When George Holliday bought a Sony Video 8 Handycam for his wife in early 1991, he shelled out a little more than $1,000 for the video camera.
That piece of video equipment went up for auction this week. Starting bids: $225,000. (The auction ended Thursday, July 30. A final figure the camera was sold for was unavailable at press time.)
That’s because Holliday’s camera is not just any video recorder. It is the camera that captured the Rodney King beating in Lake View Terrace by Los Angeles Police Department officers on March 3, 1991.
King, who had been drinking and was on probation for a robbery conviction, was instructed to pull over for speeding on the 210 Freeway shortly after midnight and eventually stopped his car in front of Holliday’s apartment building, where Los Angeles police officers took charge of the traffic stop at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street. Video of the arrest shows several white officers beating King, who was black, using their batons and kicking him as he lay on the ground.
The grainy video captured from Holliday’s apartment nearby spread like wildfire across media channels and led a year later, when the LAPD officers shown beating King were acquitted by a jury in Simi Valley, to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that caused havoc and destruction in South Central Los Angeles for several days.
In 2012, King was found dead in his swimming pool with traces of alcohol and drugs in his system, according to the Coroner’s office.
The camera is being auctioned by Nate D. Sanders Auctions (https://bit.ly/2CNdLzJ) and comes with a notarized letter of authenticity signed by George Holliday, who only received $500 when he initially sold the video to KTLA Channel 5.
The video recorder is no longer functional and does not include the videotape of the beating, which to this day is still under possession by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The foam cover of the camera microphone is almost completely gone, which is the condition in which the FBI returned the camera to Holliday around 2015, according to the auction house.
“As one of the seminal events of the 20th century, the influence of the Rodney King footage in nearly every aspect of American and global culture can’t be overstated, affecting people’s perceptions of race and police use of force, leading to the depiction of similar events in film and television, and inspiring countless people to bravely hold up their own cameras to record troubling events,” according to a statement by the auction house.
Part of American History
Experts agree the camera is without a doubt one of the most important artifacts in recent US history.
Brenda E. Stevenson, professor of History and African American Studies at UCLA and author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the LA Riots,” said the camera is an “important material culture item that has great significance in the history of race relations, social justice/unrest, and policing.”
“Most African Americans grow up knowing that the police sometimes do not act in the role of ‘to protect and serve’ in our communities,” Stevenson said. “You learn this reality from the generations-old stories of black legal injustices, and from seeing and experiencing poor and abusive policing. People would see it, report it, testify to it, but many complaints were dismissed or minimized.
“The videotape provided visual proof of what the Black community and other communities of color, of the poor, etc., had complained about and still do complain about and protest against. That long, videotaped beating at the hands of four police officers and the complicity of all the other police who witnessed it empowered the Black community to double down on attaining appropriate policing in our communities and with regard to the Black citizen or resident.”
Josh Sides, professor in the History Department at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), and author of “L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present,” agrees.
“It is one of the most important cameras in modern US history,” Sides noted. “The camera revealed what African Americans had known and been saying for centuries. It’s not that the violence was new, it’s that it was one of the first times we had footage of that since the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a historical artifact.”
The camera and the video captured by it ushered in the era of citizen journalism, which is now ubiquitous as the public has cell phones capable of recording video.
One of the most powerful videos yet is the one that captured the agonizing final moments of George Floyd as a white police officer knelt on top of the neck of the African American man in Minneapolis.
The anger, disbelief, protests and cultural changes brought upon by that video is similar to what happened in the Rodney King beating, only much faster thanks to technology and social media, said Ellis Godard, professor in the Department of Sociology at CSUN.
He explained that while there was initial condemnation for the actions of the police in the Rodney King case, people and activists waited for the results of the trial.
Today, after numerous cases of police brutality captured on video over the years, people took to the streets immediately afterward to express their outrage.
“The George Floyd recording was even more devastating and upsetting — a man dies in front of your eyes begging for his life. There is, and should not be, anything more upsetting to the public, especially when he is killed by a policeman and other policemen watch and do not come to his assistance,” Stevenson said.
“The response — the global protests to stamp out this kind of brutality and inequality before and under the law — is a necessary continuation of the civil unrest of 1992.”
Godard said he was not surprised to see that the camera is being put up for auction.
“We see Elvis Presley’s tissue and Marilyn Monroe’s bra (being put up for auction). This is the tool that implemented a sea tide change in the visibility of police behavior. It’s not the Gutenberg’s press, but it is the specific tool that played a part in American history,” he said.
Both Godard and Sides think the best place for such an item should be a museum dedicated to this infamous, yet transformative episode, detailing for future generations what happened 29 years ago and how it relates to the ongoing civil strife of today.
“It should be in a museum. The most wonderful thing that could happen is that it is donated to a local historical collection, like the Historical Society of Southern California in South LA,” Sides said.