By the time of the Rodney King beating, the LAPD was no stranger to allegations of police brutality–over 15,000 such allegations had been made since 1985–but this was the first time that excessive force was caught on tape. Although initially the tape was kept from the public, it was out within a couple of days, and every news station in America ran the violent footage supporting claims of systemic abuse and racism within the LAPD.
As Geoffrey Taylor Gibbs wondered in the aftermath of the beating, imagine if there was no videotape, or even if there was just a photograph or an audio recording of the incident. Most likely, King would have been just another black man making just another accusation that he was a victim of police brutality. He would have been one of thousands who made similar accusations, but it is likely that not much would have changed. The videotape changed everything. It galvanized equal rights activists nationwide, forced politicians to act (as they did when the LAPD Chief of Police was fired) and provided savage, irrefutable proof to the American public that racism is alive and well. It amplified the trial and raised the stakes so that when the officers were acquitted by an all-white jury on April 29, 1992, Los Angeles blew up. The riots ended on May 2 with the help of the National Guard, 3,500 military personnel and the LAPD. By then, over 51 people were killed, 2,383 people had been injured, 8,000 people were arrested and more than 700 business had been burned to the ground.
Nowadays, particularly since so many cellphones are equipped with cameras, damning evidence is frequently and easily caught on video (ahem, John Galliano) and distributed around the world with lightning speed without much ceremony or amazement. But twenty years ago today, it was unique for an incident like the Rodney King beating to be caught on tape, and that tape wrote a crucial chapter in the history of American civil rights.