Rodney King Found Dead

Rodney King — whose 1991 beating by police officers was filmed and lead to riots in Los Angeles — was found at the bottom of his swimming pool early Sunday. He was 47. Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates about the beating and how its aftermath changed race relations in America forever.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rodney King, whose 1991 beating by police officers was filmed and led to riots in Los Angeles, has been found dead. He was discovered early this morning at the bottom of his swimming pool. He was 47 years old. King's treatment and its aftermath changed race relations in America forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS CONFERENCE)

RODNEY KING: I just want to say, you know, can we, can we all get along? Can we get along?

MARTIN: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates joins us now from Los Angeles. Karen, at this point, what can you tell us about what happened?

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Very little, really, because the sheriff in Rialto has apparently taken his body to the coroner, but we don't know cause of death or anything. I have to say, when I heard, I was a little surprised because he's an excellent swimmer. He told me when I met with him in April that water was his therapy, that he, really, when he'd had a bad day he liked to get into the pool, or if he could get to the beach, take his surfboard out and surf for a little while. So I, like everybody else, I'm really curious as to what really happened. They do not suspect foul play. They think that this is some kind of accident.

MARTIN: As you mentioned, you spoke with Rodney King around the 20th anniversary of his beating and the L.A. riots. How did he strike you then when you spoke with him?

BATES: He was very open, really warm, very confident, seemed to be very confident, which is a real contrast to the tape you just played of that tremulous Rodney King, who was saying, you know, can't we all get along? He was looking forward to what he would call the second half of his life. He said, you know, I've had some things that I've needed to work out. I didn't realize how much my childhood had affected me, I didn't realize how much that beating had affected me, but I've talked to people, I'm good, I've got this book out, I want people to know my story, I want this out, and I'm looking forward to talking about it.

MARTIN: Any idea what kind of reaction might come later today?

BATES: Well, I think a lot of people just sort of look and go, wow. You know, poor Rodney, he's had such a run of bad luck. There was some people to whom he will always be that guy who was speeding, doped up in a car, who should have known better. And he himself told me, yeah, you know, that was a big mistake. I was scared of the police, I should have stopped and pulled over. But if you grew up in my neighborhood, and had the interaction with police that black and brown people did, it might not have seemed like such a stupid idea. But I think probably a lot of people will feel like, wow, this is just the last in a long string of unfortunate things to happen to this man.

MARTIN: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles. Thanks so much, Karen.

BATES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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