George Holliday, Who Taped Police Beating of Rodney King, Dies at 61
His shocking video, which played a key role in the prosecution of four officers, presaged the now-common use of cellphones to capture police abuse.,
Those We’ve Lost
George Holliday, Who Taped Police Beating of Rodney King, Dies at 61
His shocking video, which played a key role in the prosecution of four officers, presaged the now-common use of cellphones to capture police abuse.
George Holliday after a news conference in Los Angeles in 1991. His video recording of the Rodney King beating was seen around the world, a forerunner of the cellphone recordings of police abuse that have become common today. Credit…Craig Fujii/Associated Press
George Holliday, the plumber who fortuitously videotaped the nighttime traffic stop in which Los Angeles police officers beat the Black motorist Rodney G. King in 1991, an incident that led to a closely watched trial and nearly a week of deadly violence across the city after the officers were found not guilty, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 61.
His friend Robert Wollenweber said the death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of Covid-19.
The grainy yet distinct video of four white officers assaulting a Black man is among the 20th century’s most recognized images, one that shocked many white Americans but confirmed what many Black Americans had already known about police treatment of them.
In the decades since, advancements in technology have allowed thousands to follow Mr. Holliday’s lead, recording numerous instances of police violence against people of color and forcing a recognition of what many say is systemic racism in the nation’s justice system.
Mr. Holliday was living in the Lake View Terrace section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, when, on March 3, 1991, he and his wife Maria were shaken awake by the sound of a helicopter flying low over their apartment complex. It was 12:45 a.m., and the two had been fast asleep, with plans to rise early to see a friend run in a local marathon.
To record his friend’s feat, Mr. Holliday had bought a Sony camcorder and was still learning to use it when he and his wife went to their balcony to see what was causing the commotion. Across the road, they saw several police officers approaching a vehicle from behind.
Mr. Holliday, sensing something important afoot, ran into his living room to get his video camera. While there he heard his wife shout, “Oh, my God!”
He returned to see four officers beating Mr. King on the ground. They kicked him, hit him with nightsticks and shocked him with a Taser before hogtying him and leaving him lying there until an ambulance arrived.
Mr. Holliday filmed about nine minutes of the incident, though he missed the beginning; he was inside getting the camera — a point that defense lawyers would raise, saying that Mr. Holliday had not seen or captured a moment in which, they said, Mr. King had threatened the officers.
Later that day the Hollidays went to their friend’s race and then a wedding. It wasn’t until the next morning, on March 4, that they called the Los Angeles Police Department to see what had happened to Mr. King. The switchboard operator hung up on him, Mr. Holliday said.
He then called a local TV station, KTLA, which sent a reporter to interview him. The reporter borrowed the tape. A report about the incident ran on the news that night, and the station sent a clip of Mr. Holliday’s video to CNN, with which KTLA had an agreement to share footage.
The next day, Mr. Holliday went to the station to retrieve his tape. Aware that he had something sensational on his hands, he asked for payment. The station gave him $500, but, he later said, it didn’t tell him that the tape had already been copied and shared.
“The Rodney King video was the Jackie Robinson of police videos,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. After Mr. Holliday took the video, he became a reluctant minor celebrity in one of the biggest stories of the 1990s.Credit…George Holliday
By the end of the day the story was international news, with a clip of Mr. Holliday’s video playing around the world. Law enforcement got involved. The police arrived at his home with a subpoena for his tape and recorder. The F.B.I. opened an investigation.
Though millions of Americans owned video recorders at the time, their use by so-called citizen journalists to record things like police abuse was new. Mr. Holliday unintentionally pointed the way, presaging a day when cellphone recordings of police violence would be common.
“The Rodney King video was the Jackie Robinson of police videos,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told The New York Times in 2020.
Mr. Holliday became a reluctant minor celebrity in one of the biggest stories of the 1990s. At one point he was getting 100 calls from reporters a day, he said. He changed his phone number three times.
But if he was uninterested in media appearances, he became eager to reap whatever profit he could from his 15 minutes of fame, and angry when his fame didn’t lead to fortune. He hired an agent, a lawyer and a publicist, all of whom worked on consignment. He released a videotape that, for $39.95, would teach others how to make money off citizen journalism.
There was talk of a biopic, a TV show, a George Holliday crime-fighter toy and, this being the early 1990s, a 1-900 number, in which callers would pay $1.95 a minute to hear his advice and thoughts and to leave their own tips. None of it came to anything.
He did make some money off his clip. He licensed it to a female rap duo called Bytches with Problems; he did the same, after a legal fight, to Spike Lee for use in his film “Malcolm X.” But he earned less than $10,000, he said, and that left him bitter. He sued KTLA and other stations for $100 million, saying they had not told him that the video would be shared. A judge threw out the suit in 1993.
But he did notch one achievement: His video was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial in New York, during which it ran on a loop.
“It’s as if television has replaced art school as the breeding ground for new talent,” the art critic Deborah Solomon wrote in The Times.
Mr. Holliday’s video played a critical role in the assault trial of four officers involved in the King beating. In April 1992, a jury found three of them not guilty and declared a mistrial in the case of the fourth officer, a verdict that set off six days of violence in Los Angeles leading to the death of 54 people and an estimated $1 billion in damage.
The video also came into play in a 1993 federal civil rights case against the officers, which led to the convictions of two of them, and in a 1994 civil suit by Mr. King against the city of Los Angeles, for which he was awarded $3.8 million.
Mr. Holliday in April 1997, pointing to the spot along a roadside in the Lake View Terrace section of Los Angeles where he videotaped Rodney King being beaten in April 1992. Credit…E.J. Flynn/Associated Press
Mr. King later said that he had lost most of that money in bad investments. He drowned in his backyard swimming pool in 2012 at age 47.
Mr. Holliday said that he was glad he had done what he did, but that he regretted the impact it had on the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I feel bad for the Police Department,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1996. “I think that beating was out of line, but I’ve never had a bad experience with them.”
Mr. Holliday and Mr. King met just once, by chance. Not long after the first not guilty verdict, Mr. Holliday was filling his car at a gas station when someone shouted his name.
“I looked over and I didn’t recognize him because the only pictures I had seen of him were of his face all swollen and beaten up, but now he’d recovered,” Mr. Holliday said in an interview with the British newspaper The Sun. “He could tell that I didn’t know who he was, and he said, ‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’ I said, ‘No.’
“He said, ‘Well, you saved my life.'”
Mr. Holliday was born in June 1960 in Canada. (Many details about his early life remain sketchy.) Thanks to his father’s peripatetic career as an executive with the Shell oil company, the family later lived in Indonesia and Argentina. His father was British, and his mother was German. His paternal grandfather had been a police officer in London, a fact that Mr. Holliday would cite in explaining his ambivalence over what his video had wrought.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1980, seeking a new life away from the dictatorship that ran Argentina at the time. He became a plumber, and by the late 1980s was running a plumbing services company.
Mr. Holliday’s two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his son, George Jr.; his brother, Peter; and his sister, Ricarda Ana Holliday.
After his brush with fame, Mr. Holliday withdrew from public life, becoming a freelance plumber. He didn’t advertise, and only took referrals. His phone numbers were unlisted, and he rarely granted interviews.
In 2020, he tried to sell his camera at auction, telling The New York Times that he needed the money. Listed at a starting price of $225,000, the camera drew no bids. It is unclear if he ever sold it.