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30 Years Later, Police Beating of Altadena’s Rodney King Remains a Seminal Event In U.S. History

John Muir alum was awarded $3.8 million as the result of a lawsuit stemming from incident

Published on Wednesday, March 3, 2021 | 11:26 am
 
Still image of King beating taken 30 years ago

Thirty years ago, plumber George Holliday was asleep in his Lake View Terrace apartment when he was awakened by a commotion outside so loud that it prompted him to grab his video camera and walk to his balcony to see what was amiss.

With a hovering Los Angeles Police Department helicopter’s spotlight providing the illumination, the scene Holliday captured with his Sony Handycam that night changed history.

It was March 3, 1991, and through the lens of his camera, Holliday recorded four white LAPD officers using batons, Tasers, feet and fists to beat a Black man later identified as Rodney King, whose name quickly became globally synonymous with police brutality.

King, who was born in Sacramento, raised in Altadena, and attended John Muir High School, was an unemployed construction worker who had been drinking and was on probation for a robbery conviction when he was ordered to pull over for speeding on the Foothill Freeway. He eventually stopped his car in front of Holliday’s apartment building, where LAPD officers took charge of the traffic stop, which degenerated into a violent confrontation as the officers trying to subdue King pounded him repeatedly with nightsticks, as others looked on.

King was left with skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage.

Holliday, who recorded the beating just after midnight, contacted KTLA5 later that day. The station became the first to air the footage that would be seen across the globe, becoming what would today be considered a viral video.

The video led to upheaval within the Los Angeles Police Department, sparking calls for the ouster of then-Chief Daryl Gates and prompting the appointment of the Christopher Commission to examine the inner workings of the LAPD and allegations of excessive force and institutional racism.

When the four officers involved in the King beating were acquitted a year later of excessive use of force by a jury in Simi Valley, five days of rioting ensued in Los Angeles, resulting in 54 deaths, some 2,400 injuries, scores of destroyed buildings and other property damage, and more than 12,000 arrests. 

The acquitted police officers were later convicted of violating King’s civil rights in a federal court trial.

King died in Rialto on June 17, 2012 of what was described as an accidental drowning. He was 47. Before his death, he authored “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.”

The grainy footage Holliday shot that night made the then-31-year-old plumber a pioneer of citizen journalism. The Sony video camera used to record the episode went up for auction last July, with bidding starting at $225,000, but it was unclear if it was ever sold.

In April 2019, King’s daughter, Lora King — who was 7 years old when her father was beaten, and 8 when the urban unrest started in L.A. — began the “I Am A King” scholarship to celebrate black fathers.

In 2016, she created The Rodney King Foundation in honor of her father. Lora King and other King family members will commemorate the 30th anniversary of his beating by feeding over 500 low-income families in Watts on Wednesday. The event is sponsored by The Rodney King Foundation.

Holliday told The New York Times last year that he still works as a plumber, never profiting from the video, which was still in the possession of federal authorities.

He told the newspaper that he had purchased the video camera about a month before the King beating, and he grabbed it instinctively when he and his wife were awakened by the police ruckus outside his window.

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

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