If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last few days, you’ve seen the story of Christian Cooper. Here’s the very brief version that has been bouncing around Reddit and Twitter and everywhere else:
- Christian Cooper, a black man, was bird watching in Central Park.
- Amy Cooper, a white woman, was walking her dog off-leash in an area where dogs are required to be on leashes.
- Christian told her to put her dog back on a leash.
- Amy called the cops.
If you’re only seeing this story in pithy tweet form, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Amy is a full-on crazy person, an uber-Karen, and obviously a racist who just wanted the police to remove this unsightly black person from her proximity at once, maybe by killing him.
To be fair, we’ve seen that before, and we’ve seen that a lot. A woman called the police over a black man wearing socks in a pool. A man called the police over a black woman and her child in a pool. A woman called the cops on a black couple for parking badly. A woman called the cops on a black man for “looking at her suspiciously.” A woman called the cops on a black man for inspecting a house. I could go on forever.
With all that recent history of white people who apparently have a problem with black people existing near them, it’s not a ridiculous leap in logic to assume that that’s what happened here. But it’s more complicated than that.
Christian Cooper is indeed a bird watcher and was indeed wandering Central Park, presumably looking at birds, when Amy Cooper and her dog came along. From his Facebook page (still live as of writing), here’s how the encounter went before the video started recording.
I’m a dog owner, and I leash my dog when the signs say to leash them. That’s been hard recently, since dog parks are closed, and I understand the need to exercise a dog. I also understand that dogs make some people uncomfortable.
A man telling a woman, “I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it” is a pretty fucked up thing to say.
Take race out of it for a second and imagine you’re a woman, by yourself in the park, far from help, and a man says that to you. Every impulse you have would be telling you that you’re in danger.
The same goes for trying to lure a stranger’s dog away from them with food. Maybe he wanted to leash the dog himself. Maybe he just wanted to freak her out enough to leave (also not cool). But she doesn’t know any of that. All she knows is that a strange man said, “I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it,” and then tried to feed something to her dog.
Again, speaking as a dog owner: fuck that.
The sad truth is that people poison dogs. Someone has been intentionally poisoning dogs and wolves in northern Wisconsin. Dogs are being poisoned by pesticides in Ireland. A family dog was poisoned in North Carolina. Another was killed in New Zealand after neighbor deliberately fed it epilepsy medication.
There are some fucked up people out there, and you don’t know who they are. Should Amy have put her dog on a leash to go to the park? Absolutely. When called out for not having her dog on a leash, should she then have leashed her dog? Of course.
But if I’m out with my dog and you say “I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it” and then you try to feed my dog something, I will come at you like a fucking wolverine.
The Phone Call
Sort of puts the phone call in a different light, doesn’t it? The video picks up after Christian tries to feed Amy’s dog something (he says a dog treat, but she doesn’t know that), and she tells the police, “I’m taking a picture and calling the cops. I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”
Ok, time out again.
There’s a lot going on in this short video. First, she says “I’m taking a picture and calling the cops.” I have no problem with that. From her perspective, a strange man is threatening her and/or her dog and trying to feed her dog something. Again, that’s not acceptable behavior.
At no point, by his own account or hers, is Christian threatening her life. That’s a clear exaggeration, but it’s one I’m sort of ok with. The fact is that strange men are a threat to women on a regular basis, and we tell women to run or call the cops when they feel threatened, and he did explicitly say something threatening. If he was a threat, it’s not reasonable for her to wait until he’s obviously much more threatening before calling the cops.
But there’s a key phrase in there that made the hair stand up on the necks of every black person that saw this video and is the reason that it’s gone so viral:
I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.
She didn’t say “there’s a man threatening me.” She didn’t say “there’s a man threatening my life.” She said, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”
Let’s take the most charitable possible reading of this: a woman, out by herself, felt threatened by a strange man and told that man to leave her alone or she would call the cops. She only mentioned that he was “African-American” because she’s being specific.
Now let’s look at the worst case scenario: a white woman was breaking the rules, disrupting the experience of a rule-following black man. When he called her out, she told him she was calling the police. She said “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life” because she knew that the police would believe a scared white woman over a black man any day of the week. Maybe she expected the police to arrest him, beat him, or kill him. Either way, she intended to use the police as a weapon, as so many have done before.
The reality is probably somewhere in between. I don’t know what she was thinking. I don’t know what his tone of voice or posture was when he said, “I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.” I don’t know who would have answered that police call or what they would have done.
I do know that neither party is blameless here.
The Ugly Cultural Context
Taken in isolation, it’s the story of two people having an essentially meaningless confrontation about a rowdy dog. But we can’t take it in isolation, because of the history of police brutality toward black people in the US.
At virtually the same time that this was happening, police in Minneapolis responded to a call about a man suspected of forgery. When they arrived, they found George Floyd sitting on his car who “appeared to be under the influence.” They arrested him despite resistance, cuffed him, and had him face-down on the ground. By all possible accounts, he was subdued.
But one officer, Derek Chauvin, kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd for several minutes, despite Floyd’s repeated insistence that he couldn’t breathe. Floyd died under Chauvin’s knee.
What that officer did, in my mind, was murder, plain and simple. While police are legally allowed to use lethal force against the public if they’re threatened, George Floyd was cuffed face down on the ground.
