George Holliday, who filmed the 1991 Rodney King beating, dies at 61 from Covid complications

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Obit King Beating Videographer (AP1997)
Obit King Beating Videographer (AP1997)

George Holliday, whose amateur video of police beating Black motorist Rodney King in 1991, has died of complications of Covid-19, according to a friend.

Mr Holliday, 61, died Sunday at a hospital in Los Angeles – the same city gripped 30 years ago by footage he shot on a month-old camcorder. A plumber who’d grown up in Argentina, Mr Holliday was a white resident of San Fernando Valley when he noticed four officers brutally beating Mr King, picking up his camera and notifying police.

That grainy video remains widely recognised and was essential during the officers’ trial despite their eventual acquittal – which shocked the nation and sparked days of riots throughout Los Angeles.

Mr Holliday was not vaccinated for Covid and had been in the hospital for more than a month, longtime friend Robert Wollenweber told AP. He died after contracting pneumonia and being placed on a ventilator.

The Los Angeles Times – the hometown paper of a city fundamentally changed by Mr Holliday’s footage and the King case – published a lyrical obituary which recalled the turmoil at the time and the plumber’s inadvertent step into the spotlight.

“Shot with a bulky Sony Handycam, the video of the Rodney King beating in 1991 tore open a city already heaving with racial tension, an era when the Los Angeles Police Department was all but an occupying force in the city’s Black neighborhoods, arriving with tanks, battering rams and brute force,” the paper wrote.

“And when the four officers who beat King were acquitted the following year, the city exploded in protest and violence, thick smoke curling into the sky from Koreatown to South L.A. By the time it was over, 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 psyches of its residents – remained in plain view for decades.

“For Holliday, it was like being hurled over a cliff. Reporters lurked outside his Lake View Terrace apartment, death threats arrived in the mail, and his efforts to receive just compensation for one of the most infamous videos of the time vaporized again and again.”

Last year, he told The New York Times that the entire incident stemmed from his instinctive decision to utilise a recent purchase.

“You know how it is when you have a new piece of technology,” he said. “You film anything and everything.”

His footage was a prelude to the countless videos to come in the following decades of police brutality filmed on more advanced technology, spurring protests, activism, reform and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, in a 2016 interview with The Marshall Project, said that when he’d first seen the video at the time of the incident, he was asked to comment.

“My response was that Rodney King was the victim, but George Holliday, the white man who filmed the beating from his balcony, was the hero,” he said.

“Given the racial polarization and stereotypes, he could have said: ‘All those police out there and lights blinking, I’m not going to get involved in that.’ He could have said, ‘What’s that Black guy doing in our neighborhood?’ But something about his own character and upbringing said to him, beyond color and culture, ‘this is not right.’

“Had he not filmed it we would not know anything about Rodney King.”

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