Flashback: How a Plumber Altered History by Taping the Attack on Rodney King

Hollywood Flashback: Rodney King
Courtesy of USC Digital Library. Independent commission of the LAPD Collection.

In the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, George Holliday pointed his new video camera at the commotion unfolding less than 100 feet from his apartment balcony in the San Fernando Valley.

In the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, a plumbing salesman named George Holliday would alter the course of U.S. history. He did so by simply pointing a new Sony video camera at the commotion unfolding less than 100 feet from his apartment balcony in the San Fernando Valley. What Holliday filmed was the brutal beating by four LAPD officers of Rodney King.

The subsequent acquittal of those officers on April 29, 1992, sparked the Los Angeles riots, a violent chapter of civil unrest that resulted in 63 deaths and 12,000 arrests. Holliday's video is up there with Abraham Zapruder's 8mm film of John F. Kennedy's assassination in terms of sheer scrutiny and for its lasting place in American infamy. It is also the earliest and most notable instance of citizen journalism, which has exploded in recent years with the advent of smartphones. But the camera, a Valentine's Day gift to his wife, had always been intended for fun.

"Before the beating, right across the street from where we lived was a biker bar, and they were filming Terminator 2: Judgment Day there," says Holliday, now 61. "I actually have footage on the original tape of Schwarzenegger getting on the bike and riding off." Holliday at first brought the King tape to local station KTLA and left it with the news team, unsure if it had any value. Later that day, they sent a reporter to his house to interview him and his wife about what they had seen. When it aired later that night, he says, "that's when everything blew up. All the other TV stations, CNN, all the other ones, were calling, wanting a copy of the tape."

The FBI quickly confiscated the camera and tape, but not before KTLA made a copy of the video, allowing airing of the footage to proliferate. Now, 30 years later, the feds still have possession of the original with the Schwarzenegger footage. They did, however, knock on Holliday's door not long ago and return his Sony Handycam. He put the device up for auction in July 2020, starting the bidding at $225,000. "But nothing happened," he says. "Not one bid."

Holliday, who has remained in L.A. and lives 30 miles from where the video was shot, spoke recently to The Hollywood Reporter about his unique place in American history.

I imagine you must have mixed feelings about this anniversary. How has the Rodney King video affected your life?

It hasn't really affected it that much, other than I do a lot of interviews. I'd rather it kind of not happen, but it is what it is. It seems like every interview is always the same questions. But it's all right, I'm OK.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and where you were in your life when you captured this video?

I've been a plumber the whole time, even before I filmed the video, and I still am a plumber. I was with my first wife living in an apartment right there, because we were trying to save up to buy a home which we eventually did actually, in Granada Hill. But yeah, we were just trying to save money living in that apartment.

Where did you grow up?

Mostly in Argentina. I was born in Canada, left when I was 6 months old. Moved to Indonesia, was there until I was I think about 5, then we went to Argentina. I was in Argentina until I came here.

Why did your family move around so much?

My dad used to work for a Shell Oil.

And then how did you settle in Los Angeles?

I had a friend in Argentina that actually had come here to L.A. and worked for a little bit. He came back to Argentina and said, "You've got to go to L.A. There's tons of work. It's a great place to be." And so I, at that time in Argentina, I was 18 and I had three jobs and I still couldn't even afford to move out of my parents' house. So I said, "That's it." I bought a ticket and I came over in 1980.

And do you identify as white?

I guess, though my father is British, my mother's German.

Now let's go to the week of the beating. February 1991. You had bought this video camera: Why? 

Well, back then we didn't have cellphones. I was in my first marriage with a young wife and we were starting a family — or the plan was to start a family. And so we didn't have a video camera. I actually had bought this for my wife at the time as a Valentine's Day gift, but it was for the both of us, I guess.

And as I understand it there is a Terminator connection to all this?

Yeah. When you have the new camera, new toy, you're filming everything — whatever's happening around you. That's kind of how I thought of filming the beating. Anyways, before the beating, right across the street from where we lived, was a biker bar and they actually were filming Terminator 2 there.

I don't know if you remember when Schwarzenegger travels in time, he shows up at a biker bar. He's completely naked and then he takes the clothes off one of the bikers and takes off on a bike. It all happened right across the street. I actually have footage on the original tape of Schwarzenegger getting on the bike and riding off.

