George Holliday, the plumber who happened to be doing the nighttime traffic control where Los Angeles police officers beat black motorist Rodney G. King in 1991, an incident that resulted in a closely watched trial and nearly a week of fatal violence across the city after the Officials found not guilty of died in Los Angeles on Sunday. He was 61.
His friend Robert Wollenweber said the death in a hospital was due to complications from Covid-19.
The grainy but clear video of four white police officers attacking a black man is one of the best-known images of the 20th century.
In the decades since, technological advances have enabled thousands to follow Mr Holliday’s lead, recording numerous cases of police violence against people of color, and forcing recognition of what many call systemic racism in the country’s judicial system.
Mr. Holliday was living in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley when he and his wife Maria were jolted to the sound of a helicopter flying low over their apartment complex on March 3, 1991. It was 12:45 p.m. and the two had been sound asleep, planning to get up early to see a friend run a local marathon.
To record his friend’s performance, Mr. Holliday had bought a Sony camcorder and was learning to use it when he and his wife went out on their balcony to see what was causing the fuss. On the other side of the street, they saw several police officers approaching a vehicle from behind.
Sensing something important was going on, Mr. Holliday ran into his living room to get his video camera. There he heard his wife call: “Oh my God!”
He returned and saw four policemen beating Mr. King on the floor. They kicked him, beat him with night sticks and shocked him with a taser before handcuffing him and leaving him there until an ambulance arrived.
Mr. Holliday filmed about nine minutes of the incident, although he missed the beginning; he was inside and got the camera – a point the defense attorneys would raise by saying that Mr. Holliday had not seen or captured a moment in which, as they said, Mr. King had threatened the officers.
Later that day, Hollidays went to their boyfriend’s race and then to a wedding. It wasn’t until the next morning, March 4th, that they called the Los Angeles police to find out what had happened to Mr. King. The operator hung up, said Mr. Holliday.
Then he called a local television station, KTLA, which sent a reporter to interview him. The reporter borrowed the tape. A report of the incident was on the news that evening, and the broadcaster sent a clip of Mr Holliday’s video to CNN, with which KTLA had an agreement to exchange footage.
The next day, Mr. Holliday went to the train station to get his tape. Knowing that he had something sensational in hand, he demanded payment. The broadcaster gave him $ 500, but he later said he didn’t say the tape had already been copied and passed on.
At the end of the day, the story was international news, with a clip of Mr. Hollidays video being played around the world. Law enforcement agencies were called in. The police arrived at his home with a summons for his tape and recorder. The FBI opened an investigation.
Although millions of Americans owned VCRs at the time, their use by so-called citizen journalists to record things like police abuse was new. Mr Holliday inadvertently showed the way and announced a day when cell phone recordings of police violence would be common.
“The Rodney King video was the Jackie Robinson of police videos,” Rev. Al Sharpton told the New York Times in 2020.
Mr. Holliday became a reluctant little celebrity in one of the greatest stories of the 1990s. At one point he was getting 100 calls from reporters a day, he said. He changed his phone number three times.
But when he was disinterested in media appearances, he became eager to reap any profit from his 15 minutes of fame and was angry when his fame didn’t turn into fortune. He hired an agent, a lawyer, and a publicist, all of whom worked on broadcasts. He released a $ 39.95 videotape aimed at teaching others how to make money from citizen journalism.
There was talk of a biopic, a TV show, a George Holliday toy used to fight crime, and, in the early 1990s, a 1-900 number where callers would pay $ 1.95 a minute for his Hear advice and thoughts and share their own tips. None of that led to anything.
He made some money on his clip. He licensed it to a female rap duo called Bytches with Problems; He did the same after litigating Spike Lee for use in his movie “Malcolm X”. But he made less than $ 10,000, he said, and that made him bitter. He sued KTLA and other broadcasters for $ 100 million, saying they didn’t tell him the video would be shared. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in 1993.
However, he was able to achieve one achievement: his video was included in the Whitney Biennale in New York in 1993 and ran there in an endless loop.
“It’s like television has replaced art school as a breeding ground for new talent,” wrote art critic Deborah Solomon in The Times.
Mr Holliday’s video played a pivotal role in the assault proceedings against four officers who were involved in the king’s beating. In April 1992, a jury found three of them not guilty and found the fourth officer to be wrong.
The video also came into play in a federal civil rights case against the officers in 1993 that resulted in convictions of two of them, and in a civil lawsuit brought by Mr. King against the City of Los Angeles in 1994 for which he was $ 3.8 -Dollars were awarded a million.
Mr. King later said that he lost most of that money to bad investments. He drowned in his backyard swimming pool in 2012 at the age of 47.
Mr Holliday said he was glad he did what he did but regretted the impact on Los Angeles police.
“I’m sorry for the police,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “I think beating was out of place, but I’ve never had a bad experience with you.”
Mr. Holliday and Mr. King happened to meet only once. Not long after the first acquittal, Mr Holliday was filling up his car at a gas station when someone called his name.
“I looked over and didn’t recognize him because the only pictures I had seen of him were of his puffy and puckered face, but now he was recovered,” Holliday said in an interview with British newspaper The. Sun. “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.'”
Mr. Holliday was born in Canada in June 1960. (Many details about his early life remain sketchy.) Thanks to his father’s traveling career as a senior executive at the Shell oil company, the family later lived in Indonesia and Argentina. His father was British, his mother German. His paternal grandfather had been a police officer in London, a fact Mr Holliday would cite to explain his ambivalence about what his video had done.
In 1980 he moved to Los Angeles and looked for a new life away from the dictatorship that was ruling Argentina at the time. He became a plumber and ran a plumbing services company in the late 1980s.
Mr Holliday’s two marriages were divorced. He is survived by his son George Jr.; his brother Peter; and his sister Ricarda Ana Holliday.
After his fame, Mr. Holliday retired from public life and became a freelance plumber. He did not advertise and only took recommendations. His phone numbers weren’t listed and he rarely gave interviews.
In 2020, he tried to sell his camera at auction and told the New York Times that he needed the money. The camera is listed at a starting price of $ 225,000 and has not placed any bids. It’s unclear if he ever sold it.