Twenty Years After Rodney King, Nothing Goes Unseen

Twenty years ago today, Rodney King was savagely beaten by a team of LAPD officers during a DUI arrest. The act itself was horrific—but affected only one man. What thundered across the country was, rather, amateur video footage of the act. In 1991, the act was an unspeakable sight. In 2011, it's unthinkable that we wouldn't see it.

George Holliday, whose apartment was across from the scene of the assault, recorded the most damning portions on a camcorder. When the police (unsurprisingly) balked after Holliday approached them with the tape, he turned to a local news station. From there, the Rodney King beating video spread around the world. Slowly.

Slowly, at least, compared to today. Footage of the beating could only be viewed when a station decided to view it. Its appearance was decided by news producers. It spread, violently, but it spread deliberately, from the top down.


Now, every single one of us is a George Holliday. When an unarmed kid is handcuffed and shot to death in the back by police, there's ample footage, courtesy of our phones and digital cameras. And not only is it easy to get—it's even easier to spread. Anyone can capture. Anyone can upload. Anyone (with a connection) can watch.

For every Rodney King that's seen, it's safe to assume there've been countless others that went invisible. But now all of us are armed. Whether it's police brutality in the US, or popular revolt in the Middle East, we're living in a digicam panopticon. Everything visible, everything shared. The notion that every public moment is fair game for capture might be an unsettling one, but it serves as a check against moments those who wield power wish, like in a past era, might have gone unseen. So although it's a pretty bleak milestone, 20 years since Rodney King should have one upshot—the odds of cops getting away with it again are pretty slim.

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It's true that his beating was savage, but Rodney King was also (allegedly - probably) high on PCP, running from the cops, and posed a threat to the arresting officers. Yeah it sucks that they beat him, but it sucks even more than billions of dollars worth of damage were done over an incomplete 1 min video tape that could only be seen at the discretion of news producers.

From the NYT:

"Mr. King, 39, has tried to stay out of the public eye, finding it difficult to live with the title of human punching bag. Still, he often finds himself the leading man of the police blotter. He has been arrested 11 times, for, among other things, spousal abuse, hit-and-run driving and being under the influence of PCP. He was also arrested for indecent exposure after parkgoers complained about a naked man jumping up and down on an ice chest.

"PCP really got me into a wreck," he admitted over a plate of pasta and a glass of ice water. "But I was never running through no park buck naked."

Recently released from jail after serving time in connection with the car crash, Mr. King says he has had recurring nightmares and drugs are the one reliable pacifier. Nevertheless, he maintains that he was not high on PCP that night in 1991 when he was pulled over in his Hyundai after the police chased him through the San Fernando Valley."

Someone who has been arrested 11 times in the past 20 years says that "PCP really got me into a wreck", but maintains that he was not high on PCP the night he went crazy and ran from the cops?

I don't believe him, but I don't care. I know that's not the point of the article, but let's not pretend this guy was just walking down the street innocently minding his own business when he was beaten and arrested.

I would say the lack of information in the Rodney King situation, and the actions based upon assumptions and rumors caused by that lack of information was much more powerful than the influence of a viral video in which we know and see the whole situation (often with added slow-mo).