Amid news that George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota, was killed in the custody of police, another racially-charged controversy sparked in Central Park on Monday when a white woman called police on a black man who was out birdwatching.
Though the outcome of the Central Park incident was peaceful, it is just as important a case-study in American race relations at a time when social tension has become historically terse. Questions of who police serve and who can rely on law enforcement for protection are at the heart of this now-viral skirmish in the park.
Racially Motivated Confrontation
Amy Cooper, a white woman who had worked as a portfolio manager at Franklin Templeton until this recent episode, encountered Christian Cooper (no relation), a black man who was birdwatching in The Ramble, a wooded region of Central Park. The area has a strict rule requiring dogs to be kept on a leash for the sake of protecting the local ecosystem. “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,” said Christian Cooper, the Harvard-educated avid birdwatcher.
But Amy Cooper had ignored the well-labelled restriction, allowing her dog to run around Monday morning. When Christian Cooper politely asked her to put her dog on the leash, she refused, leading to an increasingly contentious interaction.
As their confrontation became more heated, Christian Cooper began recording Amy Cooper on his cellphone camera, maintaining a calm voice as the dog-owner emboldened her tone, threatening to call the cops and “tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”
Amy Cooper followed through on the threat, yelling into the phone “There’s a man, African-American, he has a bicycle helmet… He is recording me and threatening me and my dog.” Her voice became emotional as she continued to plead into her phone, “Please send the cops immediately!” By the time the police showed up, both parties had left the area.
After his video went viral, Christian Cooper spoke out about why he felt it was important to document the interaction. “Unfortunately, we live in an era with things like Ahmaud Arbery, where black men are seen as targets,” he said, referring to a Georgia man whose murder by a white ex-cop and his son was the subject of a recent viral video. “This woman thought she could exploit that to her advantage, and I wasn’t having it.”
The Central Park incident, while not physically violent, highlights a subtle, but consequential disparity between the way white communities and communities of color relate to law enforcement.
Amy Cooper’s eagerness to use the police against a fellow park-goer is symbolic of the comfort many white Americans feel around police officers. Without bracing for suspicion or consequence, Amy Cooper was able to dial 911 to quickly resolve what she deemed to be imminent danger.
But as proven by the highly-publicized deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, who was publicly killed by police on Memorial Day, many black Americans feel they cannot rely on law enforcement to protect them. Arbery, Floyd and Christian Cooper were all perceived as threats because of the color of their skin, and while Cooper was able to walk away unharmed, such inequality in the eyes of power cost Arbery and Floyd their lives.
Asked whether he views Amy Cooper as a racist, Christian Cooper says he is in no place to make that determination, but didn’t shy from calling her actions racist. Still, he says he accepts her apology: “If it’s genuine and if she plans on keeping her dog on a leash in the Ramble going forward, then we have no issues with each other.”