LOS ANGELES – The amateur video footage captured by George Holliday just after midnight on March 3, 1991 was far from today’s high-tech digital media, but it was enough to launch a rewrite of the narrative on race and law enforcement in this country.
It was roughly 81 seconds of that grainy video showing the beating of Rodney King by four white Los Angeles police officers that sparked intense debate and greater public scrutiny of law enforcement tactics. The subsequent acquittal of the accused officers a year later by an almost all-white jury in suburban Simi Valley is largely considered to be the last falling ember that triggered the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Holliday said if he could rewind time, he wouldn’t change his role.
The brutal beating King sustained — 56 blows following a chase through the San Fernando Valley — all captured on video — was the “evidence” Donnie Anderson, founder of Close Up Sound, believed would result in the conviction of the four officers. Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force.
“That video made it an open-and-shut case,” Anderson said. “I think that everyone believed there would be a conviction. I believe that’s why there was no uprising before the trial. We just expected a different outcome.”
The trial, which drew national attention, took place in Simi Valley. A jury of 10 whites, one Hispanic and one Filipino acquitted the officers who were later convicted of violating King’s civil rights in a federal court trial.
“I grew up in South Central. I’m always going to be suspicious of the police,” said Anderson whose father was the founder and pastor of Unity Missionary Baptist Church, which sits one block south of the LAPD 77th Street Police Station.
“I remember I was in Superior Market on East 103 Street and Avalon Boulevard when I heard the jury had reached a verdict. It seemed like everybody in the store was talking about it. It was shocking.”
A day after King’s beating, Holliday reportedly took the video he filmed from the balcony of his apartment to a local news station, which subsequently aired the dramatic footage. From there, the video was broadcast on virtually every national news network.
Parts of the footage was even broadcast around the world. For many observers, the footage is still considered the earliest version of today’s viral video.
“Black men had been brutalized before the Rodney King beating, but we had never had any documentation,” said Najee Ali, executive director of Project Islamic HOPE. “Now with new technology, at least we can show what really happens when black men are confronted by police.”
“Without video, we would be in a worse situation than we are today,” Anderson said.
Twenty-five years on the other side of that infamous video, there have been dozens more incidents of alleged police misconduct. Bystanders turned citizen journalist have captured alarming footage using nothing more than a personal cell phone.
There’s little debate on whether the emergence of digital media and viral videos have had an impact on marginalized communities. There’s an expectation now that anytime police engage in public law enforcement activity, multiple people will use their smart phone to start filming whatever is going on said Eric Deggans, a journalist-author and TV critic for National Public Radio.
“I think the viral videos that we’ve seen have had an impact, but I think the impact is specific,” Deggans said. “They’ve increased awareness of how often police seem to cross lines at traffic stops and use of force incidents. The videos have raised people’s awareness.”
And while viral videos have made an impact, they don’t always create tangible results or lead to the outcome one might expect.
“The one place it’s hard to have an impact is in the courts and to have people convicted of crimes connected to these videos because we have a well-established tradition in the court of giving police officers wide latitude to decide when they are in personal danger and when they are authorized to use deadly force,” Deggans said.
“So in the end, I think juries and the court system have been hesitant to put many limitations on that situation. So even when a police officer may lose their job or be penalized in some way, it’s hard to convict them because they have such wide latitude to decide when they are in personal danger and when force needs to be used to stop the threat.”
That is where the power behind video footage gets lost, Ali said, referring to Brendon Glenn, a 29-year-old who was fatally shot in Venice in May 2015 by an LAPD officer. Glenn, who had recently relocated from New York, was accused of reaching for the officer’s weapon.
After reviewing surveillance video from a nearby bar, witness accounts and other evidence, LAPD investigators determined Glenn was not trying to take the officer’s gun or his partner’s weapon, according to Police Chief Charlie Beck, who has since recommended that criminal charges be filed against the officer.
While the district attorney’s office weighs whether to prosecute, published reports say the officer had been investigated a year prior to killing Glenn but was not charged for omitting witness statements in a police report.
“Yes, I believe video and digital media is making a tremendous difference, but we don’t have enough prosecutors with the conviction of character to prosecute rogue cops,” Ali said.
On the bright side, video and digital media platforms have empowered even the least sophisticated users beyond a one-dimensional dialogue. Anyone can become a brand, Deggans said.
“Digital media allows people to express themselves in ways that the wider world can more easily pick up on and they don’t need to be published in the New York Times or the CBS Evening News to reach a wide audience,” he added. “If they make enough of an impact, traditional news sources will come to them. That’s already happening and we’ve been seeing that for some time now.”
A downside to the freedom of creative expression that didn’t exist previously is that now it’s up to the audience to decide whether a video is worthy of attention or not.
“It’s a scary thing to think about because a lot of times the audience draws the line on credibility,” Deggans said. “The power of these viral videos is that they should be relatively unedited and they should show people what’s happening, but the audience sometimes isn’t always sophisticated and doesn’t know to look at a video, blog post or piece of media and decide whether it’s worthy of trust.”
Meanwhile, social justice advocates, including the most notable Black Lives Matter movement, have been bolstered by public outcry at the release of disturbing video footage, which calls into question law enforcement practices.
“I was locking up the church years ago and a couple of officers pulled up in an unmarked car and accused me of breaking in,” Anderson said. “One of them pointed a gun right at my head and then flashed his badge. At that moment, I remember thinking ‘the story in the newspaper is going to say he was reaching for a weapon.’
“Regardless of the outcome at trial, I think we have been empowered to some degree. I think we’re better off having video footage, no matter what,” Anderson said.