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Camera Shy : Man Who Videotaped King Beating Returns to Life as a Regular Guy

March 10, 1996|BETH SHUSTER | TIME STAFF WRITER

SYLMAR — George Holliday knew he was guilty of speeding when he was pulled over by the police, but that's not what had him worried. Would they recognize him after all these years, and if so, how would he be treated?

As it turned out, his fears were unfounded. Not only were the patrol officers civil, but as one handed over the ticket, he acknowledged Holliday's role in the 1991 Rodney G. King beating and even told him: "By the way, we think you did the right thing."

Holliday's encounter, of course, stands in stark contrast to the experience of King, the speeding motorist whose clubbing by police was recorded by Holliday on his home video camera and broadcast around the world. Ultimately, Holliday's tape changed the course of Los Angeles law-enforcement history.

Holliday, the tall, unassuming general manager of a Sylmar plumbing company, became a somewhat-reluctant hero credited with saving many potential police victims. Like a modern-day Cincinnatus, the Roman who emerged from obscurity to save a government leader only to quietly return to his farm, Holliday has returned to his old life as a regular guy. He still has his strawberry-blond mustache and mellow attitude. He never quit his job, never got rich, did get divorced, and has remarried.

Right now, he doesn't even own a video camera.

"To be honest, he's still his same old self," said his younger brother, Peter, who works with Holliday. "When he taped that, he never thought he'd be a millionaire. He thought he would stop this kind of thing from ever happening again."

Though Holliday sometimes still wonders why the officers treated King as they did on the early morning of March 3, 1991--an unsavory slice of police life captured from the balcony of his Lake View Terrace apartment--he also said he believes the Los Angeles Police Department got a raw deal.

"I feel bad for the Police Department," he said last week over lunch at a Sylmar diner. "I think that beating was out of line, but I've never had a bad experience with them. . . . I don't think they're that bad."

Holliday went on to say that the entire department was unfairly tarnished by the actions of a few officers, two of whom were eventually convicted in federal court of violating King's civil rights.

In fact, Holliday says he sometimes watches reality-based television shows in which police officers often make arrests under trying circumstances. Holliday says at those times, he wonders how officers can actually restrain themselves.

Still, the soft-spoken Holliday (who says he's never been in a fight) says he doesn't understand violence. His style is so nonconfrontational that he let his first wife keep his scrapbook of press clippings from the King incident. She also kept their video camera--not the one that taped the beating, but its replacement after the FBI seized the first.

He has a few reminders of his own, though. A plaque from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and, of course, a copy of the tape. The original remains a part of the historical record, on file in federal archives.

He's paid off some bills with the relatively modest proceeds he reaped from the incident--including $500 he received the day after the beating from KTLA-TV Channel 5, where Holliday first took the tape.

He did not, however, succeed in his efforts to sue--for $100 million--several television networks for copyright infringement. And other money-making ventures, mostly put together by lawyers long gone, have been put to rest.

All told, he says he made less than $10,000 on the nine-minute videotape, though he believes he would have made more had he known more about the broadcasting business.

"I didn't make the recording to make money, but after the whole thing blew up, we all realized there was money to be made," Holliday said.

He promoted a video called "Shoot News and Make Money With Your Camcorder" for a royalty. He gave permission to a rap music band--Bytches With Problems--to use a portion of the taped beating in its own music video. He also received an undisclosed fee from filmmaker Spike Lee, who used scenes from the video in his movie "Malcolm X."

But mostly, the tape served as a free and essential piece of evidence in two trials.

Despite the devastating publicity it heaped on the LAPD and the barrage of changes, including a new chief, today Los Angeles police laud Holliday's actions.

"George Holliday did nothing wrong," said Lt. Dan Hoffman of the LAPD's Valley Bureau. "If I had a video camera and I saw the same scene, I would have done the same thing myself."

For his part, Holliday says he feels no responsibility for the events that unfolded following the beating, including the April 1992 riots. The Canadian-born Holliday, who grew up in Argentina before moving to the United States 11 years ago, said racial tensions had already been simmering and that "anything" could have sparked the fires, and looting, and violence.

"If my tape hadn't been there, I think something else would have triggered it."

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