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Behind the World’s First Viral Video

In 1991, George Holliday grabbed his new camcorder and filmed the police beating Rodney King in South Los Angeles. Here, Joel Anderson of Slate’s Slow Burn helps illuminate the video's origins and the firestorm it set off.

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In 1991, a video of police brutality went viral. To me, then a 12-year-old Black kid living 1,500 miles away in Texas, it seemed obvious that what happened to Rodney King was wrong. I would’ve never imagined that anyone could disagree, but lots of people did. I was so naive. But I was also angry. I talked to my friends and family about the case, and they were angry, too.

Watching that tape was a formative moment in my childhood. It’s stayed with me over the past 30 years. When I’ve been pulled over while driving, the tape has played on a loop in my mind. Nowadays everyone carries a camera in their pocket. It feels like there’s a never-ending stream of 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.

This season on Slow Burn, we are going to explore the people and events behind the biggest civil disturbance in American history. After a jury failed to convict the four Los Angeles police officers who’d been captured on videotape beating Rodney King, the city erupted into fire and chaos—the culmination of decades of unchecked police abuse and racial injustice.

In the first episode, we start with the event as it happened and with the man who filmed it: George Holliday, who spoke to me in one of his last interviews before his death in September. Below you’ll find some of the links that helped me understand what happened to King and what has happened (and hasn’t) in the decades since. —Joel Anderson

Image by Miguel Marin / EyeEm / Getty Images

Does Seeing Violence on the News Make Us Care More?

Bert Gambini-Buffalo

JA: ”Throughout the making of this season I kept asking myself a question: Does it actually make a difference to keep broadcasting these violent videos? This study found that seeing violence on the news makes us care more about it.“

The Peace Reporters

Verge Staff
The Verge

JA: ”What goes through a person’s mind when they turn on their cameras and begin to film acts of police brutality? I found these interviews with 11 different people who’ve captured acts of police violence on tape helpful in understanding their mindset.“

The Other Beating

Michael Goldstein
Los Angeles Times

JA: “’The Other Beating’ is a 2006 L.A. Times interview with George Holliday. As we mentioned in the episode, Holliday questioned how the media used his video to ’stoke racial discord.’ In this interview he talks about the lingering guilt he feels for his video casting officers in a bad light.”

Joel Anderson

Joel Anderson is a staff writer at Slate and the host of Seasons 3 and 6 of Slow Burn. Previously, he worked as a reporter on sports, culture, and politics for ESPN and BuzzFeed News.