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.
Oh, when Karens take a walk with their dogs off leash in the famous Bramble in NY’s Central Park, where it is clearly posted on signs that dogs MUST be leashed at all times, and someone like my brother (an avid birder) politely asks her to put her dog on the leash. pic.twitter.com/3YnzuATsDm— Melody Cooper (@melodyMcooper) May 25, 2020
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 when two 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.”