Twenty years ago today, Rodney King was savagely beaten by a team of LAPD officers during a DUI arrest. The act itself was horrific – but affected only one man. What thundered across the country was, rather, amateur video footage of the act. In 1991, the act was an unspeakable sight. In 2011, it’s unthinkable that we wouldn’t see it.
George Holliday, whose apartment was across from the scene of the assault, recorded the most damning portions on a camcorder. When the police (unsurprisingly) balked after Holliday approached them with the tape, he turned to a local news station. From there, the Rodney King beating video spread around the world. Slowly.
Slowly, at least, compared to today. Footage of the beating could only be viewed when a station decided to view it. Its appearance was decided by news producers. It spread, violently, but it spread deliberately, from the top down.
Now, every single one of us is a George Holliday. When an unarmed kid is handcuffed and shot to death in the back by police, there’s ample footage, courtesy of our phones and digital cameras. And not only is it easy to get – it’s even easier to spread. Anyone can capture. Anyone can upload. Anyone (with a connection) can watch.
For every Rodney King that’s seen, it’s safe to assume there’ve been countless others that went invisible. But now all of us are armed. Whether it’s police brutality in the US, or popular revolt in the Middle East, we’re living in a digicam panopticon. Everything visible, everything shared. The notion that every public moment is fair game for capture might be an unsettling one, but it serves as a check against moments those who wield power wish, like in a past era, might have gone unseen. So although it’s a pretty bleak milestone, 20 years since Rodney King should have one upshot – the odds of cops getting away with it again are pretty slim.