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
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.“
JA: ”This is the L.A. Times’ first story on the beating of Rodney King. In episode 1, you’ll hear Hector Tobar recall how Rodney King’s race was erased from the article’s lede.“
JA: ”The Singers declined my request to speak with them, but former California Highway Patrol trooper Melanie Singer has talked about the night of the King beating in the past.“
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.”
JA: “The Rodney King video was the first of its kind. Since then, technology has made it easier to capture police abusing their power.”
JA: ”A year before his death, Holliday put up the camera he used to film King’s beating for auction. Following its investigation, the FBI returned the camera to Holliday, but kept the tape.“
JA: ”In future episodes, you’ll hear about the politics surrounding Rodney King’s beating. This article previews the coming war between the mayor of Los Angeles and the LAPD Chief Daryl Gates.“
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.