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

Police brutality has long existed, but our smartphones and social media are finally putting it in our faces.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
7 min read

A mural by Jesus Cruz Artiles in Berlin depicts George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 29, saying "I can't breathe."

Getty Images George FLoyd Mural

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. 

Watch this: Black Lives Matter: How you can take action today

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.


Phones have become a key tool in protests.

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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."

Cameras everywhere

Civil rights activists have relied on cameras and video footage to expose racism, abuse and misconduct for decades.

In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues organized protests that would grab the media's attention and expose abuse. Cameras were rolling when children marching for equality in Birmingham, Alabama, were hit with water from fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. The cameras were there again when peaceful protesters walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, only to be attacked by law enforcement waiting on the other side.


Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks at a rally while a camera films.

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"Dr. King and his strategists recognized the need for pictures that would demonstrate the depravity of Jim Crow segregation to a skeptical public," Maurice Berger, a former research professor and chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wrote in a 2018 essay for The New York Times. "Seen around the world, these images broke through skepticism and complacency, providing unassailable evidence of the evil of segregation and how it imperiled democracy."

Today, the videos and images aren't just shot by news media, but also by activists, police-worn body cameras, store surveillance footage and random passersby.

Social media has also allowed for easy ways to share the shocking images. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter's Periscope all have the ability to broadcast live from your phone too. As a result, protesters often are holding phones in front of them, capturing the energy of a march along with any police response. And it's those same phones that have captured police-involved killings of black men such as Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher and Alton Sterling.

"It shouldn't take that for us to have these conversations," said Rachel Hardeman, an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Hardeman's research has focused on the impact racist institutions have on public health, including the prevalence of long-term stress and depression in minority communities.

"It's opened the eyes of a lot of white people who didn't have a grasp on what was happening," she said. But it's coming at the harm of a lot of people. "Having to relive those incidents over and over again is incredibly harmful for mental health and emotional wellbeing."


The Black Lives Matter hashtag is one of the most used on Twitter, ever.

Getty Images

Organizing response

Social media's also become a tool for organizing. When Twitter published a list of the most used hashtags on its platform in 2016, the top three were #Ferguson, #LoveWins and #BlackLivesMatter, making social justice issues the top most mentioned in the history of the service. 

A Pew Research Center analysis of Twitter data found part of what's made #BlackLivesMatter such a popular hashtag is how broadly it's been used. It's helped protesters organize, it's been the target of criticism for the movement, and it's identified new events and police misconduct. And it's become a rallying cry within the black community. 

Sixty-eight percent of black social media users are more likely than whites to say that at least some of the posts they see on social media are about race, Pew said. And 28% of black social media users say at least some of what they post about themselves is about race, whereas only 8% of white users said the same.

Those conversations have also helped spur more media coverage of black men being killed by police, according to a study by Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. 

Before 2014 -- when #BlackLivesMatter rose to national prominence following the police killing Michael Brown in Ferguson -- a black man killed by police in a city had a 39% chance of having at least one article published about him. Following 2014, a similar person had a 64% chance. 

"Not only were deaths more likely to be covered at all, they were more likely to be covered in detail," he wrote. "Because the movement helped lift up a narrative that connected individual events into a broader story of racism and its dangerous effects, it's reasonable to connect this news wave with the movement's efforts."

Shifting perception

Protesters throughout the US have marched and held memorials to Floyd nearly every day since the video of his arrest went viral. They've pushed public conversations on race, including on Capitol Hill and in local legislatures. 

People are debating reducing police budgets across the country, a movement activists call "defund the police." 

Some cities are considering a complete reset of their police departments. The Minneapolis City Council on June 9 announced plans to disband its police department in favor of a new public safety program.

Others are looking at reform, such as the New York State Assembly, which on June 8 passed a bill banning police from using deadly chokeholds. The bill is named after Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was killed in 2014 when an NYPD officer used the hold on him. The video of his deadly encounter with the police, and his pleas, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry for activists.

As New York was passing its chokehold bill, Congressional Democrats on Capitol Hill unveiled the Justice in Policing Act. Among other things, it would ban facial recognition without a warrant. The bill also attempts to create transparency with a National Police Misconduct Registry, and mandates state and local law enforcement turn over data on use of force.

It's unclear though whether all these efforts will lead to real change. American politicians have responded to shocking and outrageous deaths before, introducing laws and advocating for change that never ultimately comes. 

The police department in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, missed opportunities to remove bad officers and change use of force rules such as banning controversial chokeholds, according to reports by The Marshall Project. And the US Department of Justice has almost entirely retreated from investigating police misconduct since President Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017, according to data compiled by the National Law Journal.

Global scenes of Black Lives Matter protests show outrage far beyond US

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Armour, who's attended events for Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles, said another challenge will be the movement itself, which will have to face the inevitable moment when protests and media attention eventually fade.

"From 2015 to the present moment, we didn't hear much about police brutality," he said, noting the time between the killings of Michael Brown and George Floyd. 

"It wasn't like there was a holiday and everyone had a hiatus," he added. "A lot of the reason you see the rage in the streets now is because this has been happening the whole time."

Black Lives Matter. Visit blacklivesmatter.carrd.co to learn how to donate, sign petitions and protest safely.