A birdwatcher, a dog and Amy Cooper. Another viral racial incident in America
It began with a black man’s regular early morning stroll to glimpse scarlet tanagers, the bright red songbirds found in the Ramble, a shady, meandering series of paths in New York’s Central Park popular with birders and dog walkers.
But what unfolded on Memorial Day was far less serene, leading once again to a viral moment that raised disturbing questions about race, violence and policing in a nation where videos speed across social media with visceral and stinging effect.
Christian Cooper says he “wishes we could move on” from the incident that has made him and his unrelated foe, Amy Cooper, household names. He was a black man scanning for birds; she was a white woman walking her dog. They disagreed over her off-leash cocker spaniel when she suddenly erupted, saying she was calling the police on an “African American” who is “threatening my life.”
Her life wasn’t in danger, and the backlash against Amy Cooper was swift on Tuesday as her investment firm fired her. But Christian Cooper, who filmed the encounter, said moving on is hard when “we live in an age when black men are shot, gunned down, because of the presumptions that people make.”
Even as the nation is focused on the coronavirus pandemic, which itself has peeled away at notions of racial equality, a debate about America’s enduring legacy of racism has reignited in a string of videos capturing confrontations between white people and black men — some deadly — that have once again gone viral.
The clip of Amy Cooper was still surging online on Tuesday when four Minneapolis police officers were fired after another video showed the death of George Floyd, a black man who said he couldn’t breathe as a white police officer knelt on his neck.
State and federal authorities are investigating the Minneapolis incident, which happened Monday night after police responded to a forgery allegation at a business. Police found Floyd, who they said matched the description of the suspect, in his car. They said he resisted officers after stepping out.
“Being black in America should not be a death sentence,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey posted on his Facebook page. “For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a black man’s neck. Five minutes. When you hear someone calling for help, you’re supposed to help. This officer failed in the most basic, human sense.”
The same day, an attorney for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was shot and killed by white men near Brunswick, Ga., said his death was being investigated as a federal hate crime. Arbery, 25, was killed in February but didn’t make national headlines until after a video of the incident surfaced this month.
National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People President Derrick Johnson said Tuesday that many black people were fed up after years of similar videos and reports.
Those include the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; and Eric Garner, a black man who died in 2014 after a New York police officer put him in a choke hold. Among Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.”
They also include a number of high-profile incidents over the years where white people have called the police on black people as they barbecued, swam, napped or asked to use bathrooms at businesses, among other otherwise mundane activities.
“The outrage we feel and the justice we demand will reverberate throughout Minneapolis and the country as a whole,” Johnson said. “We are done dying.”
In New York, Christian Cooper, a longtime birder who often encounters dog owners who don’t follow leash rules, said in a phone interview that the woman refused to take her dog to another part of the park where animals can run free.
“Look, 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 described himself as saying to the woman before going, “come here, puppy.”
He then offered a treat to the dog, a tactic he’s employed frequently over the years because it tends to cause owners to put on a leash to keep dogs from eating the snacks. The video, shared late that morning on Twitter by his sister Melody Cooper, begins right after.
Amy Cooper, who tells him to stay away and stop recording, says she will take his picture and call police to report “an African American man threatening my life.” She does just that. As she hangs up, she puts the leash on the dog, which had been squirming and at times seemed to be choking as she tried to hold it down. Christian Cooper says “thank you” and the video ends.
Amy Cooper, whose name immediately began trending on social media, offered a public apology. She has also voluntarily given up the dog, which she had adopted from Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue.
“I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone, especially to that man, his family,” Amy Cooper said. “It was unacceptable and I humbly and fully apologize to everyone who’s seen that video, everyone that’s been offended … everyone who thinks of me in a lower light and I understand why they do.”
In an interview with CNN, she added that her “entire life is being destroyed right now.”
Christian Cooper, a biomedical editor at Health Science Communicators, said in an interview that if it was “genuine,” he would accept the woman’s apology.
“I think we need to look beyond this one woman in my case and what she did in a moment of stress while she was having poor judgment,” he said. “There is something deeper she tapped into that she was consciously or unconsciously trying to deploy, which is this fear of African American males, the presumption that we are automatically guilty.”
Christian Cooper said he initially regarded the incident as similar to many conflicts between birders and dog owners in the park over the years until the woman mentioned his race and the police. A backlash has been directed at him too. He said he has been accused on social media of goading the woman into a confrontation.
“The only way they keep dogs from eating treats is to put them on a leash,” he said. “It’s one of several ways to get the response you want, but it has the drawback of being provocative. My approach is always to first be polite, tell the rules and ask for a leash.”
He framed the incident as one about both race and park regulations, saying unleashed dogs keep fewer birds from flocking to the park.
“Sometimes you have to push back. I don’t apologize for fighting this war for many years,” he said. “If someone tramples on your rights, you push back.”
At the least, he said, he spotted the scarlet tanagers.
“They make a cardinal look dull.”
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