How the Rodney King Beating Video Changed Citizen Journalism

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, which resulted in 54 deaths, thousands of injuries,  nearly a US$1 billion in property damages and a renewed discussion on American race relations.  This was all sparked by a private citizen named George Holliday, who videotaped Rodney King’s encounter with the Los Angeles police on his Sony Handycam.  The blurry video turned what would have otherwise been a little known scuffle into a worldwide media sensation.

Particularly, the case highlighted the allegations of racial profiling and police brutality within African-American communities.  As a matter of fact, Holliday said he tried to reach the Los Angeles Police Department to find out what had happened to King. When he was unable to get answers, he contacted his local TV news station, KTLA, and sold his video to them for US$500.

During the riots, there were also other citizen journalists, like Timothy Goldman, a then unemployed former Air Force officer, who videotaped the violence, including the beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny.

The videos were revolutionary at the time because this happened long before YouTube, Twitter and the Internet in general came into existence.  Without these videos, history would have reflected differently today.

A few days ago King reflected on the significance of the videotape and the Trayvon Martin case.

“I’m hoping he [Trayvon] gets justice for his family, ’cause he’s no longer here, so for his family,” he said, adding, “Luckily, I got [my attack] seen on tape.”

When King said this, it made us think about the initial reaction to Martin’s murder.  When the Martin case first gained mainstream media attention, we were actually looking for a video, a photo or some kind of strong documentation online that showed the altercation between Martin and shooter George Zimmerman.

In this age of everything being caught on video and distributed throughout social media, we automatically expected that there was a video of Martin’s shooting somewhere on YouTube.  This isn’t because we have a creepy desire to see someone’s gruesome death, but we could have used a video to see evidence of what really happened that night, which would have help bring justice to the case.  The only circumstantial evidence is the 911 call, which has also come into question for its credibility.

So this is why Holliday plays such an important role in this case and its impact in mobilizing citizen journalism.

According to Holliday, he met face to face with King several years after the beating. They ran into each other at a gas station one night. As Holliday describes it, “He says, ‘Yeah, you don’t recognize me.’ And I said, ‘No,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, you saved my life.’ And so then I knew who he was.”

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