to do something…..there is no denying that film!”, was a common theme.  A year later, four L.A.P.D. officers (three white and one hispanic) were put on trial in Simi Valley, an upscale and largely white suburb because was ruled  it would not be possible for the officers to receive a fair trial in L.A. due the tense and politically charged climate.  On April 29, 1992, the four were found not guilty.  Los Angeles erupted into rioting and chaos  for six days.  More than 60 people were killed, over 2300 injured, approximately 12,000 were arrested, and damages totaled over one billion dollars.

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times

Holliday, who’s name was spread all over the media as the tape was shown over and over again during the riots, began receiving death threats and was constantly hounded by the media.  Still, he does not regret making the tape and giving it to the media.  In 2017, in a rare interview, Holliday said, “Sometimes when cops recognize my name and they tell me that I did the right thing.”  Now 59, he continues to be a plumber in Los Angeles. His number is unlisted though, and he only does calls based on word of mouth referrals.  He says he does not feel scared, just doesn’t want to be bothered for interviews and such.  He also now has a website where he sells the D.V.D. of the incident.

George Holliday in 2017
Photo Credit:  The Daily Beast

In a world today where nearly everyone has a phone with a camera ready to be used at all times, it is hard to remember that life has not been this way for very long.  In 1991, video cameras were still very expensive, and a luxury item most people could not justify spending 500 to 1000 dollars on.  In 2019, anytime something looks a little strange or interesting, people are filming within seconds.   With the advent of camera phones, youtube, social media, etc., citizen journalism is a common occurrence now.  When George Holliday went to his balcony that night, those were all parts of a future world still far in the distance.

A major effect of Holliday’s tape was beyond the riots: the reformation of the Los Angeles Police Department.   The changes were slow in coming, as they wouldn’t really pick up speed until William Bratton was sworn in as police chief a decade later. A consent decree was issued between the L.A.P.D. and the Federal Government in 2001 establishing expectations for officers, their training, and oversight of them.  He began hiring a much more diverse force, so that now law enforcement in the city of angels is much more consistent with the demographics of the city.  He instituted community policing programs, and worked to improve relationships between the cops and those who they are sworn to protect and serve.  Crime rates have dropped, as have reports of police brutality (although they have not gone completely away.)  Nearly 10,000 L.A.P.D. officers now wear body cameras.   By 2009, 83 percent of L.A. citizens who were surveyed thought the L.A.P.D. were doing a “good or excellent job.”  The L.A.P.D. is still far from perfect, but it is vastly improved from what it was in 1991.

Rodney King and George Holliday met only once, by chance.  Holliday tells the story that he was filling up his gas tank and heard a voice shout, “Hey, you’re George Holliday…..you saved my life!”  It took Holliday a while to realize it was King. He went over not knowing what to say, so the two just shook hands and then parted ways.

Rodney King passed away in 2012 of an accidental drowning.  Alcohol and P.C.P. were found in his system.

You may also like the story of Kenny Washington, the first African American player in the N.F.L. for the Los Angeles Rams


Or, the story of the battle of Los Angeles in 1942:



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