The video, or more accurately its broadcast across America, set in motion consequences that have reverberated through the years since the beating. Among them: the Los Angeles riots, after the acquittal of police charged with assault, and the poisonous relations between Los Angeles police and many of the city’s citizens.
Another impact, of course, was the recognition - which grows more and more prevalent - that anyone with a video camera could become more than a witness to the events of our times. The camera-bearing citizen, in this case a man named George Holliday, was becoming an integral part of how we remember these events.
Holliday’s act was one of citizen journalism. It was not the first, however, even though it was a milestone.
Citizen photojournalism in history
Indeed, people have been witnessing and taking pictures of notable events for a long, long time. Consider this picture. It shows a man being rescued from a truck that dangled over the side of a bridge. It was taken by Virginia Schau, an amateur photographer who happened on the scene after the accident. She won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography.
Less than a decade later, an old-fashioned movie camera captured the most famous pictures in the citizen-media genre: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Abraham Zapruder, the man pointing the camera that day in Dealey Plaza, sold the film to Life Magazine for $150,000 - over a million dollars in today’s currency.
In Dealey Plaza that day, one man happened to capture a motion picture - somewhat blurred but utterly gruesome nonetheless - of those terrible events. Zapruder’s work, by any standard we can imagine, was an act of citizen journalism.
But the Rodney King video was a turning point. By 1991, home video gear was becoming common, heading toward today’s near-ubiquity. When people saw that video, they realised a number of things, not least of which was the possibility that average citizens could hold powerful people - the police in this instance - somewhat more accountable for wrongdoing they committed in public places. Witnessing was being transformed into action, we all understood.
Today, many of us carry around still and video cameras that are part of our phones. In the US and around the world, people are capturing events, routine and horrific, that mark our times. The mobile-phone video of Neda Soltani’s death by gunshot in the aftermath of Iran’s rigged 2009 election became a rallying point for opposition to the regime.
In recent days, the grim videos and photos coming out of Libya have been testament to people's desire to bear witness to cruelty and oppression. Around the world, dictators have learned that even if they kill their people they can not ultimately stop the world from seeing what crimes they commit. Yes, they can use technology to stifle freedom, and they do. But media from average people can make a real difference, too, and it does again and again."