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George Holliday, man who filmed Rodney King video that changed LA forever, dies

The video was less than nine minutes long, was dark, grainy, and very blurry. But it changed LA in an unfathomable way and dragged George Holliday into a life he never negotiated.

Filmed with a bulky Sony Super8 Handycam, the video of Rodney King beating in 1991 tore apart a city already plagued by racial tensions, a time when the Los Angeles Police Department was practically nothing but a military force. occupation in the black quarters of the city, arriving with tanks, rams and brute force.

And when the four officers who beat King were acquitted the following year, the town exploded in protest and violence, thick smoke billowing in the air of Koreatown in southern LA. In the end, more than 50 people had been killed and more than 2,300 were injured. The scars – both to the city’s urban core and to the psyche of its inhabitants – have remained in plain view for decades.

For Holliday, it was like being thrown over a cliff. Reporters hid outside his Lake View Terrace apartment, death threats came in the mail, and his efforts to receive fair compensation for one of the most infamous videos of the time have vanished over and over again.

Still at work as a plumber, Holliday died of complications from COVID-19 on Sunday, said Robert Wollenweber, a fellow plumber and close friend. Holliday was 61 and had been in a Simi Valley hospital since mid-August.

George Holliday, an Argentinian plumber, had considered returning to his homeland after receiving threats of violence. A note on the windshield of his work truck read, “Be careful when starting your car in the morning. “

(Craig Fujii / Associated Press)

Holliday had just gone to bed when he heard the sirens howl. He pulled on his pants, grabbed his foot long video camera, stepped out onto the balcony, and hit the record button. From start to finish, it was raw and gory footage, with the officers pounding, clubbing and shooting King, who was black, with a Taser before finally throwing a sheet over his face, as if was dead.

Holliday said he called the LAPD to ask what was going on and to tell them he filmed the beating. But he said the dispatcher hung up on him. He tried again the next morning and eventually called KTLA-TV Channel 5 instead. The next day, the police came to the KTLA studio and confiscated the tape. But by that point, copies of the video were multiplying rapidly, an early viral sensation.

When the four officers were tried for assault and use of excessive force in 1992, Holliday’s video was the prosecution’s most damning evidence. After seven days of deliberation, the largely white jury returned verdicts of not guilty.

The city, even the nation, was stunned.

“The verdict of this jury will not blind us to what we saw on this videotape,” said Tom Bradley, LA’s only black mayor.

“Seen from outside the trial, it was difficult to understand how the verdict could match the video,” President George HW Bush said. “The civil rights leaders I met were stunned. And me too, and also [First Lady] Barbara and my children too.

In a way that couldn’t be seen at the time, Holliday’s simple gesture of hoisting a video camera over his shoulder was probably one of the first flickers of the citizen journalist movement to come, where people ordinary people were recording and playing video clips of ongoing events, from Eric Garner to George Floyd, both of whom died at the hands of the police.

“The Rodney King video was the Jackie Robinson of police videos,” said Rev. Al Sharpton.

After the acquittal, Holliday viewed the five days of violence with horror. Customers have told him that his video caused the upheaval. He found a note hidden under a wiper blade of his work truck: “Be careful when you start your car in the morning. He feared the police would target him.

“There was a sea of ​​reporters every day,” Holliday told The Times in 2006. He said his wife was too scared to leave their apartment and then finally left – for good. A second marriage also collapsed. And his legal efforts to collect compensation for his video have only resulted in an increase in lawyers’ bills. Raised in Argentina, he plans to return to his native country.

Struggling to pay his bills, he put his old video camera – which then no longer worked – up for auction in 2020, with an opening bid of $ 225,000. It sold for an undisclosed sum.

“Look, I’m still a plumber, even after all of this,” he told The New York Times.