On March 3, 1991, minutes after midnight, George Holliday, the owner of a local L.A. plumbing company, was awakened by sirens and helicopters. He grabbed his handheld Sony camera — so new it was still in the box — walked to his terrace and started filming; what he caught was jarring. Four police officers were savagely beating a black man with batons. About a dozen police officers stood outside the vicinity and watched. A crowd of around 20 people looked on from afar. Some were pleading with the officers to stop. Bystanders were yelling, “Don’t kill him.”
Altogether, Holliday captured 12 minutes of footage. Ninety seconds of that footage would become arguably the most infamous piece of imagery of all time: The Rodney King tape, which sparked the 1992 L.A. riots a year later when the four officers involved in the beating were acquitted of all charges.
The footage spread swiftly. A local story became a national one, dominating coverage around the country. Years after people would label it the first example of citizen journalism. It wasn’t even close to being that. (In 1963, Abraham Zapruder grabbed his top of the line Bell & Howell Zoomatic, stood on an elevated abutment outside of his office, and captured the moment John F. Kennedy was killed.) What it was, however, was the first viral video.
In 1991, words like “viral” and “citizen journalism” didn’t exist. But Holliday knew he had something important. And yet, no one knew what to do with the tape at first. He tried calling the police themselves. That was a dead end. After speaking with some friends, he took the video to his local news station KTLA that Monday morning. He received $500, a fleece. To put it in some context: Zapruder sold the Kennedy tape exclusively to Life Magazine for $100,000, which was the equivalent of a $1 million at that time.
When KTLA aired the footage later that day, it wasn’t the lead story. By the next day, CNN — which was finally becoming a force due to its groundbreaking 24-hour Gulf War coverage — aired the footage, giving almost no credit to the man who shot it. As the footage spread throughout the country, George Holliday was effectually renamed “bystander.” By June, he had sent out more than 900 cease and desist letters, demanding $7,500 dollars from each outlet that played it. It had only been three months since Holliday shot the footage, and his lawyer was already calling it “the most-played video in the history of this country.” (Later that summer, desperate to find any way to cash out, Holliday was promoting a sleazy straight to VCR tape called Shoot News and Make Money With Your Camcorder.)
The video was a hit. Finally, visual proof of one of the worst open secrets of all time: the LAPD was a systemically abusive and racist organization.
The savagery and the accessibility of the visuals were why it spread. Compare it to the first example of video-documented police brutality. In 1988, New York City artist Clayton Patterson was filming footage of the Thompkins Square Riots. He recorded police attacking residents and protesters. And while he gained some fame from the incident — he later appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where, with great flair, he said the line “Little brother is watching Big Brother!”— his footage never spread, largely because Patterson didn’t publicly release it. Patterson worked out a deal where the city got access to the footage. This lead to numerous indictments and the captain of the NYPD being removed.
Now, more than two decades laters, when you think of Rodney King you don’t just think of a video, you think of an era: the Latasha Harlins killing two weeks later; the acquittal of the four police officers; the six days of riots; the Reginald Denny beating; the “Can we all get along?” speech.
All of this because of the actions of a 31-year-old plumber. And that’s one of the essential aspects of going viral: sometimes the details get lost, even as the image is still clear.