She is just the latest in a long line of white people calling the police on black Americans. By Anna North May 26, 2020.
Christian Cooper was bird-watching in New York’s Central Park on Monday when he saw a woman with an unleashed dog.
Leashes are required in the Ramble, the part of the park where the two were walking. “That’s important to us birders because we know that dogs won’t be off leash at all and we can go there to see the ground-dwelling birds,” Cooper told CNN.
So Cooper decided to say something. What happened next was captured in a video that’s now been seen by millions of Americans.
The woman, Amy Cooper, refused to put her dog on a leash or move to another area. So Christian took out some dog treats he carries for situations like this. At that point, according to Christian, she began to panic — and he started filming.
In the video, posted to Facebook and shared thousands of times, Amy approaches Christian, potentially violating social distancing guidelines. Then she threatens to call the police, saying, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Finally, she actually calls the authorities, saying that an “African American” man “is recording me and threatening me and my dog.” Cooper says very little on the video, and certainly nothing threatening.
When police arrived, both Christian and Amy had already left the park. And after the video went viral, Amy issued an apology and was fired from her job. But for many, the incident is a reminder of larger ills in American society: the willingness of white people to call the police on black people, and the epidemic of violence against black Americans by both police and white civilians, including the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
“We live in an era with things like Ahmaud Arbery, where black men are seen as targets,” Christian Cooper told CNN. “This woman thought she could exploit that to her advantage, and I wasn’t having it.”
Amy Cooper called the police after a dispute about her dog
Christian Cooper told CNN he was “pretty calm” when he asked Amy Cooper to abide by the park’s leash rules. But Amy claims he was screaming at her. “He was running in an open field,” she told CNN. “He came out of the bush.”
When she refused to leash her dog, he says he told her, “if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” He meant he was going to film her, but Amy says, “I didn’t know what that meant. When you’re alone in a wooded area, that’s absolutely terrifying, right?”
She now claims that fear is the reason she decided to call the police. “I think I was just scared,” she told CNN. “When you’re alone in the Ramble, you don’t know what’s happening. It’s not excusable, it’s not defensible.”
Amy also says she wants to “publicly apologize to everyone.”
“I’m not a racist,” she told CNN. “I did not mean to harm that man in any way.”
Amy also told CNN that her “entire life is being destroyed right now” — after calls on social media for her employer to fire her, she has been let go by Franklin Templeton, the investment company where she worked.
“Following our internal review of the incident in Central Park yesterday, we have made the decision to terminate the employee involved, effective immediately,” the company said on Twitter. “We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton.”
Amy Cooper has also surrendered her dog to the shelter where she adopted him, after some people noted that she appeared to be choking him with his collar in the video.
“The dog is now in our rescue’s care and he is safe and in good health,” shelter staff said in a Facebook post, according to CNN.
The incident was part of a long history of white people calling the police on black Americans
In this particular case, no arrests were made and Christian was not physically harmed. But there’s a long history of such 911 calls by white people resulting in arrests, interrogation, and violence against black people.
This dangerous pattern received greater national attention in 2018 whentwo black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while doing nothing more than waiting for a business partner to arrive. Soon after, a white Oakland woman became the subject of countless “BBQ Becky” memes after she called the police on a black family who were barbecuing in a park — the family were detained and questioned for an hour. Also in 2018, Chikesia Clemons was arrested and thrown to the ground by police at an Alabama Waffle House after restaurant staff called over a dispute with the bill. The officers exposed Clemons’ breasts and threatened to break her arm.
As P.R. Lockhart wrote at Vox in 2018, “if ‘shopping while black’ and ‘driving while black’ have been long used to describe a tendency for people and police to treat black people with suspicion, recent incidents have provided an increasing number of scenarios to add to the list.”
Indeed, black bird-watchers have long spoken out about the dangers of “birding while black.” In a 2016 essay by that name, J. Drew Lanham wrote about encountering Confederate flags and KKK graffiti while out looking for birds, and having to give up a promising research project because a white supremacist group became active in the mountainous area he was supposed to study.
“In remote places, fear has always accompanied binoculars, scopes, and field guides as baggage,” he wrote.
Many in the birding community have voiced support for Christian Cooper since the incident became public.
“Black Americans often face terrible daily dangers in outdoor spaces, where they are subjected to unwarranted suspicion, confrontation, and violence,” Rebeccah Sanders, senior vice president for state programs at the Audubon Society, said in a statement. “We are grateful Christian Cooper is safe. He takes great delight in sharing New York City’s birds with others and serves as a board member of the New York City Audubon Society, where he promotes conservation of New York City’s outdoor spaces and inclusion of all people.”
For his part, Christian Cooper told the Washington Post, “I don’t think there’s an African American person in America who hasn’t experienced something like this at some point.”