Do you still have that footage?

No, because it's on the original tape and I have never gotten the original tape back yet from the FBI. They still have it. They subpoenaed it, for those trials and stuff. And I haven't seen it since.

They had the camera, as well, as evidence. And they finally just showed up at my door, I don't know, three or four years ago with the camera. "Here's your camera, Mr. Holliday" And, "Where's the tape?" "Oh, no. We still need to hold on to that." I've been calling them, sending emails and stuff to try to get the tape back. Nothing. They don't even reply.

So the first thing you'll see before the beating is footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger filming Terminator 2?

That's before and right after the beating, I had footage of the L.A. Marathon. Those three things are all together on the tape right there.

That is stranger than fiction. I mean, talk about an L.A. trilogy. Unbelievable. OK, so walk me through the night in question.

The address was on Foothill Boulevard. That's Lake View Terrace [in the San Fernando Valley]. They pulled over Rodney King on the side there. There wasn't even a sidewalk, but just dirt on the side of the street between the street and the biker bar, just dirt. And they pulled him over right there.

And so you're on your balcony? Or how do you first notice something was amiss?

It was past midnight. We were all sleeping already and were awoken by the noise of all the sirens because it was a lot of police cars and the helicopter. The helicopter circles over whatever crime is going on, and this helicopter was real low, so between the noise of the helicopter and all the sirens right outside our window, they woke us up.

I looked out the window and I saw all this commotion coming to stop right outside our window. Again, my first thought, "Hey, there's something exciting going on, I'm going to grab the camera," because the new camera you're filming everything, right? And so I went into the living room, grabbed the camera, walked out onto the balcony. And as I'm walking out, now the beating was going on.

I'm lifting up the camera, turning it on and trying to get it to focus. Again, it's still new. It has the autofocus feature, but that autofocus wasn't focusing I guess, because it was nighttime. I'm trying to remember, "Oh, how did I turn this autofocus off? How do I focus manually?" And I finally got it to work, and I started focusing, and the rest is history. What you see on the video, on the tape, is what I captured there.

And so what are you thinking as you're taping this? I mean, are you horrified? 

I was more concerned on making sure that the camera was working than actually absorbing what was going on down there, but my wife ended up coming out to the balcony as well and she's looking down and I can hear all the neighbors. They're all outside of their apartments as well, down on the little sidewalk below me. And I can hear a, "Wow, this is terrible. I wonder what happened? Why is this happening," and that kind of stuff.

Remember, I had just come from Argentina not too long ago. Over there, it's common for the police to take matters into their own hands and take care of business right there and then. And so in my mind, I'm thinking there must be something that this guy did to deserve what's happening to him right now. Because in my mind, in the United States, police, they're all good, they all do the right thing. They don't do anything wrong. I'm thinking maybe he killed one of their sons or something like that, so now they're taking care of business,

But that's basically the wrong mentality. That's how I grew up over there in Argentina, but then, after it was all over, [to] then start thinking about it, [I] said, "No, wait, this is the United States. Things are done in the proper order over here. You get taken to court, you're found guilty, and then the punishment." You either get punished — to go to jail, whatever — or not.

What was the conversation with your wife like after the police left?

We're just wondering, what did we just see? What happened? Why did we witness this? And we actually rewound the tape and watched it once on the TV but it was late. That next morning, I had already promised a co-worker of mine that I was going to film him start and finish the L.A. marathon. And so we went to bed. I had to get up at 6:00 a.m. or something to get downtown in time for the start of the marathon. And so that was it. We didn't really talk about it much till later on in the day when I got back from the marathon. I had a wedding to go to with my wife.

And so I remember we're at the wedding. And at the wedding we were with our friends. We're telling them, "Hey, you should have seen what we saw last night. It was crazy. All these police cars, they were beating up this guy," because they didn't see the footage that we had filmed, they're just, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." It didn't impact them like it had impacted us.

After the wedding, we went home. The next morning I went to work, my wife came over for lunch and we started talking about it again — because it really had impacted us, right? We were wondering, "Well, what really happened? I don't know. Let's try to find out." We called the local police station and some lady at the front desk said, "This is Sergeant So-and-so. How can I help you?" And I explained, "Hey, we live at this address. This is what we saw on Sunday morning, just past midnight, and we wanted to find out what happened." And she just basically said, "Oh, we don't give out any information," click, and hung up on me. So we're wondering, who do we call next?

