When L.A. Cops Furiously Beat a Black Motorist, They Didn't Know They Were on George Holliday's Candid Camera

updated 03/25/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/25/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

As he went to bed on March 2, George Holliday looked forward to attending the Los Angeles Marathon the next day and then a wedding. He planned to videotape both events with his new Sony Handycam. As it turned out Holliday, 31, got to use his camera a lot sooner than he intended. At 12:30 A.M. Sunday morning he was jolted awake by the scream of police sirens and a helicopter buzzing over his San Fernando Valley apartment.

Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he grabbed his camcorder and began to tape the nightmarish scene outside his second-story living room window: While more than half a dozen police officers stood by, at least three other cops were savagely beating and kicking a black man who lay helpless on the ground. At that moment, admits Holliday, he did not fully appreciate the brutality he was seeing through his viewfinder. "it was almost like I was watching something on a tiny television-images more than reality," he says.

Even for a day and a half afterward, Holliday didn't grasp the importance of what he had seen. Because he heard nothing on the local news about the incident, he assumed nobody would care about his tape. But on Monday at lunch, talking about the episode with his wife, Eugenia, who had witnessed part of the violence, he couldn't help thinking that something ought to be done. That afternoon he called his local police precinct, described the attack and politely inquired about the disposition of the case. The desk officer told him, in effect, to mind his own business. The brush-off convinced Holliday, who manages a plumbing business, to go public. "I believe in what's wrong and what's right," he says. "And what happened out there was wrong." Though still skeptical that any news organization would be much interested, he called KTLA, a Los Angeles TV station, and dropped off the cassette. The broadcast of the tape that night on the 10 o'clock news quickly ignited the fire storm. (KTLA later paid Holliday the modest sum of $500 for the footage.)

Within a few days, as Holliday's indelible images began to appear again and again on network news shows, the entire country recoiled in horror. The Los Angeles Times called the tape ""America's Ugliest Home Video." And even Daryl Gates, L.A.'s hard-line police chief, decried the incident as "two minutes that will go down in infamy." Gates did argue that the attack on Rodney King, 25, a construction worker who recently served time for a liquor-store holdup, and who police claimed had resisted arrest, was an "aberration." But critics of the LAPD, who have long accused the department of persistent brutality against minorities, vigorously disagreed. "It's not an aberration," says Don Jackson, a former Hawthorne, Calif., police officer who had his head smashed into a plate-glass window by Long Beach police after a routine traffic stop in January 1989. ' "It's an aberration only in that it was videotaped."

In defense of the officers, L.A. police officials contended that King, of Altadena, Calif., had been spotted going 115 mph in his Hyundai Excel on the Foothill Freeway. (A Hyundai spokesman says, however, that the unsporty Excel has never topped 100 mph.) When officers gave chase, police say, King took off. King insists there was no chase and that his only offense was going 45 mph in a 35-mph zone.

Whatever the case, the pursuing officers, none of whom were black, finally surrounded King in front of Holliday's apartment in Lake View Terrace. After King emerged from the car and lay down on the ground, say eyewitnesses, one cop jolted him twice, apparently with a Taser stun gun, which delivers a 50,000-volt electric charge. Then the beating began; all told, there were more than 55 blows struck with metal nightsticks, and as many as seven kicks. A team of doctors assembled by defense lawyers for King found that his injuries included a cracked eye socket, a fractured cheekbone, a broken right ankle and numerous facial lacerations. Many of the fillings had been knocked from his teeth.

Despite the outcry from civil-rights groups, King's wife, Crystal, sees the issue as more domestic than racial. "I feel if he was at home this wouldn't have happened," she says. A police investigation into the incident may find broader implications. The county district attorney's office initiated a grand-jury probe that should conclude within roughly a week. Lawyers for King are preparing a civil-rights suit against the LAPD, asking unspecified damages.

For Holliday, the episode and its aftermath have been oddly reassuring. "I've gotten over a thousand calls, and everybody has been so supportive and encouraging," he says (though he did receive one death threat). "Even the police told me that they are on my side."

Bill Hewitt, Wayne Edwards and Nancy Matsumoto in Los Angeles

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