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George Holliday, the California plumber who filmed the infamous video of Rodney King’s beating by multiple Los Angeles police officers in 1991, has died of COVID-19, family friends said this week.
Holliday died on Sunday at a hospital in Simi Valley, California, the Los Angeles Times reported the friends of his family said; he was 61.
Holliday, who wasn’t vaccinated, had been placed on a ventilator in recent days after contracting pneumonia, according to NBC News. He’d been hospitalized since August.
On March 3, 1991, Holliday filmed a group of police officers savagely beating King on the pavement outside his San Fernando Valley apartment. King, a truck driver, had been pulled over by California Highway Patrol officers for speeding and driving while intoxicated.
The grainy black and white video, which spanned almost nine minutes, was filmed by Holliday on a Sony Handycam. He later turned over the tape to a local news station.
In 1992, the four officers involved in King’s beating were acquitted at their widely-watched trial. It was a verdict that brought on riots, looting, and violence throughout Los Angeles. Upwards of 60 people died in the ensuing chaos, many from gun violence. Large swaths of the city burned to the ground.
King was later awarded a $3.8 million settlement in a civil lawsuit after a jury found the officers were liable for his pain and suffering. Two of the officers were later found guilty on federal civil rights charges and were handed prison sentences.
In 2012, King died of an accidental drowning at 47.
Holliday, whose life was upended by the video’s release, was dogged for years by the publicity the recording had generated.
“There was a sea of reporters every day,” Holliday told The New York Times in 2006.
Later death threats arrived. After riots engulfed Los Angeles following the acquittal of the four officers, he found an ominous note tucked under his work truck’s windshield wiper.
“Be careful when you start your car in the morning,” it said.
An Argentinian national, Holliday said he frequently considered returning to his home country, fearing reprisal from law enforcement. More than two decades later, the impact of Holliday’s recording and King's brutal beating by police officers resonate nationwide.
Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton has called the tape the “Jackie Robinson of police videos.” In the decades since King’s infamous beating, widespread ownership of smartphones has brought a rise in citizens documenting police brutality.
In June, Darnella Frazier, the teen who filmed George Floyd’s police killing in Minneapolis, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize citation. Like Holliday’s recording, Frazier’s raw video of officer Derek Chauvin pinning his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes rocked the national conscience and sparked mass protests.
“To me, George Holliday is the spark that lit the fire to all this — [his] video changed the perception of police conduct and police brutality,” John Burris, King’s lawyer, told Oxygen.com.
The California-based civil rights attorney noted how the recording also indelibly altered the landscape of prosecuting police conduct. Before body cameras, before cell phones, there was Holliday’s video, he said, describing the technology as revolutionary.
“I don’t know if the changes we are now seeing would have happened but for George Holliday taking that video,” Burris added. “George Holliday’s video clearly set the tone — and it was a window. It was like an opening of a window, an opening of a door into an area that was really forbidden to examine.”
The disturbing video of Floyd’s murder by Chauvin prompted a national discussion on police reform. Several states and cities have since banned police chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and have made police-worn body cameras mandatory.
At the time of King’s beating, Burris recalled, the rampant nature of police abuses in the country was largely unreported.
“Nobody believed it,” Burris explained.
Holliday's video, which captured the sheer brutality of what happened to King, altered Americans' perception of law enforcement.
“After that, it became a little more believable,” he said. “It attacked the credibility of police in ways that had not been done before."
In 2020, Holliday, still working as a plumber, auctioned his Sony Handycam at a starting bid of $225,000. The camera sold for an unspecified sum. He hoped the auction would "inspire people to use their cameras for everything, the bad and the good."
“People can accuse other people of doing stuff,” Holliday told the New York Times. “But when it's on camera, it's different. You just can't argue with it."
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