George Holliday, the plumber who happened to videotape the overnight traffic stop where Los Angeles police officers beat black motorist Rodney G. King in 1991, an incident that led to a closely watched trial and nearly a week of deadly violence in the city after the officers were found not guilty, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 61.
His friend Robert Wollenweber said the death in a hospital was caused by complications from Covid-19.
The grainy but clear video of four white officers assaulting a black man is one of the most famous images of the 20th century, one that shocked many white Americans but confirmed what many black Americans already knew about the police’s treatment of them. .
In the decades since, technological advances have enabled thousands of people to follow Mr. Holliday, documenting numerous cases of police brutality against people of color and forcing recognition of what many believe to be systemic racism in the national justice system.
Holliday was living in the Lake View Terrace section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, when he and his wife Maria were awakened on March 3, 1991 by the sound of a helicopter flying low over their apartment complex. It was 12:45 PM and the two had been fast asleep, with plans to get up early to watch a friend run in a local marathon.
To record his friend’s achievement, Mr. Holliday had bought a Sony camcorder and was still learning to use it when he and his wife went to their balcony to see what was causing the commotion. On the other side, they saw several police officers approaching a vehicle from behind.
mr. Holliday sensed something important was going on and ran into his living room to get his video camera. While there, he heard his wife yell, “Oh, my God!”
He returned and saw four officers knocking Mr. King to the ground. They kicked him, beat him with clubs and shocked him with a taser before tying him up and leaving him there until an ambulance arrived.
mr. Holliday filmed about nine minutes of the incident, although he missed the start; he was in to get the camera — a point defense attorneys would raise, saying that Mr. Holliday hadn’t seen or captured a moment where Mr. King had threatened the officers, they said.
Later that day, the Hollidays went to their friend’s race and then to a wedding. It wasn’t until the next morning, March 4, that they called the Los Angeles Police Department to ask what had happened to Mr. King. The operator hung up, Mr Holliday said.
He then called a local TV station, KTLA, who sent a reporter to interview him. The reporter borrowed the tape. A report of the incident hit the news that evening, and the station sent a clip of Mr. Holliday to CNN, with which KTLA had an agreement to share images.
The next day, Mr. Holliday went to the station to pick up his band. Aware that he had something sensational in his hands, he demanded payment. The station gave him $500, but, he later said, it didn’t tell him that the tape had already been copied and shared.
By the end of the day, the story was international news, with a clip of Mr. Holliday’s video played around the world. Law enforcement officers came in. The police arrived at his house with a subpoena 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 such things as police brutality was new. mr. Holliday inadvertently led the way, predicting a day when cellphones from police brutality would be commonplace.
“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 wasn’t interested in media appearances, he became eager to make the most of his 15 minutes of fame, and angry when his fame didn’t lead to fortune. He hired an agent, a lawyer, and a publicist, all of whom worked on consignment. He released a videotape that, for $39.95, would teach others how to make money from citizen journalism.
There was talk of a biopic, a TV show, a George Holliday crime fighter and, since this was in the early 1990s, a 1-900 number, in which callers would pay $1.95 per minute to hear his advice and thoughts. and their own tips. None of that came to fruition.
He made some money with his clip. He licensed it to a female rap duo called Bytches with Problems; he did the same, after a legal battle, with 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 stations for $100 million, saying they didn’t tell him the video would be shared. A judge dismissed the suit in 1993.
But he achieved one feat: His video was shot at New York’s 1993 Whitney Biennial, where he looped.
“It’s as if television has replaced art school as a breeding ground for new talent,” art critic Deborah Solomon wrote in The Times.
The video of mr. Holliday played a pivotal role in the trial of four officers involved in the king’s beatings. In April 1992, a jury found three of them not guilty and declared a mistrial in the fourth officer’s case, a verdict that kicked off six days of violence in Los Angeles, leading to the deaths of 54 people and an estimated $ 1 billion in damage.
The video also played a role in a 1993 federal civil rights case against the officers, which led to the conviction of two of them, and in a 1994 civil lawsuit by Mr. King against the City of Los Angeles, for which he was paid $3.8. million.
mr. King later said he lost most of that money to bad investments. He drowned in his backyard pool in 2012 at the age of 47.
Mr Holliday said he was glad he did what he did but regretted the impact it had on the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I feel sorry for the police,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1996. “I think that beating was excessive, but I’ve never had a bad experience with them.”
mr. holliday and mr. King happened to meet only once. Not long after the initial acquittal, Mr. Holliday was filling up his car at a gas station when someone called his name.
“I looked back and didn’t recognize him because the only pictures I’d seen of him were of his face, all swollen and beaten up, but now he’s recovered,” said Mr. Holliday in an interview with British newspaper The Sun. “He could see 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 vague.) Thanks to his father’s itinerant career as a director at the oil company Shell, the family later lived in Indonesia and Argentina. His father was British and his mother was 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 triggered.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1980 in search of a new life away from the dictatorship that reigned in Argentina at the time. He became a plumber and ran a plumbing business in the late 1980s.
The two marriages of Mr. Holliday ended up in divorce. He is survived by his son, George Jr.; his brother, Peter; and his sister, Ricarda Ana Holliday.
After his brush with fame, Mr. Holliday withdrew from public life and became a freelance plumber. He did not advertise and only took referrals. His phone numbers were secret and he rarely allowed interviews.
In 2020, he tried to sell his camera at auction and told The New York Times that he needed the money. The camera has a starting price of $225,000 and has not yielded any bids. It is unclear if he ever sold it.