Ethics & Public Policy Center

Bird-Watching While Black

Published in The Bulwark on May 27, 2020


A lifelong bird-watcher ventured into a section of New York’s Central Park, the “Ramble,” at 7:30 a.m. on Monday hoping to catch a glimpse of waterfowl. In previous days, he had spied scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, and mourning warblers. As he waited quietly, an unleashed spaniel scurried into the area, as happens frequently in the park during quarantine – though a posted sign notifies owners that all dogs must be leashed.

The bird watcher asked the owner to please leash her dog. She was less than cooperative. According to the bird-fancier, Christian Cooper, the conversation went like this:

ME: Ma’am, dogs in the Ramble have to be on the leash at all times. The sign is right there.

HER: The dog runs are closed. He needs his exercise.

ME: All you have to do is take him to the other side of the drive, outside the Ramble, and you can let him run off leash all you want.

HER: It’s too dangerous.

ME: 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.

HER: What’s that?

ME (to the dog): Come here, puppy!

HER: He won’t come to you.

ME: We’ll see about that…

I pull out the dog treats I carry for just for such intransigence. I didn’t even get a chance to toss any treats to the pooch before Karen scrambled to grab the dog.

HER: DON’T YOU TOUCH MY DOG!!!!!

That’s when Mr. Cooper began to record the encounter. The dog owner—whose name coincidentally, is Amy Cooper (his reference to her as Karen was a meme about annoying women)—demanded that he stop recording her, and when he refused, threatened to call the police. “Please call the police,” Mr. Cooper responded. Dialing her phone, she warned Cooper, saying “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

Wait, it gets worse. She reaches the police and twice recounts that she is in the Ramble and that “an African-American man” is threatening her and her dog. Apparently dissatisfied by the response this gets from the dispatcher, she ramps up the panic in her voice and cries “I’m being threatened by a man in the Bramble [sic]. Please send the cops immediately!”

The poor cocker spaniel, all this while, was struggling and twisting and being forced to rise to his hind legs as Ms. Cooper kept an iron grip on his collar.

Since the release of the video, Amy Cooper has been fired by Franklin Templeton, where she had been an insurance-portfolio manager, lost her dog to the rescue group from which she adopted him, and become an overnight symbol of racism.

Frankly, I had heard about the consequences before I watched the video and my anti-vigilante antennae were quivering. But the video is jaw-dropping.

It’s possible that Ms. Cooper was overwrought because she misinterpreted Mr. Cooper’s comment that “you’re not going to like” what he would do next. But he reached into his pocket and produced what? A gun? A knife? No. Dog treats. Maybe her imagination ran wild and she feared that he was planning to poison the pooch. But even if that’s the case, she could have picked up her dog and gone home. Instead, she played upon racial stereotypes of “scary black men” to make a false claim to police, and it’s safe to assume, to intimidate him. He merely asked her to respect the park rules. There was zero reason to call the police. There was zero reason to tell the dispatcher that the man was African-American.

I have written in the past about false accusations of racism (although I’ve never denied that racism is real). But this and other recent cell phone videos are grim reminders that racism continues to have real, and sometimes deadly, consequences. Eric Garner. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis this week after an officer held him down with a knee on his neck. They and others are evidence of what actor Will Smith said in 2016: “Racism isn’t getting worse. It’s getting filmed.” (The four officers who were involved in Floyd’s case have been fired and the FBI is investigating.)

Amy Cooper told CNN that her “entire life” is being destroyed by this. She has apologized and claimed not to be a racist. Does anyone ever admit to racism? I think even David Duke claims that he’s merely standing up for white people.

Still, Amy Cooper can salvage some grace from this awful fall from it. She can start by confessing that, yes, she is a racist, and vowing to change. She can volunteer for Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America or the Success Academy or some other organization that works to make life better for African-American kids. She can study up on the history of slavery and Jim Crow. And she can send a check to the ASPCA while she’s at it. She understandably feels that her life is being “destroyed,” but if she handles this right, it could be vastly improved. She could become a symbol of redemption instead of sin.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a contributor to The Bulwark, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast.

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