Obituary: George Holliday incidentally filmed the beating of Rodney King

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FOR NEAR nine minutes, George Holliday stood outside the second story windows with his three-pound Sony Handycam glued to his eye. It was around one in the morning on March 3, 1991. He and his wife Maria had been awakened from a deep sleep by the clicking of a helicopter low over their apartment in Lake View Terrace in north Los Angeles. , and police car sirens. His first thought, upon hearing all of this, was to grab the camera.

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The Handycam was a novelty, a Valentine’s Day gift for Maria that would give both of them pleasure. He had seen part of the filming of “Terminator 2” before in the biker bar across the street, the scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger walked in naked, stole a biker clothes and rode off on his Harley. . It was on the same tape he used to capture the heckling outside, and later he was going to film a friend running in a marathon. It certainly livened up his life as a plumber, working his butt crawling under houses and unclogging drains. He wanted to film everything now.

It was difficult to do, because he was still learning. He couldn’t get autofocus to work in the dark, and there were two pieces where the tape was blurry, especially at the beginning. It might not have mattered, except that this video became the crucial piece of evidence in a police trial that rocked the city of Los Angeles and shocked the world – nine minutes in which the mistreatment dailies inflicted on black Americans by the police were, for the first time. time, laid bare in a citizen record for everyone to see.

His video, starting a little late, showed a group of white officers who had stopped a car. Four of them approached the driver, later identified as Rodney King, a black man on parole for theft. He had driven wildly with alcohol in his blood. In the first 81 seconds of the video, officers beat and kicked King, any part of his body they could touch, 56 times. King kept trying to get up and then fall back from the beatings until the police handcuff him and throw a white sheet over his face as if he was dead. He almost was, with 11 skull fractures.

Mr. Holliday, filming, had mixed ideas. He had spent most of his youth in Argentina, where his British father had worked for Shell Oil. There, the police often took matters in hand brutally. But in America, where a friend had urged him to move in 1980, he believed they were generally nice. If they stomped on and hit someone so hard that they picked up the blow with their batons, they must have had a good reason. But what could he have done to deserve such a beating?

The LAPD wouldn’t tell him, and at first showed no interest in the gang. But he and Maria both thought he had to be seen. Local KTLA television the channel took it, cautiously at first, and aired it on the news that night. But then they shared it with CNN, and his world exploded. He opened the door to a sea of ​​reporters, so he could barely get down to business. His phone rang. Everyone wanted copies of the tape, but they had no equipment to make them. Instead, he had left the master tape with KTLA, for only $ 500, and soon enough higher authorities kidnapped him and kept him.

In 1992, the police were tried and, despite his video, acquitted of assault. The southern part of Los Angeles then caught fire for almost a week, with more than 60 dead and $ 1 billion in damage. And, having been a five minute hero, he now has the knack to share the gang. Even in Lake View Terrace, a quiet, horse-racing, and bourgeois place that saw no rioting, his customers blamed him and death threats were stuck on the windshield of his van.

Because he was still a plumber, although independent to avoid the hassle, always scraping the bottom of the sinks and installing new pipes on the boilers. Too bad for the TV George Holliday’s crime-fighting biopic and toy show, nothing happened. Expensive lawyer failed to retrieve his tape from FBISo he lost Arnie and the marathon too, and although he owned the broadcast rights, they didn’t earn him much. In 2020, he auctioned his camera for $ 225,000 to buy a new location, but he didn’t make any offers.

It seemed wrong that he couldn’t make any money from it. When Abraham Zapruder’s tourist film was seized by the government after Kennedy’s assassination, his family was paid $ 16 million. King, too, after a second trial found two officers guilty of civil rights violations, won $ 3.8 million in a civil lawsuit against the city. He met King once while refueling at a gas station, not recognizing him with his face smoothed out again. King thanked him for saving his life and they shook hands.

Saving a life was surely something to be proud of, and a beating like that was irrelevant. He therefore did not regret having made the tape. But it cost him his marriage, in fact two marriages, for more or less nothing. This gave the LAPD a very bad reputation, which he thought they didn’t deserve. And he couldn’t understand, being a plumber and not a politician, why race was always such an important thing. Surely the color of someone’s skin didn’t matter? As King himself said, couldn’t they all get along?

For the media, he had no respect. They had twisted his words into their own story, making him say what he hadn’t said. Only the videotape was true and could not be disputed. He no longer bothered to watch the news, which turned left or right, but picked up the news on the radio as he drove from job to job.

So he heard, in 2020, about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But he didn’t see the video that almost all of America has seen, on which, three decades after rushing to his balcony, another citizen-recorder, one of the now legions, filmed a white policeman. forcing the life of an unarmed black suspect for nearly nine minutes. Again. Always.

This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the title “The man on the balcony”


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