Shortly before 1 a.m. on Sunday, March 3, 1991, 25 years ago, the squeal of sirens and the buzz of helicopters woke George Holliday, the 31-year-old owner of a small plumbing company, living in suburban Lakeview Terrace in the San Fernando Valley, within Los Angeles. From his terrace, he saw Los Angeles police officers beating a big black man. Grabbing his new Sony camcorder out of its original packaging, he taped the incident.
“Something happens between the weddings and the birthday parties—it’s called the rest of your life,” Sony’s commercial for the nifty new technology proclaimed. “That’s why we created America’s most popular camcorder, the Handycam.” Indeed, Holliday would say he bought the camera for “home stuff.” During the ’90s, America was becoming Surveillance Central, the most photographed nation ever, thanks to proliferating personal devices and institutional security cameras. Today, we are all George Holliday, armed with digital cameras embedded in our cell phones, ready to videotape history, not just “the rest of your life”—and post it widely.
By Monday morning, Holliday submitted to KTLA-TV what is arguably the most famous home movie since the Zapruder film.
Even though it didn’t lead the news at first, the beating of Rodney King became a national sensation, especially after CNN broadcast Holliday’s footage that Tuesday. Sources differ. Some say Holliday received $500 for the videotape. Others say that he was never paid—and subsequently lost the camera to his wife in a divorce settlement.
Without a doubt, this accidental citizen journalist felt exploited by CNN and the rest of the media. At first, with his answering machine full and television shows clamoring for interviews, he agreed to comment, selectively. Gradually, as he noticed the minimal credit and compensation he received for his epoch-making footage, his resentment grew.
“I don’t watch the news or read the papers anymore,” Holliday grumbled years later.
Americans watching Holliday’s videotape were sickened by what it contained: three officers in particular, as part of a group of 15, kick a man seven times, and hit him with nightsticks between 53 and 56 times in less than a minute. The grainy, dark, black-and-white video begins at 12:53 a.m. with King already on the ground, being beaten whenever he moves, and sometimes when he is just inert.
Police officers claimed that the 25-year-old King had been speeding in his 1988 Hyundai, hitting 115 miles per hour at one point, running red lights when chased, and then refusing to leave his car when it stopped at the 11700 block of Foothill Boulevard. King put his hand in his left pants pocket, as he left the car, and—this all happens before the videotape begins—supposedly resisted being handcuffed, causing one officer, Laurence Powell, to stumble, which unleashed the beating. King then allegedly charged the officers and was shot with a stun gun, but continued kicking and swinging. The videotape showed no signs of King resisting, and witnesses reporting hearing him plead “Please stop, please stop.”
Reflecting another new phenomenon, 24/7 cable, the clip was played again and again, as if on an endless feedback loop, drilling its way into the nation’s collective memory. In one of those overlaps that literary critics might find too much of a stretch, the Rodney King incident, a continent away from the White House, occurred just four days after Operation Desert Storm had ended triumphantly. With a 90 percent approval rating in the polls, President George H.W. Bush expected an easy re-election in 1992. Yet this ugly incident, far beyond the president’s control, and not even within the president’s authority, may have sounded his presidency’s defining death knell.
Even though Bush denounced “those terrible scenes” as “outrageous,” even though presidents have no authority over local police and have minimal impact on crime in general, the Rodney King beating shifted the national conversation. Many African Americans, infuriated by this all-too-familiar phenomenon, told reporters, “Every black man has a story.” With the economy worsening, social and racial tensions intensified.
“Rodney King” became shorthand for America’s ongoing racial crisis—and for the failure of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to address America’s most fundamental social problems. KTLA-TV reported that 86 percent of 8,426 callers demanded the firing of the Los Angeles police chief, Daryl Gates.
Recognizing the tape as political dynamite, CNN’s house Republican, Pat Buchanan, grilled George Holliday on the polarizing TV shout-fest Crossfire. “Can’t you understand why they [the police] did what they did?” Buchanan barked. Holliday, a mere citizen, was impressively restrained, refusing to engage in demagoguery on the issue, simply saying he did not know King and could not comment. “From the left,” Michael Kinsley graciously ended the segment by saying, “Thank you, George Holliday, the man who shot the film and made this entire hour possible.”
The “two Americas”—black and white—that the post-race-riots Kerner Commission saw in 1968, had fragmented further, with three black Americas emerging. A prospering black middle class was freer, wealthier, better educated, better positioned than ever, aided by Affirmative Action programs in education and employment. Racism persisted but opportunities abounded. A black working class was stagnating, suffering from the loss of good jobs due to America’s deindustrialization, even as racism diminished. And at least 2.5 million people constituting the black underclass were chronically impoverished, perpetually on welfare, and broadly illiterate. Many were dropping out of school, failing to hold jobs, rarely using time productively, abusing drugs, committing crimes, and increasingly born to unwed teenage mothers or themselves causing single-mother families—perpetuating the cycle.
George Holliday’s videotape ultimately led to the indictment of some of the cops, their exoneration by one jury, the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, and, eventually, some convictions on federal charges. Rodney King emerged as a great American healer, demonstrating more effective leadership than President Bush during the rioting by pleading: “People, I want to say … can we all get along?”
The Los Angeles riots were modern America’s deadliest, with 53 killed. Damages exceeded $1 billion. Coming as they did in the spring of 1992, the riots derailed Bush’s re-election campaign and boosted Bill Clinton’s election efforts. As a result, one could say that the forgotten, oft-neglected, underpaid and under-appreciated George Holliday may have ended one presidency, launched another, and helped ensure that today’s leading Democratic contender, Hillary Clinton, would have an eight-year head start to her political career by living in the White House. Not bad for an obscure plumber using his new toy.