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How James Cameron Led to the LA Riots

By Wm. Garrett Cothran

Anti-police graffiti under Route 101 in 1992. Photo taken by Ricky Bonilla and shared under the CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

Alright so the title itself is what made you decide to read this I suspect. How on earth would a film maker, the guy who made blue cats in Avatar have any impact on police brutality and the targeting of people of color? How could the LA Riots which came from a communities anger at overzealous police being acquitted of their crimes have anything to do with James Cameron? Well it is an odd little tale but one which needs to be said only to place the context of both past and current events into the frame of just how odd it was that we as a people get to see police being "bad cops." It should go without saying that the history of policing in the USA has been questionable at best and horrible at its worst.

We go back to March 3, 1991. Rodney King and two of his friends were driving west on the Foothill Freeway or I-210 in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. The three men were just hanging out at a friend's house in Los Angeles. Drinking and watching basketball and playing video games. Just a nice casual night. A little past midnight a husband and wife team (which is in no way important to the account but one of those odd little things) from the California Highway Patrol, saw King's car speeding. Turning the blues and twos on they pursued King to make him pull over. Instead King drove the car to a speed of 117 miles per hour (188km/h). Why was King fleeing? The man himself would later say that "I was on parole at the time [for a previous robbery conviction] and I knew if I was stopped they would see I was [intoxicated and King] would be violating [his] parole." Now it is perfectly fine to see no issue on the part of police in stopping a speeding car going in excess of 100 mph. The chase would involve several more police cars, a police helicopter, and would involve Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Sheriffs Department, and California Highway Patrol officers until eight miles later King's car was stopped and cornered.

Rodney King at this point had run through a stop sign, driven well beyond the speed limit, was intoxicated, and tried to flee police. If King was handcuffed and put into the back of a squad car we may never have known his name. If anything if we did know about it, and that is which occurred, we would praise the police for their actions. Sadly reality did not play out this way. In the early morning house of March 3 Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano moved into arrest Rodney King and the two other men in the car.

What occurred next, according to the police, was that King was on PCP, resisted arrest, reached for a weapon, and had a bloody hat in his car pointing to possibly other more violent acts King engaged in that evening. Police, at least according to Officer Stacy Koon, had "done everything to ensure that [King] was no longer resisting and not a threat to [officers at the scene]." In most cases that would be the end of it. Police arrested a man and that was that. However on March 3, 1991 these officers would go down in history because in this instance there was footage of the arrest.

Rodney King, one of the most famous ever victims of Police Brutality, as photographed by Justin Hoch in 2012. Photo shared under the CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

The specifics of the footage don't need to be described. It can easily be seen online. Yet to explain just what occurred we shall look to, then LAPD Police Chief, Daryl Gates who said, "We believe the officers used excessive force taking him into custody. In our review we find that officers struck him with batons between fifty-three and fifty-six times." Let that sink in before one decides to see the footage itself. It is not pleasant. King was so badly beaten he was in a wheel chair for weeks afterwards. He was never formally charged, most agreeing because of how severely the police beat him during his arrest. This lead to the officers being charged by the LA city DA. They were acquitted of the charges.

What followed the acquittal was the 1992 LA Riots. By the time the riots ended LA had federal, state, and local law enforcement alongside the US military on the streets to hold the city down. A total of 63 people had been killed, 2,383 people had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion. One billion dollars in 1992 equals close to $2 billion in 2020. It was a massive event and some argued it led to the loss of George H.W. Bush in the 1992 Presidential election. All of this came from footage of police beating a man.

Now what the flying pig does any of this have to do with James Cameron. What does Rodney King have to do with the guy who made Titanic. Well... nothing. This has to do with the guy who made Terminator. Terminator 2 to be specific. The one where a police officer made of liquid metal hunts down a small child while Arnold Schwarzenegger looks wicked swoll in a leather jacket and sunglasses. Terminator 2 was the sequel to the highly popular Terminator film which came out in 1984. Following a mixture of legal disputes over rights, technological breakthroughs in special effects, and seemingly James Cameron’s interest in the project it was decided to make a sequel to Terminator in the late 80s, with a formal screenplay put to paper by early 1990. The film was shot in an around Los Angeles County for a period of 171 days between October 9, 1990 and March 28, 1991. By now maybe it is clear what this has to do with Rodney King. When King was having his high-speed chase late at night James Cameron, Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the rest of the cast and crew were running about Los Angeles filming a movie about cyborgs and time travel. On March 2, 1991 around 10pm the scene where a naked Arnold walks into a bar was filmed.

Outside of the bar some people were watching and enjoying the sight of the leather clad Terminator getting on a motorcycle and riding away. Amongst the onlookers was a man called George Holliday. He was a 28-year-old plumber who had been given a 8mm Sony Handycam as a gift. Now two things occurred but the facts are not all that clear which of the two was more important. A few weeks prior to March 3 Holliday was in his truck and saw a motorcycle being chased by a big rig down the LA aqueduct. This, to fans of the film, is obviously when... well a motorcycle was chased down by a big rig in the LA aqueduct. The second event was when on March 2 Holliday knew that in the bar up the road from his house they were filming a movie. Living in Los Angeles everyone knows movies are filmed but the chance to go see it is something no one can pass up.

So, Holliday had his camera out and filmed a little. It was not to sell the footage or for any reason beyond simply that Holliday “wanted to show [his] friends the movie being filmed.” Holliday went home to his apartment and set his camera down on his dresser having had a fun little evening. Around 1am Holliday awoke “to the sounds of a helicopter over [his] apartment.” Looking out of his balcony window Holliday had perhaps the best possible view to see Rodney King’s arrest. Using the same camcorder which had minutes of the Terminator production on its tape Holliday started filming.

That tape would go on to make history. It is considered by some to be the first viral video for how quickly it spread amongst the populace. To others it is seen as one of the first real public glimpses into how, as many people already knew, police were treating citizens. It is not at all odd in 2020 to know of a recording of police using deadly force or violence against unarmed and unresisting suspects. The tape is still in the hands of the FBI and from time to time Holliday makes some money off of selling the rights to the tape for broadcast or use in films.

Now imagine what if this tape was not made. Not that police did not beat Rodney King but that the proof of it was not there. By all accounts it may have just been downplayed. Sure King could prove he was beaten but without that footage showing the seeming disdain for the man, and the officers outnumbering him and striking him repeatedly the impact upon Los Angeles would not have been as readily apparent. Now this does not mean that police would never have been caught, the rise in cellphone and smart phone technology has ensured nearly every single citizen is a potential Holliday ready, willing, and able to record acts of police misconduct. But Rodney King is somewhat more important when it comes to the Zeitgeist of the 1990s. Just as the death of George Floyd will be a major cultural event from viewed from the future the acts on March 3, 1991 had an impact upon US, if not the world, that went well beyond police acting poorly. The notion of police militarization and overuse of force has been a subject of intense debate since the LA Riots. All of which may not have occurred had James Cameron not wanted to make a sequel to the Terminator movie.

As a side note why was the “villain” of Terminator 2 made to look like a police officer? According to Cameron it was because while tv and films often show police as the heroes “the truth is that many officers, far too many, view themselves as superior to those who are not police. This non-cop attitude allows one to engage in shocking acts of violence while wearing the uniform meant to instil trust and security.” Given the events of Rodney King and Cameron’s own part in the matter such words almost seem prophetic.


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Wm. Garrett Cothran is the author of How Tall Is The Grass In Germany? and CSA All The Way, published by Sea Lion Press

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