Well, we used to watch Channel 5 [KTLA] 10 o'clock news. And so we say, "Hey, let's call Channel 5, maybe they know something about what happened." We call and they didn't know anything, but they were a lot more helpful [than LAPD] in trying to help us. And at one point they found out that we had filmed it and they said, "Look, maybe if we can see the footage, maybe we'll be able to help you even more." Instead of having lunch together, we drove down to Channel 5 and took the tape down there so they could watch it. And the guy looked at the cartridge and said, "Oh, this is a little 8mm tape. We don't have equipment here to play this tape right now but our truck that does the exterior stuff will be back in a couple of hours and they can play it for us." So we left the tape with them and went back to work.

Did it ever occur to you that the tape might be valuable, that you could've sold it?

No, no, no. Nobody was thinking of that, at that point. Then, two hours later, they called and said, "Hey, look, nobody here has a clue of what's going on on this tape, but we'd like to help you find out. We'd like to send a reporter over and ask a few questions." And so I said, "Sure." They sent somebody over afterward to my house, like five in the afternoon.

They sent over Stan Chambers. I remember Stan Chambers was the one that we always liked on the news. He was an older gentleman and they always had him out in the middle of the storm, standing in the street, fighting the wind, the poor guy, we almost felt sorry for the guy. They always send him to the worst places, poor guy. He showed up at our house with a cameraman. And he did a little 10-minute interview on our couch. And he says, "We'll try to find out some more for you," and that the interview that they filmed on my couch was going to go on the news that night at 10 o'clock.

And then when it went on the news at 10 o'clock that night, that's when everything blew up. My phone just started blowing up. And that's when we started to realize that [the tape was valuable] because mostly the people calling us were all the other TV stations — CNN, all the other ones — wanting a copy of the tape. And some of them were even offering money: "Yeah, we'll pay you. We'll give you some money for a copy of the tape." And I didn't have the tape, Channel 5 had it.

And we had to just unplug it because it wouldn't stop. Some people were offering me 100 bucks, 150 bucks for a copy of it. So I said, "Look, I don't have to the tape. It's at Channel 5." And went to sleep. The next morning, we got up to go to work, and it was just crazy reporters outside my apartment. We couldn't even get out. My wife freaked out. She just said, "I'm not going to work today. I'm staying home." And I had to go to work. So I worked my way through all the reporters, not really answering any questions.

But when I got to the office, I did call Channel 5's number and told them, "Look, a lot of these stations are offering money for a copy of the tape and I'd like to come and pick it up." And they said, "Sure, come on and pick it up." So I went over there and they ushered me into an office. And now looking back, it did look a little suspicious. They had an attorney in there and, I don't know, a couple of other guys and they said, "Look, Mr. Holliday, we'd like to hold on to the exclusivity of the story for the next couple of days. How about we just hold on to the tape for a couple of days and we'll give you, let's say, $500 so we can hold it for two days."

And I said, "OK, all right." Because I'm thinking I don't know how I'm going to make copies. I don't have the equipment to make copies and would have to hook up a couple of VCRs or something. So yeah, I figured let's just take $500 and then that's it. Because nobody thought it was going to be such a big story, not even Channel 5. They didn't show it until after the commercials.

So I'm thinking in a couple of days this is going to blow over and the world will be on to something else, so I'll take $500, right? But it didn't blow over. During those two days, the tape got subpoenaed from the Channel 5 office. That's when it got taken by the authorities. In the beginning it was taken by the police department for the internal affairs investigation into these police officers. So they subpoenaed the tape. They came to me first, and I said, "I don't have it, it's at Channel 5." Then they grabbed it from the station.

Luckily, Channel 5 had made a copy from the original tape onto a VHS, and that's what they gave me. "Here's your tape [if you] want to make some more copies and sell it." But that's all I have, to this day. Of course, now it's been digitized, but it'd be nice to get that original tape back.

At what point in the conversation did you realize, this isn't just a case of police overstepping their bounds, but it was actually a racial issue?

