How video of MLK, Rodney King and George Floyd changed our view of police

Originally published June 13, 2020

By Ian Sherr

Jody Armour remembers the first time he saw a video of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers in the spring of 1991. And the second time. And the third time. And many after that. 

The video of police beating King, an unarmed black man in a parking lot, had saturated the airwaves shortly after it happened on March 3. Newly launched 24-hour cable news networks like CNN played it on a near constant loop.

“Those were some of the first days that you could turn on the TV anytime day or night and see news,” he said. And at that time, when he was starting his teaching career at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, it was the biggest story in the country. “The cable news knew the images of that would be arresting.”

Three decades later and Armour, now a law professor at University of Southern California, is watching another gruesome video of police and an unarmed black man. Like King, this unarmed black man was filmed by a bystander as he was abused by the police. But that’s where the similarities end. 

King’s video was taken at a distance, and the bits replayed on TV were blurry. Today’s video clearly showed the victim’s face as he was pinned on the ground, wincing in pain, gasping for breath and calling out for his mother. And this video is punctuated by a Minneapolis police officer, leaning his knee on the man’s neck for what would be 8 minutes and 46 seconds. 

Unlike King, this man died in police custody. His name was George Floyd.

The video of Floyd’s final moments made its way to international TV, but that’s not where many people saw it. Instead, millions were introduced to Floyd through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. The horrifying video, shot vertically like so many TikTok dances and happy selfies, spread around the internet alongside hashtags for this generation’s civil rights movement: #BlackLivesMatter.

The digital age has transformed how information spreads around the world, and it’s also changed the reaction to another unarmed black man’s death. In years past, shocking images would fill TV screens, newspapers and hashtags around the world. When local police shot and killed another unarmed black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, thousands of people gathered there to protest day and night.

Unlike with Brown, who was shot at least six times, there’s video evidence of Floyd’s final moments. It’s hard to watch and leaves little question as to how he was treated.

Protesters quickly took to the streets as the video spread, marching in every major US city and around the world, despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected 7.5 million people around the world and killed 423,000.

Also unlike previous incidents, which eventually faded as the nation moved on to some new outrage, the prevalence of phone cameras at these protests has brought a steady stream of new examples of police brutality, keeping us focused on the fight to end racial inequality and to overhaul police departments as institutions.

As activists march, they hold signs asking if they might be the next unarmed black person to die at the hands of the police. Others ask how many more incidents haven’t been videotaped.

They remind us that if we weren’t living in the modern age, with camera-equipped phones in our pockets everywhere we go, we may never have known what happened to Floyd, Armour said. “What it makes me feel is that what we’re seeing through these cameras is the tip of the iceberg.”

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