But, he said, “I don’t shy away from confronting the scofflaw when I see it. Otherwise, the park would be unusable — not just to us birders but to anybody who enjoys the beauty.”
The Toxic Intersection of Racism and Public Space
by Breentin Mock (MAY 26, 2020)
For black men like Christian Cooper, the threat of a call to police casts a cloud of fear over parks and public spaces that othersassociate with safety.
That Christian Cooper is still alive should not be taken for granted. His encounter with Amy Cooper in Central Park could have ended in any number of ways. Arrest. Injury. Gunfire. We don’t know whether Amy Cooper, a white woman, considered any of those outcomeswhen she called the police on Christian after he admonished her for refusing to leash her dog in a bird garden, per park rules. But in the viral video of the encounter, we can hear malice in her voice.
The way she says, “I’m going to tell them an African American man is threatening my life,” — when Christian was armed with nothing but dog treats — gives a clear indication thatat the very least, she believed referencing his race would matter in the police response. By identifying Christian as an African American man when calling 911, she was dialing it up to mark her call urgent.
Fortunately, neither of the Coopers were still in the park when police arrived on the scene. Hadthey remained, the situation had high potential for escalation, especially given that Christian Cooper visits the Ramble bird garden frequently. He is a birdwatcher and invested in protecting the Ramble bird habitat from an influx of dog-walkers spurred by Covid-19 social distancing guidelines, even though the habitat is clearly marked as prohibiting unleashed dogs.
Aftera heavy dose of Twitter-shaming, Amy Cooper apologized for her actions.(She also gave up her dog and was fired from her finance job amid the backlash.) But the casual encounter between the white and black Coopers raises questions about who and what are considered to be deserving of protection when it comes to public spaces. Urbanists have been calling for more green spaces and open streets where cars are limited or prohibited, to encourage walking and biking. Many cities have answered this call at least temporarily during coronavirus lockdowns. Study after study shows that more parks and green spaces in cities can yield positive mental health benefits — something especially useful in the current pandemic.
But policies intended to foster feelings of safety and liberationcan also invite more anxiety for black people so longas they are viewed as threatening, or, at best, with suspicion in public spaces. This becomes more magnified under the mandate of wearing masks, which under any other circumstance would invite an even more prejudiced view of black people.
“Contact with nature reduces precursors to crime like stress and aggression, making people feel happier, and less inclined to engage in criminal acts,” wrote researchers Lincoln Larson and S. Scott Ogletree. “And when people gather in parks and other green spaces, it puts more ‘eyes on the streets,’ exposing criminals to constant community surveillance.”
Those kinds of observations must be tempered by the day-to-day realities of those who don’t have the cheat codes of whiteness to help them avoid racial harassment, especially from police.The Jane Jacobian idea of“eyes on the street” very easily becomes “eyes on the black people” — which is why some African Americans disengage from public spaces like parks altogether. These peaceful green spaces just as easily induce anxiety and trauma for black and brown people, especially when they know the cops can be unleashed at any moment.
White people can weaponize the police against people who aren’t white, and that power only flows in one direction. The way Amy Cooper reacted in the video shows that she was aware of that power dynamic. All it took was for a white person to send a bat signal — or in Amy Cooper’s case, a racial dog whistle — to make a garden unsafe for a black person. So long as people of color, and black men in particular, are seen as a potential danger, the issue of racial equity in parks and other open and public spaces goes unresolved.
Acknowledging Christian Cooper’s bird-watching mission in this, the National Audubon Society released a statement:
“Black Americans often face terrible daily dangers in outdoor spaces, where they are subjected to unwarranted suspicion, confrontation, and violence,” said Audubon SVP for State Programs Rebeccah Sanders. “The outdoors — and the joy of birds — should be safe and welcoming for all people.”
But it doesn’t really matter that Christian Cooper is a card-carrying Audubon Society member, or that he is a Harvard grad. Here he is discussing birds:
These titles have no sentinel function for black people if they have no reasonable expectation of equal protection under the law. With just one sentence and a phone, Amy Cooper was able to unfurl a whole U.S. history of police — and police wannabes — apprehending, hunting, and killing black people in open parks and streets to remind him that this was a space that he was not entitled to be in, unlike herself. The park rules? Those were for the birds.
Christian Cooper did not run when she unholstered this history; he stood his ground.
“I am not going to participate in my own dehumanization,” he told The Washington Post.
Had he run, there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t have been chased down by anyone in the park who believed their whiteness deputizes them by birthright to police black people out of any public space. There was no guarantee that if police showed up that they wouldn’t have acted just as they did with Eric Garner — or with George Floyd, the latest unarmed African American man to die while being restrained by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
Just as with Garner, Floyd was killed by police on a public street with dozens of people watching — “eyes on the street” were of no help to them.