Birding While Black: Just the Latest Bad Reason for White People to Call Police

Birding While Black: Just the Latest Bad Reason for White People to Call Police

Birding While Black: Just the Latest Bad Reason for White People to Call Police

In parks across America, bird-watchers and dog owners regularly clash over space. But when a white dog owner called the cops on a black birder, only one was in danger.

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Central Park birders are intense, passionate people. So are Central Park dog owners. I have a foot in both camps of urban outdoors people, but I’m first and foremost a dog owner, because you really can’t go birding with a dog. On-leash but especially off-leash, your dog will, however inadvertently, scatter the birds. During this pandemic, I’ve been feeling a particularly drawn to birding—you can hear the birds better without the city noise, and Central Park feels wilder, Edenic. Birding’s careful, meditative rhythms seem a cure for pandemic jitters. But leaving my dog at home on a gorgeous spring morning feels like cruelty. So I watch the watchers from a distance, a little enviously.

Thus I came to the bizarre and enraging story of Amy Cooper vs. Christian Cooper, no relation (if God is trying to remind us we should all get along, She’s overdoing the symbolism there), with at least some insight, if not sympathy, for both sides. On Monday Ms. Cooper, a white woman walking her dog off-leash, was confronted by Mr. Cooper, a black man who’s a bird-watcher, politely asking her to obey the rules and leash her dog. He was in the right: First of all, in the Ramble, where the confrontation took place, dogs must always be on leashes—even when it’s not peak birding season (which passes quickly each spring). The Ramble is a popular spot for hikers, walkers, families. I’ve seen two weddings there. It’s also very carefully tended with native plants and other flora that don’t coexist well with playful dogs. Still, some dog owners ignore the rules—I don’t in the Ramble, but I do elsewhere, true confession, when the park isn’t crowded. And never around birders.

There’s only one right answer when someone asks you to put your dog back on the leash in Central Park (or essentially anywhere that’s not your own home): You say “I’m sorry,” and you do it immediately. Amy Cooper performed high dudgeon as only a white person can perform it, essentially asking to see Cooper’s manager, challenging his right to make such a request. She complained that the city’s dog runs are closed (they are in this pandemic) and that another park area he suggested nearby was unsafe (it is not). Then, speaking of unsafe, when Christian Cooper took out his phone to record their clash, she warned him she was going to call the police.

“I’m taking a picture and calling the cops,” she says in his video. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

The way she snarled those words made clear she knew she was lying about Cooper’s being a threat—the ultimate weapon in the white-lady arsenal, given the history of police violently responding to claims about “threatening” black men. She quickly became the subject of social media outrage and soon after was fired by her employer, Franklin Templeton Investments, where she was a vice president.

I don’t know if that was the right outcome; I do know Amy Cooper should be charged with making a false police report. What will it take before white people realize that the callous use of police to arbitrate their notion of fairness in the world (always about fairness to themselves) is a dangerous act of privilege that can put a black person’s life at risk?

That’s a rhetorical question, because I’d argue Amy Cooper knew that—and that’s precisely why she put her threat the way she did, adding “African American man” for emphasis. She spelled it out for him, because it was not clear she was under any sort of threat. In fact, as the video began, she initially approached Cooper, trying to get him to stop filming, a strange move to make if you genuinely feel under threat. Later, “both sides” Twitter pointed to Christian Cooper’s account of the clash, in which he said he told her that if she wouldn’t leash her dog, he would do something she’s “not going to like,” and went to give her dog a treat, as if that was a threat. (Owners tend not to like strangers feeding their dogs, for a variety of reasons, some rational, some paranoid.)

The normal response, again, would be to leash your dog. But not for Amy Cooper. And it wasn’t an empty threat: The police did come to investigate her assault charge, but by that time both had left the area. “I videotaped it because I thought it was important to document things,” Christian Cooper told CNN. “Unfortunately we live in an era with things like Ahmaud Arbery, where black men are seen as targets. This woman thought she could exploit that to her advantage, and I wasn’t having it.” Arbery was killed in an southern Georgia neighborhood allegedly for jogging while black. Only yesterday a Minneapolis cop pinned a black suspect with his knee on his neck and ignored his cries of “I cannot breathe”; George Floyd reportedly died at the scene.

“I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way,” Cooper told CNN, adding that she didn’t mean any harm to the African American community, either. She really laid it on for NBC: “When I think about the police, I’m such a blessed person. I’ve come to realize especially today that I think of [the police] as a protection agency, and unfortunately, this has caused me to realize that there are so many people in this country that don’t have that luxury.”

Since she’s over the age of 7, Amy Cooper made that realization very belatedly.

There’s another subtext to the story that’s bothered a lot of people: While she’s getting her dog Henry under control, Amy Cooper seems to be choking him. He repeatedly yelps in what sounds like pain as she twists his collar instead of putting on the leash. The cocker spaniel rescue organization where she got the dog several years ago stepped in to take it pending an investigation. My heart goes out to any dog owner who loses a dog, but from the short video Cooper appears to lack the basics to care for a dog: keeping him on a leash when requested, as well as humanely keeping him under control. I had a hard time watching the video a second time.

Christian Cooper, a 57-year-old science editor, happens to be a former Marvel Comics writer and editor who is well known in the Central Park bird-watching community. It’s a heavily but not exclusively white avocation, especially not in the Harlem-adjacent regions of the park near where I live. The great series “Birds of North America,” produced for Topic by my friend Anna Holmes, got me interested not only in the world of black birders—it focused on Jason Ward, a birder from the South Bronx—but birding everywhere. (One episode featured Cooper.)

Despite some outsiders’ perception of Harlem, living near Central Park has afforded me the best bird-watching opportunities of my life. My sister recently sent me a nice set of binoculars to give me a new hobby in the age of lockdown, but I mainly use them to spot the birds in the alley behind me. I respect the birders too much to bring my dog, and I love my dog too much to leave her at home.

Without knowing the racial details, this conflict between dog owner and birder first struck me as a pandemic story—two people seeking urban solace, trying to find their own space. I quickly realized it was much older, of course, older than the pandemic and older than this country. Any potential empathy for Amy Cooper has to end with her calling the police on a black man who asked her to obey the law, rather than simply leashing her dog. Despite her fulsome apologies, Cooper is still complaining that “my entire life is being destroyed.” While she’s unemployed, she should familiarize herself with the countless stories of white women using the police this way, to know what it really means to have your life destroyed.

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