Bird-watching while black: What will end racist 911 calls?

An argument between a black male bird-watcher and a white female dog owner in Central Park caught on video has created a viral uproar over the racist targeting of African Americans doing every day things. The dog owner lost her job. Will that help reduce racism?

Christian Cooper/AP
This image made from a May 25, 2020 video provided by Christian Cooper shows Amy Cooper with her dog calling police at Central Park in New York. The call follows a pattern of 911 calls made by white people resulting in arrests and violence against black people.

The verbal dispute between a white woman with an unleashed dog and a black man bird-watching in Central Park might normally have gone unnoticed in a city preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic.

That changed when birdwatcher Christian Cooper pulled out his phone and captured Amy Cooper calling police to report she was being threatened by "an African American man." The widely watched video – posted on Facebook by Christian Cooper and on Twitter by his sister – sparked accusations of racism and led to Amy Cooper getting fired.

"Unfortunately 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."

As Vox reported, this incident is a part of a long history of white people calling the police on black Americans resulting in arrests and violence. 

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....

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.”

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.”

The confrontation began early Monday morning when Christian Cooper said he noticed Amy Cooper had let her cocker spaniel off its leash against the rules in the Ramble, a secluded section of Central Park popular with bird-watchers.

In a Facebook post, he claimed the dog was "tearing through the plantings" and told her she should go to another part of the park. When she refused, he pulled out dog treats, causing her to scream at him to not come near her dog.

Amy Cooper also warned him she would summon police unless he stopped recording.

"I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life," Amy Cooper is heard saying in the video as she pulls down her face mask and struggles to control her dog.

"Please call the cops," Christian Cooper says.

"There's an African American man, I'm in Central Park, he is recording me and threatening myself and my dog. … Please send the cops immediately!" she says during the call before he stops recording.

Police say by the time they responded, they were both gone.

In the fallout, investment firm Franklin Templeton announced Tuesday afternoon it had fired Amy Cooper, saying, "We do not tolerate racism of any kind."

A group called Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue said it had custody of her dog for the time being. The pet could be heard coughing in the video after she clenched it by the collar with its front legs off the ground.

Amy Cooper released an apology through a public relations service Tuesday night, saying she "reacted emotionally and made false assumptions about his intentions."

"He had every right to request that I leash my dog in an area where it was required," she said in the written statement. "I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause and would never have imagined that I would be involved in the type of incident that occurred with Chris."

She told CNN earlier Tuesday, "I am not a racist."

"I think I was just scared," she said. "When you're alone in the Ramble, you don't know what's happening. It's not excusable, it's not defensible."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the video exemplified hatred that has "no place in our city."

"The video out of Central Park is racism, plain and simple," Mr. de Blasio tweeted. "She called the police BECAUSE he was a Black man. Even though she was the one breaking the rules. She decided he was the criminal and we know why."

In an interview with The New York Times, Christian Cooper showed empathy for the stranger with whom he shares a last name.

"It's a little bit of a frenzy, and I am uncomfortable with that," he said. "If our goal is to change the underlying factors, I am not sure that this young woman having her life completely torn apart serves that goal."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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