On March 3, 1991, California law enforcement pulled over a motorist named Rodney King after a lengthy high-speed chase. Because of King's attempt to evade police during the chase and his perceived erratic behavior when police attempted to handcuff him, four of the LAPD officers present responded by tazing King into submission and began aggressively subduing him with their batons. Unfortunately for the officers, a nearby resident named George Holliday captured King's beating on camera. Holliday, concerned by the footage he captured, brought it to the media's attention, unknowingly breaking one of the largest stories of the decade.
The subsequent coverage of the case overshadowed even the end of the first Gulf War, with viewers shown every aspect of the incident and trial. The officers' acquittal in the following year resulted in the 1992 LA riots, the most destructive urban uprising in American history. Along with dramatically changing the lives of King, his police abusers, and even Holliday, this chain of events become a watershed event in the city of Los Angeles, impacting far more than just the West Coast. Despite a tremendous amount of media scrutiny, confusion and distortion swirled around the Rodney King case from its inception.
King was on parole for a November 1989 convenience store robbery that netted him two years in state prison. He was paroled on December 27, 1990, after one year in jail. So when highway patrol attempted to pull Rodney King over, he panicked and evaded arrest; his efforts to resist handcuffs was likely due to King's fear that a DUI would void his parole and send him back to prison.
"I was scared of going back to prison..." King said, describing the lead up to the beating. "I didn't pull over right away... I don't remember if I was speeding or not (during the chase). I know I stopped at all the stop signs and looked both ways and went through them..."
In the very early morning of March 3, 1991, King headed along on the 210 Freeway en route to the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. California Highway Patrol observed King speeding and eventually began to chase his car. When the CHP patrol car illuminated King's 1987 Hyundai, their spotlight revealed contained three black men, King, Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, Jr. King ignored the police vehicle and continued to speed along the freeway, eventually exiting in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of the Valley. At that point, his refusal to pull over resulted in the addition of LAPD patrol cars and an LAPD helicopter into the chase.
Finally, eight miles after the chase began, King pulled over after urging from his passengers. When asked to exit the car, both Allen and Helms immediately complied yet neither is visible in the tape of the beating because they are face down, obscured by Rodney King's automobile. Although media analysis would initially claim neither man was harmed by police because they followed orders, in actuality both men were inappropriately struck by law enforcement, likely as a result of turning their heads toward King as he screamed during his ordeal.
Bryant Allen eventually received $35,000 from the city of Los Angeles after suing over his treatment. The estate of Freddie Helms also received $20,000 when they settled with the city in 1994. Helms died only months after the King incident, ironically when the drunken driver of a car in which he was a passenger struck a utility pole at a high speed.
George Holliday was sleeping when he heard commotion outside of his home on the morning of March 3. Disturbed by the behavior he saw exhibited by police, Holliday began filming the incident from his balcony on his new camcorder. After the scene quieted down Holliday went back to bed.
On Sunday evening, he placed a call to the local Foothill police precinct. Twice he attempted to explain what he had videotaped and offered to provide the tape to the LAPD. The recipient of the call has never been identified and no one at the precinct house ever admitted to taking these calls, but they told Holliday the LAPD had no interest in the video. When Holliday persisted with a second call, the employee hung up on him. Holliday then tried contacting CNN that same evening and failed to reach anyone.
On Monday morning, he then took his recording to KTLA, at the time a local, independent television station in LA. That night, the video was featured prominently on KTLA's newscast and was seen by members of CNN in Atlanta. CNN immediately obtained a copy, and by Tuesday morning, frequently repeated presentations of the tape made it a national sensation. In terms of coverage, the video rivaled the end of the Persian Gulf conflict which occurred at the same time.
The defense involved in the trials of the four policemen accused in the Rodney King matter successfully argued for a change of venue to another jurisdiction. While the prosecution's request for a venue in San Francisco was rejected as too costly, the judge in the case eventually settled on Ventura County's city of Simi Valley, a western San Fernando Valley suburb populated by mostly white residents, many retired from police and fire departments as well as the military.
When the jury acquitted all four defendants of most of the criminal charges (one count against Powell ended in a deadlock) the makeup of the jury (10 Caucasians, one Filipino, one Hispanic) proved a major factor in the anger and chaos that ensued. But in a recent documentary, for the first time publicly, a juror disclosed his mixed-race background. Henry King, no relation to Rodney, had a father who was black and a mother who was white. In the documentary, King emphasized that while the subsequent rioting hurt him deeply he did not regret his decision to acquit.