In the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, George Holliday was stirred awake by the sound of police sirens and a low-flying helicopter. Holliday stepped onto his balcony and aimed his new video camera across the street. The VHS tape he recorded that night would be an inflection point in U.S. racial politics.
The scene that he captured—law enforcement officers inflicting a merciless beating on a Black man—had taken place throughout the history of the United States. But since the civil rights movement, that violence had largely been ignored by America’s white majority. The technology of portable video recording made that kind of willful ignorance impossible.
Holliday’s tape was the first in a now-familiar category: a video record of police brutality. Then as now, it made for disturbing viewing. Holliday took his video to a local TV station, hoping to learn something about the events he’d captured (and hoping to hear his name on television). Within hours of its broadcast, it had been picked up by CNN and then shown on stations around the world, provoking outrage and setting up battle lines.
I was a 12-year-old kid living in Texas in 1991, and I saw the tape on the news. Everyone I knew saw it—it was the first news event that I can remember going what we would now call viral. In the intervening 30 years, that video has never fully left me: When I’ve been pulled over while driving, Holliday’s tape has played on a loop in my mind. Today, in an era when everyone carries a camera in their pocket, the internet will show you a grim library of similar videos of police abusing civilians, usually nonwhite civilians. Every time I watch one, I’m reminded of being 12 years old and watching Rodney King get beaten on the evening news.
What came next—the failure of the justice system and the predictable response from people who had been shown that their lives and safety were disposable to the country they lived in—presaged much of the past five years of our politics. In our new season of Slow Burn, you’ll hear exactly how it played out.
You’ll learn about police chief Daryl Gates, who ran the Los Angeles Police Department with impunity for 14 years, and who clung to power even in the face of demonstrated evidence of the department’s rottenness; Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, who tried to oust Gates and hold the city together, and who found himself thwarted on both fronts; Latasha Harlins, the teenager whose killing two weeks after King’s beating demonstrated yet again how little the justice system valued Black lives; and some of the ordinary Angelenos who found themselves caught up in the biggest incident of civil unrest in American history.
The name of our series is “The L.A. Riots”—but as you’ll hear, that’s a contested description. Were the events of April and May 1992 an outpouring of destructive rage, or an uprising against a power structure that had demonstrated its illegitimacy in places like South Central Los Angeles?
No matter how you choose to answer that question, it’s undeniable that the events of those days have never fully ended. The legacy of the L.A. riots is still playing out in every American city every day.