How the L.A. Riots Led to the Rise of Filming Police Brutality

Before everyone had a smartphone, bulky camcorders sparked the revolution of filming authority.

Twenty-five years ago, the city of Los Angeles held its breath as it awaited the verdict in the case regarding the four LAPD officers involved in the highly publicized 1991 beating of Rodney King.

As a six-year-old living in a close suburb of Los Angeles, I wasn’t entirely privy to what was going on or why all the adults were on edge. But I did have a clear picture in my head of that infamous beating.

The Rodney King footage was the first “viral video” documenting police brutality.

After all, in the early days of 24-hour news networks, this brutal footage played on a constant loop during the year leading up to the trial. It nearly was impossible to miss. And being a full decade before the country would witness the horrific atrocities of the 9/11 attacks live on television, this type of unscripted and realistic violence was simply unheard of.

In fact, while the term itself did not yet exist in 1991, the Rodney King footage would later become known as the first “viral video” documenting police brutality, a now common practice that has as at least attempted to bring justice to those who have been unjustly treated by the state.

The Changing of Times  

Justice is much harder to obtain when it is simply one individual’s word against the state.

Before the American citizenry became armed at all times with smartphones capable of both capturing video and instantly uploading the footage directly to the internet, many abuses committed by the state went unnoticed, especially in minority communities.

Justice, is, after all, much harder to obtain when it is simply one individual’s word against the state.

As a young girl who spent her weekends indulging in Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme action movies with my father, I was no stranger to seeing violence played out on television. But there was something different about this.

This wasn’t a scene scripted by Hollywood and intended to be aired for all the world to see. No, this was a raw and unfiltered representation of absolute power corrupting absolutely. And in the 1990s, the LAPD was no stranger to the public scrutinizing its treatment of minorities.

Long-held strife between police and minority communities gave rise to west coast hip hop.

However, while the LAPD endured constant allegations of excessive force and abuse towards minority communities during this time, there was no solid proof of wrongdoing, even though these targeted communities knew firsthand how brutal, and often lethal, an encounter with an officer could become.

Speaking Truth to Power

But the mistreatment of minority communities in the Los Angeles area did not go entirely unnoticed by the general populace. In fact, the long-held strife between police and minority communities is what gave rise to the birth of west coast hip hop.

Los Angeles-based rap groups like NWA, knew that they had no legal recourse against the state, which had effectively rigged the game against them, so they did exactly what our Founding Fathers did: they wrote provocative lyrics taunting authority, asserting their rights as human beings, and exposing the truth of state abuse. In their case specifically, what it felt like to be from a minority community during the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” era of the 1980s and 1990s.

However, between the popularity of hip hop culture and the affordability of camcorders, for the first time in the course of human history, the playing field between government and the people was leveling out, something the LAPD officers involved in the King beating had not anticipated during the night of the beating.

Caught on the Camcorder

On March 3, 1991, off-duty cab driver Rodney King led the Los Angeles Police Department on a high-speed chase after speeding down the highway and then refusing to pull over for fear that a DUI would violate the conditions of his parole.

After the chase came to a screeching halt, King was pulled from his vehicle—vastly outnumbered by the many responding officers— and was tased twice before being brutally beaten by four of the responding officers. Some even used their batons against King who had already been subdued enough to be taken into custody without problem at that point. Yet, the beating continued.

To be sure, King himself was no angel, and choosing to flee from the police was an unwise decision.

As a kindergartner who had just visited the Los Angeles Police Department on a field trip, I remembered being given the opportunity to hold one of those police batons by one of the friendly officers. It was too heavy for my flimsy six-year-old hand to hold and I needed to grip the heavy piece of metal with both hands as its weight bore down on me.

To imagine what it must have felt like to have that same baton striking you over and over again, especially by some of the same officers who had been so kind to me and my class, was horrifying for my innocent childhood brain to fathom. In my mind, uniformed police were the good guys, not the ones to be feared.  

To be sure, King himself was no angel, and choosing to flee from the police was clearly an unwise decision. Speeding around residential neighborhoods under the influence endangers lives, and the police exist precisely to stop such threats. But what sets our U.S. justice system apart from so many others is the belief that the punishment must fit the crime committed without being deemed overly cruel, unusual, or excessive. Since the police had

But what sets our U.S. justice system apart from so many others is the belief that the punishment must fit the crime committed without being deemed overly cruel, unusual, or excessive. Since the police had tased King immediately after he exited his vehicle, there was no need for the subsequent beating to have occurred since the officers were in no immediate danger.

