Rodney King’s Ordeal Sparked Viral Video Age
LOS ANGELES — The 1991 clip of a prone Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers was a shocking wake-up call for most White Americans, unaware of the ongoing African-American struggle for civil rights and liberties in American’s urban centers. King’s violent attack captured on shaky, grainy handheld camcorders and published, over and over again on TV, the early version of video gone viral. It ushered in an era of a now-endless reality loop that plays 24/7 online, and fueled a growing public hunger for life captured on the fly – offered up as news, entertainment or sometimes as both.
Reality in all of its purportedly manipulation-free guises is the 21st century’s playbook, from citizen-journalist cellphone video grabs of world events to Facebook oversharing to the unscripted TV shows that let us peer into the lives of people hungry for fame, or a second helping.
King, 47, whose turbulent life ended Sunday in the swimming pool of his suburban home, was not the first unwilling player in the era that began with fingers hitting the “record” button on increasingly portable and affordable video cameras, and then posting them online in real time.
The cliched local TV newscast promo, “Film at 11,” seems as outdated as cooking without a microwave oven. In this impatient world, we want it all right now.
“We all are guilty of this obsession with the tape, the clip. How many kids have grown up where dad is pointing the camera as they were exiting the womb?” said media expert Robert Thompson of Syracuse University. “If a camera isn’t present, it gives you the sense that whatever happened isn’t important.”
The syndicated TV series “Cops,” which tags along with law enforcement officers nationwide, debuted in 1989 with its authorized but still startling take on territory once owned by TV’s police dramas. That same year brought “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and its lighthearted approach, the forerunner of today’s online surfeit of cute kids, pets and marriage proposals.
“Cops” creator and executive producer John Langley said he never imagined how many programs would ape the show’s you-are-there approach.
“Maybe the world of video saturation has become excessive but, on the other hand, there’s obviously a market and an appetite for real video,” he said.
Another wing of reality, one shaped by overt manipulation, opened a scant three years later. MTV’s “The Real World” acts as puppet master, gathering young contestants in a house and recording and editing their interactions.
None of the trio of shows has worn out its welcome after more than two decades, with TV making space for more and more incarnations of the moneysaving reality genre.
What happened to King, however, opened a remarkable and searing new chapter in video’s influence.
It had long been the job of TV news cameras to document history and inform members of the public, who could serve as eyewitnesses but not reporters and certainly not camera operators. The most noteworthy exception: Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who recorded the critical seconds of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination on 8MM film.
Zapruder guarded the film, citing fears of exploitation, and it didn’t air on network TV until 1975, on ABC’s “Good Night America” (to explosive effect, despite the time lag.)
King was assaulted outside the home of a man, George Holliday, who owned a new video camera, used it, and swiftly gave a copy of the video to a TV station. Its repeated airing inflamed racial tensions nationwide and was sure, many thought, to guarantee a guilty verdict against the officers.
Attorney Harland Braun, who represented one of the officers in a federal trial, said, “If there hadn’t been a video there would have never been a case. In those days, you might have claimed excessive force but there would have been no way to prove it.”
But defense attorneys in the predominantly white suburb of Simi Valley, Calif., made the video part of their case for the officers’ innocence, dissecting it frame by frame to argue that King incited his own beating. The jury acquitted three officers and declared a mistrial for a fourth.
As many times as the video was played, it seemed someone could find a new reality in it.
Video is compelling but is “just what’s in the frame. It’s completely decontextualized,” Thompson said.
“The presence of a video … does not end the story,” he said. “The fact that we’re still debating the Kennedy assassination proves the Zapruder film didn’t seal the deal. All it proved was that Kennedy was shot.”
Videotape has a role in another fatal beating case involving Southern California police officers; surveillance video that roiled the city captured the assault on a mentally ill homeless man who died after a violent arrest in Fullerton last summer. Two officers will stand trial in the death. A white, ex-police officer from Houston was acquitted earlier this year of beating a black burglary suspect in an assault captured on video; critics said the all-white jury saw what they wanted to see.
King himself became part of the reality genre years after his video faded from public consciousness. Unable to surrender the limelight even as he struggled with alcohol addiction and arrests, he appeared on “Celebrity Rehab” and participated in a celebrity boxing match.
Society’s fixation on the images carried on our TV, computer or tablet screens is just as marked. Where it takes us next may be determined by another gripping image yet to be imagined or shot.