March 3, 1991: American History Changed by Home Video

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A Brief History

On March 3, 1991, the combination of George Holliday and his home video camera and selective use of portions of that video by the news media shocked the country and profoundly affected American History!

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper, we find a drunken 26 year old and 2 buddies speeding through Los Angeles when police attempt to initiate a traffic stop.

The convicted armed robber (on parole and not even allowed to consume alcohol) refused to stop and the chase was on!  Zipping through the city at high speed is extremely dangerous, of course, to the public at large, the pursuing police, and the people in the car being pursued.

Finally, after an 8 mile chase police blocked in the fleeing felon and attempted to make an arrest.  The 2 African-American passengers obeyed police instructions and were taken into custody without incident or violence.  The driver, 26 year old Rodney King, an African-American driving drunk and with marijuana in his system in violation of his parole was not going to go easy!

A big strapping man about 6 feet 3 inches and 260 pounds that had just completed a year in prison for beating a shopkeeper he was robbing seemed ready to attack a female officer when 5 male officers took control of the arrest.  The subject, Rodney King, ran at an officer and collided with him, starting the melee that became famous home video footage.

The LAPD officers Tasered King twice with no apparent effect and were thus left with their hands, nightsticks (batons) and pistols.  LAPD had previously replaced their Mace pepper spray with the Taser and had been forbidden to choke subjects into submission.  The Taser was supposed to make Mace and choke holds obsolete.

Swarming the hulking King by the much smaller officers did not work, so the officers used their nightsticks in accordance with their training.  Despite being pounded severely, King would not stop resisting until he physically could not longer resist.  He was then arrested and taken to the hospital.

Then, the media frenzy started!  Repeatedly referring to King as “motorist Rodney King, stopped for speeding” gave the public the impression he was a regular guy stopped for some trivial traffic offense, not a dangerous felon driving drunk and resisting arrest.

The public was whipped into outrage, even President G.H.W. Bush made inflammatory comments!  Five LAPD officers were tried and acquitted for beating King, and LA exploded into rioting, killing 53 people!

A second, Federal trial of the officers resulted in 2 of them being convicted and sent to jail for longer than King had gotten for armed robbery and assault!  King, who for some political reasons was not returned to prison for violating his parole was awarded $3.8 million in a lawsuit against the LAPD.  He also escaped charges for the drunk driving, fleeing and eluding, and resisting arrest.

The cracked and really, tragic life of Rodney King continued with further drunk driving and domestic violence problems until his death in 2012 at age 47 by drowning in his own swimming pool, loaded up with alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and PCP!  King had also appeared on reality TV celebrity boxing and celebrity rehab programs!

Question for students (and subscribers): Can we all just get along?  You tell us in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evdience

For more information, see either these collectible cards (yes, they no kidding actually made collectible cards about a tragic incident in American race relations…) or read the following book:

Koon, Stacey.  Presumed Guilty: The Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair.  Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1992.

The individual writing the cards obviously is of the opinion that police were the criminals, whereas the above linked book offers a police officer’s perspective.  It is worthwhile to read multiple accounts as it is to watch the various videos presented in this article to get a more balanced opinion of whether or not the police used excessive force.  We do of course welcome your comments below.  If you do think the police acted excessively, please share what you think they should have done differently?  If you have any personal experiences as a law enforcement officer or as someone who believes you were racially profiled, please also share your experiences as well.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.