This is what sets our society apart from those whose governments strike first and ask questions later. Additionally, those suspected of wrongdoing, including someone like Rodney King, are considered “innocent until proven guilty.”

Had he been unruly to the point where police needed to use slight force to take him into custody—which might still be a debatable act but better than the alternative— this would have been at least somewhat understandable.

But as the video shows, this is not what happened. King, who had not yet been brought before a judge, was treated as though his guilt had already been assessed. The home video begins recording right as King is tased twice, which should have been enough.    

The LAPD officers on the scene were unaware that a nearby resident, George Holliday, had filmed the altercation using his camcorder, effectively catching the officers red-handed.  

The timing of the King altercation was also not ideal for the LAPD’s public image, as it perpetuated the current narrative of negativity against the department after several sources had come forward accusing the department of having a routine history of violence and racism.

When the beating was over, King was inspected and found to have a broken ankle, a fractured facial bone,11 additional skull fractures, along with a series of bruises and lacerations.

And thus began the first public trial where video footage blatantly showing police brutality was called in as evidence against state agents.

The Shots Heard ‘Round LA

On April 29, 1992, over a year after the actual altercation, all the local schools were let out early and the grocery stores were chaotically packed with people grabbing enough essentials to keep them from having to leave the safety of their homes for at least a week.

While I could feel the fear gripping my community, my childhood mind was fixated more on the excitement of an unprecedented vacation from school and the usually forbidden junk food my mother was frantically throwing into our cart. I had no idea what everyone was worried about.

Shortly after the video became public LAPD officers, Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno were charged with using excessive force against King. After the state dismissed the original judge and moved the court proceedings from Los Angeles County to Simi Valley in Ventura County, an area where many LAPD officers and their families resided.  

On April 29, 1992, in spite of the damning viral footage, officers Koon, Wind, and Briseno were acquitted of the charges brought against them, while the grand jury was still out on officer Powell’s role in the matter.

Even then-President George H. W. Bush was appalled by the verdict saying:

"Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids."

The Mayor of Los Angeles was likewise astonished and outraged by the verdict, which did little to calm the turmoil that existed between the Mayor's office and LAPD Police Chief Daryl Gates, who had often let the allegations of racism fly under his radar.  

Los Angels Mayor Tom Bradley comments on the matter by saying:

"The jury's verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape. The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.”

But his statement did nothing to prevent the city from being rocked by violence.

Even before footage of the destruction was aired on the news, I could smell the fires and see the smoke from my window. Every time a gunshot rang out, my mother called us away from the window and assured us it was just the sound of a car backfiring and nothing to cause alarm, even though fear was written all over her face.

My mother, who was due to renew her driver’s license was shocked to turn on the news only to see our local DMV in flames.

In the end, local businesses, including many minority-owned businesses were burnt to the ground and the total damage was estimated to be around $1 billion.

Has Technology Really Created Justice?

Looking back, the King verdict almost seems unremarkable today since law enforcement officers continue to get away with far worse behavior on a regular basis, even in spite of the prevalence of video cameras.

Nearly two years ago, for example, an NYPD officer was acquitted of all charges in the death of Eric Garner even after video footage explicitly showed the officer using excessive force in the form of a chokehold against Garner—a prohibited move that would kill him moments later as he struggled to let out his final words, “I can’t breathe.”   

But as truly terrifying as the violent police state has grown to be, the widespread footage of the Rodney King beating did help foster the birth of civilian justice, where cameras are able to combat badges by showing a side of the story that is seldom seen and often left out of the courtroom.

When Philando Castille was pulled over and then shot by an officer in spite of being unarmed as it was live streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, that footage helped charge the officer involved with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm: something that may have never happened had the footage never been caught on camera.

While technology has made police brutality seem more prevalent than ever, in reality, we are just now finally able to document these acts and upload the footage for the whole world to see. Much of this is thanks to George Holliday’s filming of the King altercation 25 years ago, which inspired others to use burgeoning and affordable technology to keep government officials accountable.

Thanks to market innovation making smartphones and cameras accessible to all, the people now have a defensive weapon to protect themselves and others against abuses from the state.

Sure, in an imperfect world we are still bound to encounter instances of injustice, like in the case of Eric Garner, because the state is still above the law after all.

But the country is now a different place since the Rodney King footage went viral, because the state knows that there is an apparatus in place to keep their actions accountable. And with technology advancing as quickly as it has been, the people’s weapon of transparency is only bound to become mightier.

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