The Rodney King Video: 20 Years Later

Posted on March 3, 2011 by Jenni Wolfson

(c) George Holliday. From the Los Angeles Times: The nine minutes of grainy video footage George Holliday captured of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King 20 years ago helped to spur dramatic reforms in a department that many felt operated with impunity.

Exactly 20 years have passed since the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD was captured by George Holliday, a bystander, on a hand-held video camera. Millions around the world saw the footage. This incident was the impetus for the creation of WITNESS.  People began to realize that a citizen with a camera in his/her hands could be a powerful actor.

WITNESS’s co-founder Peter Gabriel asked: What if every human rights defender had a camera in their hands? What would they film and what could they change?  Guided by that dream, WITNESS gave activists cameras and training to help their local voices reach the global arena. At the time, a video camera was a rare luxury item.

Now, two decades later, ever-increasing numbers of people throughout the world have access to video.  The most recent statistics show that there is now one cell phone for every one and a half people on earth.  As a consequence, a growing number of individuals have the capacity to film using a cell phone or other mobile device – which they carry with them at all times.  Many others could be empowered with inexpensive video cameras that record high-quality images.  It has never been easier to capture video in our everyday lives.

At the time of WITNESS’s founding, we assumed the biggest value add would be the technical provision of equipment. Over time, however, it became clear that the simple provision of a camera was inadequate for most human rights contexts. Most human rights footage does not receive the attention that Rodney King did. Perhaps more important a realization for us was that a structural human rights issue, such as the right to water, cannot be easily captured in footage of 56 blows of a baton, six kicks and two taser blasts.

Indeed WITNESS has emphasized the importance of effective storytelling when video is used in a human rights context. Most of the videos we have gone on to co-produce with over 80 human rights organizations around the world are largely testimony based. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mafille, a teenage girl, tells us how she was raped and then repeatedly sexually abused by militia members as part of her “military service.” Her eyes downcast she says, “I am still in shock. I still cry when I think about it.” Mafille’s story is effective in conveying the message that children don’t want any part of combat, without showing any graphic content.

In the 20 years since Rodney King footage was circulated, the flow of imagery being produced on a daily basis, by major news networks and amateurs alike is constant and overwhelmingA world with cameras everywhere makes it possible for nearly anyone to become a human rights activist – giving us billions of potential witnesses to the Rodney King incidents of our time.

So what does the legacy of the Rodney King incident really mean for WITNESS, for human rights defenders, for the individual stories captured and shared via video every day? The Los Angeles Times today reported that the LAPD, has “learned to embrace video scrutiny” and that the department’s overall reputation has improved as a result. And technology has made it possible for people to distribute all this new video content in rapid succession. Online video platforms like YouTube and social media networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become part of the basic fabric of communication – not just in our personal and professional lives, but as fundamental tools for civic discourse and social and political activism.

Contributors to content now include citizen “reporters” who shoot and upload to these sites, “editors” who grab salient moments and re-package them, “curators” who embed, re-edit, tweet, blog and email content, and of course, a multitude of viewers who continuously watch, rank, share and comment on what they see. But the challenges and risks are also immense. This proliferation raises new concerns around the safety, security, privacy and consent of those who are filming and being filmed.  As we look towards our next 20 years, one of our key areas of focus is in preparing human rights defenders and citizen journalists (planned or accidental), to film safely and effectively, so that their videos can be used to create lasting change.

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  3. Rob Godden March 7, 2011 at 3:37 am

    Good to see WITNESS looking to the future and adapting to the proliferation of digital recording and dissemination devices. I think your point about 'effective story telling' is key, and no less so in a world flooded with images competing for our attention. However, I would add an additional point you don't touch on – how video is used? I believe that this is equally important. Not all video may get seen by the numbers that saw Rodney King being beaten, but sometimes it is a small select audience that can make the difference, be they decision makers or opinion formers. In a world awash with video it has never been more important to have a clear strategy on how that tool will work towards your objectives, and how you will reach your audience? I am particularly interested in 'video for targeted advocacy' – not mass public consumption. I wonder how successful this has been? And what lessons can be learnt from those successes? Tactics for reaching the right minister or police chief?

    • Jenni Wolfson March 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

      The point you are making about audience is an important one, and in fact when it comes to how we work with our campaign partners, the most salient one. When WITNESS begins to partner on a campaign with human rights groups, the first thing we develop together is a video action plan that outlines what the advocacy goal is and how it will be achieved. Front and centre there is who is the audience that you are trying to reach, what are you trying to get that audience to do, what stories and voices will succeed in influencing them? One of our recent campaigns in Kenya is a great example of that targeted strategic distribution and its potential impact http://tinyurl.com/45lqcnh. In this case, the target audience was just a few members of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, to get them to address the illegal displacement of an indigenous Kenyan group, the Endorois, from their ancestral lands. Video had never been screened to the Commission before, and it helped make the visual and compelling case for the Endorois people, and resulted in a positive and landmark ruling. In this case, the audience members were a small group. But it’s less about the size of the audience, and more about reaching the right audience with the best strategy. We are constantly trying to learn from our partnerships and from others using video in their advocacy to find effective ways to create video for change.

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