When in April 1992 South Central Los Angeles experienced the beginning of a series of protests that ended in violent riots, looting, arson and police repression, a part of the public opinion decided that it was the fault of the recording of barely eighty seconds of the beating of Rodney King, the African-American who a year prior a group of white policemen had beaten, that was recorded on video.
The “Rodney King riots”, as the incident that left sixty dead and over two thousand injured during that spring is also known, as well as great destruction in one of the poorest areas of the city, blew up the very same day a jury acquitted the four policemen who, after beating King for driving while drunk and allegedly on drugs and violating the order to stop, joked in the ambulance driving the victim to hospital with the beating having been like a baseball game.
That night, under the streetlight where the officers beat King, in the solitude of a Los Angeles suburb, a video camera acted like a silent witness to the event.
George Holliday had just bought his video 8 Sony Handycam. He was learning how to use it when he heard the sirens of the police patrol cars and grabbed it in an almost instinctive gesture. Even though the group of agents beating King, who had been handcuffed and was crawling along the floor, was at a distance of forty meters, from the balcony of Holliday’s house the perspective was privileged.
In spite of the camera’s poor zoom and lack of ambient light, the ghostly and almost soundless scene in which four cops unload their batons, holding them with both hands and whipping with all their might the almost motionless body of King, was to become the most watched recording of its time and the first viral record in History, when that term had not yet been coined.
Holliday said years later that in the video cassette where he recorded the beating there were also the shots he had unexpectedly taken in a bar located in front of his house, of the filming of Terminator 2, the James Cameron science-fiction movie where a robotic machine from the future time travels to the present to protect the boy John Connor, who would become the leader of Humanity’s resistance against the domination of the machines.
The video amateur had attended the scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger, embodiment of the heroic terminator of the film, strips a motorcyclist of his clothes and vehicle to continue his mission. According to what Holliday told the correspondent of the Spanish newspaper El Pais in Los Angeles, Pablo Ximenez de Sandoval, the night of March 3rd 1991, on the same videotape, he registered the brutal beating that remained in history.
The next day Holliday went with his camera to the Los Angeles marathon and recorded a friend of his participating in the race. It was the third take printed in tape the one he ended up handing over to the local television channel KTLA, that broadcasted the images of the beating of Rodney King and unleashed an FBI investigation that culminated in court and from there to one of the biggest riots to be remembered in that United States city.
“So the tape starts with Schwarzenegger on a motorcycle… Only in LA!”, Holliday ironically said in his interview for El Pais.
I cannot stop thinking about the epiphanic nature of that piece of information. Cameron’s movie is the first blockbuster of the nineties to reflectively address the new era of images to come: the CGI (computer generated images) used by the filmmakers to represent the evil terminator chasing the heroes and whose goal is to murder John Connor to prevent him from becoming a rebel hero, resort to a very popular software at the time: morphing.
The robotic machine sent to the past by Skynet is made, says terminator Schwarzenegger, of “liquid metal”. It is a fluid, a silver lava with an unparalleled skill: to imitate the aspect of any human being and morph in truthful fashion into, for example, a tile floor. As John Carpenter’s monster from The Thing (1982) had done before, this unbeatable assassin introduces suspicion in the nerve of reality. It could be any person or animal because it works like an invisible virus, that remains hidden until it decides to activate and kill.
While Carpenter’s nightmare resorted to a strange myth, born during the Cold War, to allegorize global fear during the AIDS pandemic, Cameron’s Terminator warned of a different danger: the latent possibility of a regime of images capable of cloning, of copying what is real to generate its identical replica. The images of digital synthesis would be that for cinema: a magmatic fluid capable of acquiring any form at its whim, of building illusions for the human eye and of introducing doubt into our perception of the world.
But Holliday’s videotape that starts with Schwarzenegger getting ready to face the shapeless entity designed by Skynet and continues with the beating that some policemen give to a civilian, contains the dialectic withdrawal of that suspicion and the devolution of reality to its most cruel extent.
