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Revisiting The Rodney King Beating Video, 25 Years Later
Twenty-five years ago today, four Los Angeles Police officers savagely beat Rodney King, setting into motion the events that would lead to the L.A. Riots one year later.
Video captured by a 31-year-old Argentinian immigrant named George Holliday shows four LAPD officers beating Rodney King senseless for several minutes. King was hospitalized, and as he relayed to LAist in 2009 only remembers waking up several days later feeling "halfway-dead."
Holliday says he only hesitated a few seconds before he got his camera. He told the New York Daily News that he was accustomed to this sort of justice in his home country but he expected better in the U.S. "Justice over there is very different. If you're pulled over, you get dealt with right then and there. So in my mind, I was just thinking, 'I wonder what this guy did to deserve what he's getting.' But that's not the right way to get it. There's a right way of doing things in this country. You go to court."
Holliday sold his footage to KTLA for $500. Fewer than 24-hours later, CNN was broadcasting the images to hundreds of millions of viewers across both America, and the world.
Police brutality in the black community certainly wasn't new, but what was different about the Rodney King beating was that it was captured on a rough amateur video that ended up being broadcast to the world. In 1991, decades before YouTube, it went viral. Carvel Wallace, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, wrote on MTV News about the complex mix of emotions evoke by the video:
So the footage of Rodney King's beating—amateurish, grainy, dark, sickening—was, in a sense, the first of its kind. The first time everyone, no matter where they lived, got to see, or maybe even feel, a world they otherwise would never know. One in which regular people were sometimes suicidal, and the LAPD was the city's biggest gang threat. The irony is that for people living daily under the eerie burden of LAPD's bloodlust, an apparition that seemingly disappeared every time someone else came into the room, King's public torture brought hope and maybe even a sense of relief. You hated that it had to go down like that, but at least now no one could deny what we all knew. That we were getting our asses beat. Day in and day out.
After getting laid off from his construction job six months earlier, King was ecstatic on the night of March 2, 1991 because he had been offered a gig working for C.C. Myers Construction on the 101 freeway. Happy for the steady job, King went out on the town with some of his friends, consuming an entire twelve-pack of beer on his own.
After a night of jubilation, early in the morning of March 3, King got behind the wheel and started driving on the freeway. A pair of California Highway Patrol officers saw them speeding and erratically driving car piloted by the drunk King on the 210 freeway. They attempted to pull the 1987 Hyundai over, but King didn't stop. He later said the reason he didn't pull over was because a DUI charge would violate his parole for an earlier robbery conviction.
King got off the freeway in Sylmar, close to Hansen Dam, but continued driving. He led police through the sleepy residential streets of the North San Fernando Valley at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. Eventually he stopped the car at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osbourne Street in Lakeview Terrace. Here's what it looks like today:
King got out of the car, where he was met by CHP Officer Melanie Singer, the officer who first noticed his car speeding on the freeway. Behind her, King saw LAPD officers pulling out their billy clubs. The major difference between policing in 1991 and today is the tactics used against suspects. Deputy Chief Bill Murphy told the Los Angeles Times, "After that video played that night, no one hardly ever used the baton. It was banished. It became a symbol."
Singer walked away, letting the LAPD officers approach. King tried to reason with the cops coming at him with those clubs.
"I told her, 'tell them they don't have to do this,'" King told LAist in 2009. "I knew what kind of dudes followed a police chase. I knew it wasn't going to be nothing nice."
His daughter Lora, 7 years old at the time, told the Los Angeles Times recalls the scene when he came home, "He looked like a monster, but he had a big smile on his face like it was no big deal."
What followed was the first nationally publicized encounters of police brutality against black Americans. The four LAPD officers went to trial in Simi Valley, but were acquitted almost a year later by an almost exclusively white jury. The verdict catapulted Central and South Los Angeles into riots in which 54 people were killed.
Wallace thinks of 1991 as an oddly hopeful time, when people believed that shining a light on police brutality would help to exorcise it. But decades later, there are scores of videos dedicated to police brutality, like Eric Garner being choked to death by police. Wallace writes, "Looking back on it now makes you feel tired. Police beating the shit out of people on camera is old news. It is a show in its 25th season. No one even retweets the clips anymore."
New York Daily News columnist Shaun King writes that as technology has advanced and made it possible for police brutality videos to go viral, we've regressed: "Last year, 1,205 people were killed by American police—the highest number ever recorded—yet not one single officer was convicted and sentenced to prison for a single one of those deaths."
The man behind the camera Holliday told the New York Daily News that he received death threats and was constantly hounded by the media but he says he wouldn't have changed a thing. "I still would have gone out there and taped it. It definitely needed to be used for the right reasons."