George Holliday, the plumber who in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, captured on his bulky video camera a group of white L.A.P.D. officers viciously beating Rodney King, has died. He was 61.
According to the Washington Post, he died Sunday of complications of COVID-19 after spending the last month in a Simi Valley hospital.
An early example of citizen journalism, Holliday’s grainy black and white video of the beating would set off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the deadly L.A. riots in 1992 after the four officers involved were acquitted of using excessive force. In all, more than 50 people died in the riots with thousands more injured and the incident still haunts the city to this day.
Described “as the Jackie Robinson of police videos,” by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rodney King tape, shot on a Sony Handycam that Holliday had purchased for his wife as a Valentine’s Day gift, would irrevocably change history but also the life of the man who shot it. Harassed by the media camped outside his apartment and sent death threats, he would later spend decades trying to get compensation for his video but to no avail.
Born in Canada, to a British father and German mother, his family moved around the world due to his father’s job with Shell Oil. He spent time in Indonesia and from the age of five was raised in Argentina. In search of work, he moved to the U.S. in 1980 at the age of 18.
He worked as a plumber for 43 years and lived at the San Fernando Valley apartment, which was 100 feet from the site of the incident with his first wife. In an in-depth interview with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, he ran through in detail the events of that fateful night and how he came to shoot the incident.
“It was past midnight. We were all sleeping already and were awoken by the noise of all the sirens because it was a lot of police cars and the helicopter,” he said. “I looked out the window and I saw all this commotion coming to stop right outside our window. Again, my first thought, “Hey, there’s something exciting going on, I’m going to grab the camera,” because of the new camera you’re filming everything, right?”
He continued: “I’m lifting up the camera, turning it on and trying to get it to focus. Again, it’s still new. It has the autofocus feature, but that autofocus wasn’t focusing I guess, because it was nighttime. I’m trying to remember, “Oh, how did I turn this autofocus off? How do I focus manually?” And I finally got it to work, and I started focusing, and the rest is history. What you see on the video, on the tape, is what I captured there.”
Bewildered by what he had just witnessed, at first he just assumed the police were taking “care of business right there and then” as law enforcement did in Argentina, where he grew up. But after discussions with his wife, he first contacted the police, who brushed him off and hung up on him, and then local news station KTLA Channel 5, sending them his 8mm tape of the incident. KTLA sent a reporter to interview Holliday the next day. Soon the police had confiscated the tape, but not before copies had been made and it had been released to the public, stunning the nation and engulfing the L.A.P.D. in a racial firestorm.
The next year, the tape became the central and most damning piece of evidence in the prosecution’s case against the four officers in the trial. However, the majority-white jury returned not guilty verdicts.
In the midst of the media circus and threats after the tape became public and the trial of the police officers, he left the San Fernando Valley apartment and his first marriage also fell apart. He also considered returning to Argentina, but he stayed living in L.A. till the end of his life.
He spent his last years trying to get compensation for his tape with no success and even attempted to sell the original Sony Handycam at auction, although no bids were made.