The videographic device and the tools of production and image manipulation that accompany it, while opening up a scenario of unheard-of possibilities for the manifestation of imagination, also created a thirst for reality that has multiplied the attainable repertoire of evidence with which to access and understand current events.
May 25th 2020, seventeen-year-old teenager Darnella Frazier was in the place in Minneapolis where four policemen arrested George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black man who had just bought a pack of cigarettes in a nearby store with an allegedly fake twenty dollars bill. What happened with Floyd has far exceeded what happened with King, that in the distance of time seems like an isolated event.
As opposed to Holliday, Frazier registered with her cellphone the eight minutes and 46 seconds of agony of the handcuffed detainee, who asked for help while the knee of officer Derek Chauvin pressed his neck. The images were shared by the teenager immediately on her social networks and are as of today the most watched viral video in History. These images also provoked a wave of global protests that have generated, apart from looting and violent revolts, a reinvention of the social agendas of entire communities and the reshaping of the relationship between elites and the governed in a world where repressive systems seem to be a natural part of the social administration tactics admitted by consensus.
Frazier, like Holliday in 1991, acted from a natural need to offer testimony, to witness an event that from no point of view could be considered just or humane. That is, they reacted like ethical individuals. They both used that prosthesis of memory that civilization first acquired with the invention of the photographic device and was later improved in the cinematic registry device. Theirs, barely an individual gesture, reached that little considered dimension that the technology of registration and reproduction of images in motion contributed to civilization: the sphere of memory.
Nonetheless, Frazier complained on her social networks of living traumatized by the attacks she received after revealing the images of the torture and murder of Floyd. In particular, the teenager was questioned for not doing something to save the man, instead of just recording the crime: “I don’t expect anyone who wasn’t placed in my position to understand why and how I feel the way I feel! (…) If it wasn’t for me, four cops would’ve still have their jobs, causing other problems. My video went world wide for everyone to see and know”.
If it were not for her recording about what happened “the police most definitely would’ve swept it under the rug with a cover-up story. Instead of bashing me, THANK ME! Because that could’ve been one of your loved ones and you would want to see the truth as well”, she added, according to a report of the digital media Insider.
Coincidentally, Holliday was also blamed at the time for what happened after the Los Angeles police abuse scandal. “There have been people blaming me for the riots. What’s on the tape caused the riots, not the tape”, he said.
Darnella Frazier has her own thoughts about the unpredictability that her video unleashed. “I was the one that was recording the whole thing. I’ve seen him die. I posted the video last night and it just went viral. And everybody’s asking me how I feel. I don’t know how to feel ’cause it’s so sad, bro. They killed this man and I was right there. I was five feet away. It’s so traumatizing”.
Five feet. The right distance to record a death, the ultimate limit of language, something for which there are no definitive words. The unspeakable itself. That which a few words offer in the middle of the absolute muteness of who sees it.
In Images in Spite of all: four photographs of Auschwitz, the philosopher and art historian George Didi-Huberman reflects around four pictures taken by Sonderkommandos, the Nazi prisoners collaborating in extermination work in concentration camps. In those pictures, the horror of the ritual of death appears in its most startling nudity, expressed like idle practice and with no moral background. Like work.
But before these images, how to react? What to do with them, before them? To Didi-Huberman, the abjection contained in these images and in the gesture of the person who took them is a minor detail compared to the visibility gesture that they entail. “What was terrible was that all of this was invisible to the entire world. We, thanks to that man who died, of course, have access to that historical truth. I would add that those pictures are part of a group of decisions made by those people, those prisoners (…). It is an insurrection, that image is part of a gesture of insurrection, in spite of what it represents. And the big question of these extreme images would be: when there is nothing, when there are no means to fight, when you are in an attitude of complete humiliation, how do you revolt anyway?”, he said, in an interview to the Argentinean newspaper Pagina 12.
To register a crime has that specific cost of projecting into the future the existence of horror, its historical logic and its consequences on who we are. The images are the trace remaining to warn us of the manifestation of something latent in History that we do not understand yet, but in the face of which we can do something. An image is just a murky well of meanings that interrogate us. We are in charge of giving them value in use.