GEORGE Holliday woke up after midnight in his bed in Los Angeles to the sound of cop car sirens and a low-flying helicopter – something serious was unfolding outside his apartment.
It was March 3, 1991, and he was about to witness one of the most important events in American history.
Exactly 30 years ago today, Holliday, a plumber, grabbed his video camera and went out on to his balcony and filmed white LAPD officers savagely beating an unarmed black man, Rodney King.
His video tape of the incident would be shown endlessly on news channels around the world – and would become a crucial factor in the local community's sense of outrage when the officers were acquitted at trial in 1992.
The uproar sparked furious rioting in LA, which lasted six days and led to 63 deaths, 12,000 arrests, and over $1billion in damage.
Now 61, Holliday fears race relations in the US haven't come very far sincefrom the fateful night– with George Floyd's death last year serving as a disturbing echo of what happened three decades ago.
"My overall feeling is sadness that people treat other people like that, and that’s the world that we live in," Holliday tells The Sun.
"It’s a pretty sad place that we’re leaving to our kids.”
'Let's film this'
Long before everyone had smartphones, it was extremely fortunate that Holliday had a video camera at all – and that King's high-speed car chase ended outside Holliday's apartment.
King was driving with alcohol in his system and he was speeding when cops tried to pull him over.
He knew if they caught him, a DUI charge would violate his parole terms for a previous robbery conviction – so he decided to try and outrun them.
After reaching speeds over a 100mph and running at least one red light, the chase came to a stop about 90 feet away from Holliday's Lake View Terrace apartment.
“It was really loud and woke me up. I looked out the bedroom window and saw all the commotion going on, and all the police cars coming to a stop right outside," Holliday says.
“We had just bought our first video camera that we had in our home. This was before cell phones. And when you have a new camera, the first thing you think of is: ‘Let’s film this’.
“I grabbed the camera and went out onto the balcony. By the time I got out to the balcony, the beating was already going on. I put the camera up to my eye and started filming.”
What he captured would shock the world – after being tased, King was on the ground being repeatedly hit by cops with batons who also stamped on him.
King suffered 11 skull fractures and brain damage as well as cuts and bruises from the onslaught.
At first, Holliday was unsure what to do with the footage.
He first contacted the police, who were uninterested, before he gave it to a local news station, KTLA, who paid him $500.
Uproar and death threats
When they broadcast Holliday's tape, the story exploded – and so did interest in Holliday.
“For the first couple of weeks, the media was outside my apartment completely swarming the place. I couldn’t even get through them to go to work," he says.
“It was hard. If anything, my view of the media has changed.
"I used to think that these were honourable people. But all they want is their story. And they twist their story for what they need.”
Amid the media frenzy, an outraged public demanded the officers face justice and reforms be made to what they saw as a racist and unaccountable force.
But Holliday says the police were generally kind to him and, when he testified for an internal affairs investigation into the incident, they told him afterwards he'd done the right thing with the tape.
But while most of the people who contacted him were positive, not everyone was happy, with some even sending death threats.
"There was maybe one or two letters that, you could tell, were from people that weren’t all there," Holliday says.
Although appalled by what he'd captured, Holliday was wary of what his tape was doing to the reputation of police – his own grandfather had been a bobby in London.
“I always had – and I still do have – a high opinion of the police," Holliday says.
"I think they’re given a very bad rap, one they don’t deserve. They do a lot of good things and you never see anybody talk about that stuff.”
Shock verdict and violence
Racial tensions mounted and, when a jury acquitted the four officers of charges of assault and excessive force, the city erupted.
Within hours of the verdict on April 29, 1992, widespread rioting broke out which lasted six days.
The extreme unrest saw looting and arson attacks, with thousands of law enforcement and National Guardsmen deployed in a desperate bid to control the situation.
Shop owners organised their own armed security teams to defend businesses from the looters and shocking footage of them exchanging gunfire with rioters were broadcast to the world.
Some 64 people were killed in the bloodshed, including ten who were shot by the authorities.
On the third day of the riots, a tearful King went on TV to say: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"
Two of the acquitted officers were found guilty of civil rights violations a year later after the public demanded a retrial.
King was awarded $3.8million in damages from the City of Los Angeles, most of which he used to found an unsuccessful record label.
He died from accidental drowning in his swimming pool in 2012 with drugs and alcohol in his system.
“It was another sad situation," Holliday says, reflecting on when he heard the news of King's death.
"This was an opportunity to turn the gentleman around and have a good life.”
Despite their connection, Holliday and King only ever met once.
King spotted Holliday at a petrol station and decided to introduce himself.
“He called me by my name. He said: ‘Hey George!’" Holliday says.
People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?
"I looked over and I didn’t recognise him because the only pictures I had seen of him were of his face all swollen and beaten up, but now he’d recovered.
“He could tell that I didn’t know who he was and he said: ‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’ I said: ‘No’.
“He said: ‘Well, you saved my life.’"
Holliday said it was nice to meet him, they shook hands, and went their separate ways.
The 1992 LA Riots in Numbers
- Over 60 dead: 28 black, 19 Latino, 14 white, 2 Asian
- 12,000 arrested
- $1billion property damage
- 13,500 troops deployed
- 4,000 buildings destroyed
- Over 16,000 riot-related crimes reported
History repeating itself
Holliday's tape was one of the first and most important examples of citizen journalism in US history.
And there were disturbing echoes of the early 1990s with George Floyd's killing last year.
A video showing a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, fatally kneeling on the neck of an African American man brought the issue of police brutality towards black people into the spotlight once again, along with rioting across the US.
"To be honest, I have not seen that footage," Holliday says of Floyd's death.
"It’s been quite a few years now that I don’t watch the news anymore. I don’t really much care for it because I know that whoever’s talking is trying to spin it for their side. The left or the right.”
But despite not following the recent story, Holliday says he's saddened by the lack of progress in race relations.
“It’s a matter of the heart. You gotta change people’s hearts," he says.
"And we have no power over that. People have to change themselves.
"And I believe in a higher power, I believe in God. I think it’s a big part of the problem – there’s not a lot of belief in a higher power.”
For his own part, Holliday hasn't made much money from the historic video he filmed, despite it being widely shown around the world – the FBI never gave him the tape back.
They did return his Sony Handycam a few years ago, however, and Holliday tried to auction it off in 2020 for £160,000, but it didn't sell.
"I've been a plumber for 43 years," he says.
"It looks like I’m going to have to be a plumber for quite a few more years.”
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