Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the forthcoming book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind,” and of “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The story of Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on an African American man who was bird watching in Central Park and who asked her to leash her dog in accordance with park rules, is about racism, yes. But it’s also about how racism is more than just whites’ hostility toward people of color. Racism is more than a feeling; it’s a system in which white people can and do exploit their own social positions, assumptions about their innocence, and the presumption that they’re telling the truth.
At its heart the Amy Cooper story is a one of failed systems: That a black man has to rely on videotaped wrongdoing to be believed – to protect himself from an agitated stranger advancing up on him, and to ultimately see something resembling justice – while white people can feel comfortable summoning law enforcement and bringing the weight of the state down on their chosen target.
First, the facts: Both Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper (no relation) were in Central Park’s Ramble, a wooded area, on Monday morning. Christian was birding; Amy was walking her dog. The New York City Parks Department requires that dogs be leashed in the Ramble, a reasonable rule, given that the plantings and wildlife in the area are cultivated and maintained for the public to enjoy.
Amy Cooper was flagrantly violating that rule by letting her dog run off-leash; she later told CNN she knew it was against the rules. Christian Cooper asked her to leash her dog – he did this calmly, he said; she said he was yelling at her. Christian Cooper, who the New York Times reported is on the board of the New York City Audubon Society, took a video after their disagreement intensified, and you can hear who is yelling and who is being calm and polite. Amy Cooper is the only one raising her voice.
Amy Cooper told a reporter that she was alone in a wooded area when Christian Cooper came out of the bushes, and that she was terrified. She refused to leash the dog, and, according to Christian Cooper’s account on Facebook (where he posted a video of part of their encounter), he told her “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.” (Amy Cooper later told CNN: “I didn’t know what that meant. When you’re alone in a wooded area, that’s absolutely terrifying, right?”)
Then, he said, he called to the dog and offered it dog treats – a strategy, he told a reporter, that he has found effective in getting dog owners to leash their dogs.
But she didn’t walk away or immediately leash her dog per the rules. Instead she stayed and would then escalate what Christian Cooper said had been a polite request into a conflict. That’s an odd reaction for someone scared for her life.
Christian Cooper began videotaping the encounter, and Amy Cooper became particularly upset (“Sir, I’m asking you to stop; sir I’m asking you to stop recording me.”) She was wearing a mask because people in New York – and much of the world – are practicing social distancing to avoid being infected with a potentially deadly disease.
Yet she walked toward him quickly, filling the video screen as she reaches toward his phone camera, with dog leash and her own phone in hand. He asked her to back away: “please don’t come close to me,” he said twice in a calm, firm voice.
She told him that she’s going to call the police and “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Christian Cooper responded, telling her to “please tell them whatever you like.” And so she does: “There’s a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet,” she said into her phone, her tone breathless and urgent. “He is recording me and threatening me and my dog.”
Then, despite no apparent movement or threat from Christian Cooper, she brought her voice to a higher pitch, frantic. “I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble!” she cried into the phone. “Please send the cops immediately!”
The video quickly went viral on Twitter and drew outrage. In a country where police officers and armed, white men can still shoot unarmed African Americans in the back and too often face few consequences, Amy Cooper’s decision to summon the police against a man who did nothing more than ask her to follow the rules reads as nothing short of a potential threat to his life.
I don’t know what was in Amy Cooper’s heart, but even if she didn’t intend to get Christian Cooper arrested, her actions were those of someone intending to leverage the power of law enforcement in her favor.
She appears to have understood the dynamics at play: She, a white woman (and she didn’t have to even say that explicitly; she knew it would be grasped by whoever had answered the phone) would be seen as vulnerable and in need of protection, and her story would be believed on its face; he, a black man, would be seen as menacing and potentially dangerous, and his version of events would be doubted or disregarded.
Christian Cooper, for his part, certainly realized how this could all play out. Ahmaud Arbery, a black man in Georgia, was just out for a run last February when, authorities say, Gregory and Travis McMichael, two white men (one of them a former police officer, as it happened), grabbed their guns, chased him down, and shot him to death. They faced no criminal penalties and were simply let off the hook until a video emerged of their attack, and public outcry forced law enforcement to act. (The two have not been asked by a judge for a plea, and attorneys for the men have told reporters they committed no crimes, according to CNN reporting.) Without the video, the wheels of justice would likely never have even begun to turn.
And so Christian Cooper raised his phone and hit “record.”
And that’s the other problem here: We see again and again that African Americans who are victims of serious crimes need unimpeachable video evidence to be believed. Overwhelmingly, though, crimes are not caught on video. And even when they are, we have seen repeatedly that law enforcement often doesn’t act until they are compelled by a huge public outcry. Without reliably fair law enforcement, there are simply few avenues for justice.
Social media has become one of them. But it is – to make a radical understatement –imperfect. In this case, the benefits of publicizing this story are enormous. Christian Cooper was protected, while Amy Cooper was rightly made an example of after she threatened his safety and fabricated a crime to a 911 dispatcher. This is, hopefully, the kind of story that will make other entitled white people pause before exploiting their racial privilege at the expense of a person of color.
But we all deserve a better mechanism than justice-by-Twitter. After all, the online hordes do get it wrong about as often (or even more often) than they get it right. We should all be profoundly troubled by the power of Twitter mobs – we have seen that power used to misrepresent, lie, and attack perceived opponents. We have also seen cases – with less intentional malevolence, but dangerous outcomes– in which a person is misidentified as an alleged wrongdoer and suffers the full wrath of the angry internet. We have also seen what seems like unimpeachable evidence taken out of context and twisted into untruth.
To be sure, it’s easy to find legitimate criticism of Twitter “justice.” But this only raises the more important question of why our formal mechanisms for justice are so often so inept at providing justice across racial lines – why the very people and institutions we should be able to trust are instead often threats to the lives and safety of African Americans. When calling the cops is understood as a threat to a black person – and sometimes even a threat to that person’s life– that’s not just an indictment of the cop-caller, that’s an indictment of the police, of prosecutors, of juries and of too many in a white American public willing to accept this reality.
Amy Cooper has issued an apology (she told CNN she wanted to “publicly apologize to everyone”), but in explaining her egregious actions, said “I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way.” How do you not mean to harm someone when you call the police and falsely claim he is threatening you? “I think I was just scared,” Amy Cooper said. “When you’re alone in the Ramble, you don’t know what’s happening. It’s not excusable, it’s not defensible.”
She lamented that her “entire life is being destroyed right now.” Her employer fired her. The dog rescue from which Amy Cooper adopted her dog has taken him back. She’s internet famous, and not in a good way.
Her woe-is-me complaints are a bit hard to swallow given her own actions, which could have damaged or destroyed the life of an innocent man. The most charitable interpretation of her call to police is that she expected that – at the least – Christian Cooper would be detained or arrested, which comes with its own set of financial, professional, and personal consequences.
That Amy Cooper is experiencing a fraction of those same financial, professional, and personal harms that Christian Cooper might have experienced as a result of her 911 call can at first glance feel like just deserts. But this isn’t really the justice we want, is it? There is nothing resembling due process or public accountability. This is justice that relies on private actors to make the right call; it’s justice that needs a mass outcry and a digital recording.
So yes, let’s hold Amy Cooper accountable. But let’s keep our eyes on the prize: a justice system that works, rather than one which so often accepts the word of white people at the expense of black lives and freedom.