Again, take race completely out of it for a second. If the sight of raw meat makes you sick, you shouldn’t be a butcher. If you’re deathly allergic to bees, you shouldn’t be a beekeeper. And If Derek Chauvin feels threatened to the point of killing by a man in handcuffs face down on the ground, he doesn’t possess the constitution to be in law enforcement in the first place.
But again, we can’t take race out of it. This kind of thing happens far more often to black people than it does to white people, and it’s been happening for years if not decades. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. I don’t have to link you to these stories because you already know them. Police seem to “feel threatened” by black people, even law-abiding, unarmed black people, an awful lot.
And then there’s the other side of the equation. Earlier this month, dozens of “protesters” gathered at the Michigan capitol wearing full tactical gear and carrying loaded military-spec rifles. I’m not editorializing. Here’s a picture of SEAL Team Six, one of the most famous special forces units in the world:
And here’s a picture of the men blocking the door to the offices of the governor of Michigan:
If you think the men in the second picture are any less dangerous than the men in the first, it’s only because the men in the first picture are trained soldiers and the men in the second are gutless cowards who think that everyone should do what they say because they look scarier than those who oppose them. It’s not because the equipment they’re carrying is any less capable of carnage.
But police in Lansing didn’t seem to feel “threatened.” No tear gas was fired, no one was told to go home, and no protesters were arrested. A bunch of wannabe Call of Duty characters, equipped with enough weaponry to kill everyone in the building a few times over, were allowed to walk around freely and scream at police officers with guns in hand, and they faced no repercussions at all. In the minds of many, it’s no coincidence that they’re white.
Dealing in Hypotheticals
This is where our conversation breaks down. We like to think we can fill in the gaps in any hypothetical scenario and use those hypotheticals to make a point, and that’s just not how the world works.
For instance, the trigger-happy cops that killed Castile and Garner and Sterling and Floyd are all individuals. Maybe they’re individuals that should never have been cops. It’s a guarantee that there are a lot of other cops who shouldn’t be cops. But it doesn’t mean that we can use them to generalize all police officers.
Maybe the cop who arrived to arrest Cooper would have been a black man who hates dogs, and he would have instantly sided with Christian shot Amy’s dog. That happens a lot too. Maybe any other officer on the Minneapolis PD would have arrested Floyd calmly and without violence. Maybe the whining man-babies in Michigan would have been tear-gassed and arrested en masse if they’d been black, or maybe race had nothing to do with it and they simply got profoundly lucky that the cops who guard the Michigan capitol have liquid nitrogen in their veins.
We cannot know what happened in any of these people’s minds.
What we can do is examine isolated incidents. The Michigan protesters constituted a clear threat to public safety and should have been dispersed. George Floyd did not deserve to die, and the officer that killed him should be held fully responsible for his death.
Amy Cooper was justified in feeling threatened by Christian Cooper, based on what he said and did. Amy Cooper was not justified in telling the police that a black man was threatening her life. Christian Cooper wasn’t breaking any laws or rules. Christian Cooper didn’t threaten Amy Cooper’s life. Christian Cooper should never have attempted to feed a stranger’s dog.
Some Sort of Conclusion
To be honest, I don’t know how to wrap this up. I guess my main takeaway is that virtually every story you see is more complicated than it seems at first glance, because “first glance” is a 90 second video or a 140-second tweet. No one starts filming until after things escalate, so you’re inherently working with incomplete information. And any and all screenshots can be faked (which is why I linked to Christian’s page).
Our modern communication has taken the form of tweets, screenshots, TikTok videos, and other bite-size pieces of incomplete information. By the time someone like the New York Times can do a true deep dive, it’s way too late to change the narrative.
That’s why Adrienne Green at The Cut called the Cooper video “one of the most malicious and deliberate performances of victimization I have ever seen.” Aymann Ismail at Slate said, “There’s no doubt that she was aware how many NYPD officers handle encounters with black men. Cooper was pleading to the police to show up guns blazing because she didn’t like that a black man told her to put her dog on a leash.”
Andre Henry at Medium said, “Amy Cooper applied her knowledge of the matrix of violent antagonisms that scaffold our anti-Black society to her exchange with Christian. She wielded her position — and his — in America’s racial hierarchy with skill.”
These are gross mischaracterizations of what happened and wild leaps to conclusions about the motives of a woman that none of us have seen more than ninety seconds of. But since a large portion of the community seems to have instantly agreed that Amy Cooper is a flagrant racist at best and an attempted murderer at worst, she’s been fired from her job and subjected to death threats.
I guess what I’m saying is that everyone needs to take a deep breath. We’ve evolved to a state of absolute credulity when it comes to things that seem plausible, especially when they’re politically polarizing. If I told you that Donald Trump spent his Memorial Day weekend hunting polar bears, your gut instinct would be to believe me because it seems like something he would do. That’s not a good thing.
If we are going to survive as some semblance of a functioning society, everyone is going to have to chill the fuck out a little bit. We’re all going to have to stop taking every tweet and screenshot and Facebook video at face value and take a moment — just one fucking moment — before jumping to conclusions.
Check the facts, find other sources, and figure out the context of what you’re looking at. If you can honestly, dispassionately say that the context has led you to the same conclusion, unbiased by stories that had nothing to do with the one you’re reading, then great. Rage away. But until that point, you have nothing to contribute.
I’m sorry this blog wasn’t funny. I have one about tomatoes coming up that will be slightly more light-hearted.