It’s sadly common these days for bystanders like the one in North Charleston, South Carolina to take out their smartphones to document police brutality that otherwise might have been swept under the rug.
That wasn’t the case the year of the Rodney King beating. I’m old enough to remember the Rodney King trial and the riots that followed in 1992, and it was an era long before everything was recorded let alone put online. Still, the video of King’s beating managed to become as “viral” as a pre-internet recording could have been.
Here’s how it happened. A man named George Holliday woke up to the sound of sirens a little after midnight in March 1991. Holliday grabbed his Sony Handycam and recorded the beating that would become a part of America’s collective memory. All told, King was struck as many as 56 times, The New York Times reported in 1991. The four officers, the Times reported, had no idea they were being recorded.
These days, Holliday might have posted the nine-minute video to YouTube, but back then he gave a hard copy to KTLA-TV Channel 5, according to the Los Angeles Times. The video ultimately spurred a national conversation about police brutality and became the “most-played video in the history of the country,” Holliday’s lawyer told The Times back in 1991. TV stations played the clip endlessly, “the early version of video gone viral,” as the Associated Press put it.
The tape also led to the indictment of the four officers involved, though they were eventually acquitted. Still, the tape came to “symbolise complaints about police brutality, racism and street violence,” according to The Times.
That tape is now in the federal archives, and Holliday told the LA Times in 2012 that he knows his “name appears in the history books.“