I get asked that kind of question quite a bit. I'm not sure. I'm a plumber. I don't study social issues or anything like that, or politics, I've never been into that kind of stuff. I go about doing my job, meeting people. I go to people's homes. I see people of all races, all colors, religions, whatever, and we all get along fine. I think it's higher powers that make this into a racial issue. You see it to this day. Everything's about the one race being superior to the other. It's just ridiculous. It's so stupid. When you actually meet face to face with people, no matter where you are, you can become friends, you can enjoy their company. I don't know why people turn it into a racial issue.

Right. But what your tape revealed was that the police were treating a Black man in this unconscionable way. It revealed a disease inside the LAPD.

I don't know if it was a disease. What if they were hitting a white gentleman, instead? It wouldn't have turned into this big thing, but why not? Why should the white guy be hit and not a Black guy or vice versa? It's stupid. Why does color matter? It's always struck me odd as to when you're filling out forms for the government DMV or whatever. It asks you, what race are you? What does that matter? Who cares? Am I qualified for the job? All right, hire me. Don't look at my color. I want the most qualified person for the job. I don't care what color he is, or religion, or whatever. It is so dumb to me that race is always included in everything, in these conversations, these news stories, and applications for a job, in college. It's dumb. Just be nice to everybody. It doesn't matter.

But the problem is that these things keep happening to Black men at the hands of the police. So there's a bias there.

This happened 30 years ago. Yes, there's been more videos since then. Everybody's going to cellphones these days. If this were really happening that much, I think there would be many, many, many more videos. And the problem is that they don't show the beatings of the other colors. They just show the ones on Black people. That's my opinion.

Let me ask you this, when the George Floyd video circulated this summer —

I have not seen that video, but OK, go ahead.

Well, have you consciously avoided it or you just didn't happen to see it?

A bit of both, I think. I mean, I've turned off all news. I just don't watch the news. Unfortunately, I'm in my van driving every day. So I do have talk radio on sometimes, you hear something. So I did know that there was a George Floyd video. But I can tell you, because I was in it, how biased the media is. "But that's not what I said. They've cut off this little piece of what I said." And it's changed it. I don't know what their agenda is, other than splitting up humanity. Let's take color out of every situation: Is beating a man good or bad? It's bad. All right, let's try to stop that. But once you put color or religion or whatever into it, now it becomes something else.

Well, you were living in L.A. during the riots. What were your feelings then, knowing that your footage is what sparked those riots?

I was appalled at the politicians, at the media. They had the power to stop this, but no. It was the opposite. They inflamed it all. All the people speaking out there publicly, "Oh, this is racist. The police are this, or whatever." And it was inflamed by politicians and media. And I challenge you to prove that wrong.

You had plans last summer to auction your camera off. What became of that?

Nothing, really. Some people approached me, I thought it was a good idea. I mean, I had no use for the camera, and I can use the money right now. I've been plumbing for 43 years. I should be retiring soon. But nothing happened.

No one bid on it?

Not one bid.

It seems like the kind of thing that, and I know you don't want to make it about race, but there's a museum of African American history in Washington, at the Smithsonian. It seems like the kind of thing they might want.

Maybe. But again, that still is racist to me, if you ask me. People in that museum were good not because they were Black, they were good because of stuff that they did, so let's promote that. What if somebody started a white museum. Everybody would be just screaming their heads off right now. But there are people that did good as whites, Blacks, as whatever. Let's celebrate that stuff. Not their color; the color has nothing to do with it.

And in terms of the original tape, what measures have you taken to recover it?

I have tried so many times. I mean, the FBI had a copy of the video on their website available for people to just download for free. And even trying to get through to the FBI to tell them, "Hey, you guys are the ones that protect copyrights. Look at the beginning of every movie, right? This movie is copyrighted. 'Protected by the FBI. $250,000 fine or imprisonment or both,' whatever. And here you are breaking my copyrights?" And I couldn't even get through to them for that.

I've called, I've gone down to the federal building down there in downtown L.A. And they said, "Oh you can't meet with anybody. You need to call this number and make an appointment." Never, ever has anybody called me back.

Well, that doesn't seem right.

So many things don't seem right. People beating other people is not right.

All right George. I wish you all the best with your plumbing career and your family.

Thank you. Hopefully this will all end in, well, something really good.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.