George Holliday and Rodney King

I don’t know if George Holliday of Los Angeles is related to Cardinal slugger Matt Holliday, but each in his own way brings fame to the world. The only difference is that you’ve probably heard of Matt Holliday, but not George.

George Holliday has a very important but not well known connection to the late Rodney King. Mr. King was in the news quite a bit in 1992 and again in 2012. It was in 1992 that he was stopped by Los Angeles police officers who were chasing him when he was driving down a boulevard at over 90 miles an hour, perhaps to celebrate the fact that he had just secured a job.

The LAPD circled Mr. King and stopped his car. They pulled him out. Normally, the police would ask the perpetrator to raise his hands; spread his arms and legs against the car, and submit himself to a search. He would be handcuffed, taken to the nearest police station, and booked for the alleged crime (more than alleged in this case).

As most of America knows, the LAPD did not follow standard protocol. They considered King, who was unarmed, to be a threat to them. They began to pummel him; three of the four officers taking turns punching and kicking King. King was helplessly spread out on the street and continued to be brutalized by the police. Eventually, just before the wounds to King became lethal, the police officers stopped, disabled. King, threw him into one of their police cars, and took him to the police station. When they arrived, their story was that King had accosted them and his wounds were just a reflection of the police officers protecting themselves.

Something happened that evening that was unusual, and has had a lasting effect for the past twenty years. What the police officers did was not done in the secrecy of darkness and anonymity. Across the street was George Holliday. His actions forever impacted Rodney King, the LAPD, and thousands, perhaps millions of perpetrators and victims of acts of violence around the world.

George Holliday had a video camera and caught the entire scene on tape. The four officers assumed that they could do whatever they wished and the outcome would simply be their word against that of a man who was flagrantly breaking the law. Even had they known that George Holliday was taping their actions, they would have doubted that he would have come forward and put his word and evidence against that of the LAPD. How could he survive the harassment that they could throw his way and make his life miserable?

But Holliday had the benefit of an active media and a sympathetic public. He was essentially protected from arbitrary and capricious activity from the LAPD. His work had been digitally engraved in the minds of literally millions of people, both in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and across the United States and around the world.

Due to legal and political maneuvering by the LAPD, the district attorney’s office, and political figures, the police were not tried in Los Angeles, where the incident occurred. The trial was moved to the suburban community of Simi Valley, and the jury did not have a single African-American on it. Despite George Holliday’s tape, the four police officers were essentially acquitted.

Several years later, the case was retried in Lost Angeles. Not all, but some of the charges against the police officers were upheld. It was somewhat of a victory for Rodney King and his supporters.

In April 2012, the 20th anniversary,  the beating was once again brought to our attention. Rodney King had not turned into a prince, but he was working on recovery after a very traumatic experience. He was interviewed quite a few times and exhibited remarkable humility and a lack of bitterness.

Then unexpectedly on June 17, King drowned in his swimming pool where he was doing his daily therapeutic exercise. The drowning was accidental, but it capped off a period of recollection for the public about what had happened twenty years before.

None of this would have been possible had it not been for George Holliday. Like Frank Wills, the police officer who noticed something askew in the Watergate building as Republican operatives broke into Democratic headquarters in 1972; George Hamilton broke a crime, but did so in a very low-key way. We all owe him a large debt for not only what he did for Rodney King, but for making it a norm to videotape untoward behavior. May he be remembered for his tremendous contribution to society.