George Holliday, a Southern California plumber, who three decades ago recorded an incident that arguably became the first ever viral video showcasing America’s history of racially charged tensions between Black people and the police, died on Sunday (Sept. 19). He was 61.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Holiday succumbed to complications of COVID-19 and had been hospitalized in Simi Valley, Calif., for more than a month.
Holiday’s name became known after he recorded footage in 1991 of a group of police officers beating and shocking 25-year-old motorist Rodney King. This led to one of the most intense criminal trials Los Angeles had ever seen and an acquittal, a year later, that resulted in the worst urban unrest in recent American history.
It was a precursor of the use of personal recording equipment to capture moments of violence between police and civilians. It was a rare thing back then, but it is something now seen as commonplace given more recent incidents including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and many others whose deaths were recorded on cellphones held in the hands of ordinary citizens.
The night of March 3, 1991, Holliday had heard police vehicles catching up with King, a Black man who led officers from the LAPD and California Highway patrol on an eight-mile chase. Watching the incident from the balcony of his apartment across from Hansen Dam Park, Holliday grabbed his Sony camcorder and began to take the grainy, dark video.
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Like many others, Holliday was shocked himself. In 2006, looking back on it, he told the Times that he couldn’t understand the officers’ behavior.
“I was thinking, ‘What did the guy do to deserve this beating?’ I came from a different culture, where people would get disappeared [sic] with no due process,” he said, referring to his upbringing in Argentina. “Police would pick people up on suspicion. I didn’t expect this in the U.S.”
The footage captured several officers beating King with their batons and shocking him with a taser until he was finally subdued and arrested. The incident at the time was unlikely to be mentioned as the police simply viewed the incident as a case of a person resisting arrest. But Holliday sold the footage to local television station KTLA, which ran the video and later sold it to CNN.
Once broadcast nationally, the video set off a firestorm of anger in the African American community and demands for reform. It wasn’t the first time controversy had risen over police brutality, but the video for many served as undeniable point-blank evidence of it.
Nearly two weeks later, the flames were fanned again in Los Angeles when Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl was shot and killed by a Korean-American grocer who had accused her of stealing a soft drink. This increased tensions in Los Angeles to a point in which many felt something was bound to boil over.
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The real impact of Holliday’s video came more than a year later on April 29, 1992 when the four officers accused in the King beating: Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind, were each acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force.
With the video still fresh in the minds of many, it was the spark that lit the powder keg. Just hours after the verdict, Los Angeles erupted in rioting, first from South Central and then spreading throughout much of the city. The violence left a death toll of 63 people and $1 billion in damage.
Holliday has said he was terrified when he saw the unrest and never expected that his video would have led to that extreme of a response. In exposing the events that night, Holiday’s life also changed. A first marriage fell apart, followed by the demise of his second. From licensing the video, he did make some money -- for example Spike Lee used it in the opening credits for the 1991 film Malcolm X -- but over time the legal bills from trying to get compensation from the video piled up.
Since that time, Los Angeles has undergone a transformation, few of the scars of the rioting remain and the area where it started has been rebuilt thanks to public and private investments. King himself, who won $3.8 million in damages from the city of Los Angeles, died in 2012 at age 47 from an accidental drowning.
Holliday put the camera that took the infamous footage on the auction block last year for $225,000 and it sold for an undisclosed amount, according to the Times.
After the sale, he told The New York Times he had already donated “a ton of money” and hoped that the auction would encourage more to use their cameras like he did.
“People can accuse other people of doing stuff,” Holliday said. “But when it’s on camera, it’s different. You just can’t argue with it.”