PC Culture

The Central Park Dog Case Is Covington 2.0

Amy Cooper calling the police. New York City, May 25 2020. (Screengrab via NPR)
Once again, further evidence upended the narrative of a viral video — but not before someone’s life and reputation were destroyed.

Funny thing about viral videos: They don’t necessarily give the full and complete context for what happened, do they? They might, for instance, begin only after someone does something bizarre and provocative but record solely the reaction. Covington was only 16 months ago. Did we learn anything from it? Apparently not. A similar thing happened in Central Park this weekend, the world reacted in the same way, and once again a misleading video made it appear that a target of a deliberate provocation was a racist for reacting understandably to the provocateur.

New Yorker Amy Cooper was walking her dog in Central Park’s Ramble area, a little patch of semi-wilderness in an otherwise manicured park. She allowed her dog off the leash, which is against the rules. But on the other hand, the Ramble is the one little-frequented spot in the entire vast park where it kinda, sorta seems like rules don’t apply. For decades, the rules definitely didn’t apply: It was a popular gay pickup location for connoisseurs of anonymous al fresco sex.

On Memorial Day, Cooper, a middle-aged white woman, was allowing her dog to run off-leash, breaking a rule that is widely ignored, albeit crucial for bird-watchers. Nearby was Christian Cooper, a middle-aged black man of no relation to her. Mr. Cooper is an avid birder and doesn’t much like dogs interfering with his avian observations. So he issued what to her sounded like a threat to poison her dog. Ms. Cooper freaked out. Who wouldn’t?

As her freakout was underway, Mr. Cooper filmed her on his phone. And Covington 2 was off and running. The public viewed the conveniently edited video more than 30 million times, Ms. Cooper was denounced as a “Karen,” or self-appointed whistleblower, for her understandable reaction, and few noticed that the inciting Karen of the affair was not the middle-aged white lady but Mr. Cooper himself, for busting her over allowing her dog off-leash. Her employer not only fired her but — far worse — publicly branded her a racist.

News accounts have repeatedly characterized Ms. Cooper as having “threatened” Mr. Cooper. That is the opposite of what happened. We know this because of Mr. Cooper’s helpful Facebook post on the matter, from which I quote:

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

Possibly it was an overreaction for Ms. Cooper to call the police. Then again, when citizens feel threatened, calling the police and letting them sort it out is what is supposed to happen. What Mr. Cooper said to her was unmistakably a threat. It was reasonable for her to be scared. “I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it”? That’s a menacing thing to say. He then called the dog over while offering it a treat. He meant her to think he was going to poison her dog to motivate her to leash the animal. By his own admission, he said something calculated to frighten her. Apparently, he does this all the time; he carries dog treats while birding “for just such intransigence.” If there were no threat linked to his offering the dog a snack, he would not have prefaced this action by saying, “You’re not going to like it.” He didn’t say, “Look, let’s be reasonable here, I’ll even give your dog a nice snack to show I mean well.” Mr. Cooper intended to scare Ms. Cooper, he succeeded, and in her fear she called the cops.

Ms. Cooper would probably have been wise to leash her pet and walk briskly away, but when a stranger threatens to poison your dog in Central Park, that is bound to cause consternation. It’s not unreasonable for her to have felt herself (as well as the dog) personally threatened by Mr. Cooper’s saying, “I’m going to do what I want, and you’re not going to like it.” She later told CNN, “I didn’t know what that meant. When you’re alone in a wooded area, that’s absolutely terrifying, right?” A question for the mobs denouncing her: Would you abjure the right to call the police if you were alone in a park with a stranger who said to you, “I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it”?

Black people, particularly black men, too often have to suffer the indignity of a completely unwarranted interaction with the police. Sometimes the police pull over a black man simply for being in the “wrong” neighborhood. Sometimes white people call the police on a black person despite having no cause to feel threatened. That isn’t what happened here. Mr. Cooper did use threatening language. Race does not obviously have anything to do with this story of one New Yorker breaking a minor rule and another New Yorker upping the ante. Had Mr. Cooper been white, would not Ms. Cooper have panicked in the exact same way?

Robert A. George, a columnist for New York’s Daily News, notes:

She called the cops and invoked Christian’s race with the clear idea that they’ll respond faster from a white-woman-threatened-by-black-man-in-Central-Park alert rather than just saying she was vaguely harassed or bothered. Whether Amy is personally “racist” or racist-adjacent (using the existence of racism to try bending the system to your will), she’s certainly using white privilege to her advantage.

Maybe, but it’s hard to get around the fact that what Ms. Cooper said to the police was accurate. Nor did she use a slur. “There is an African-American man, I am in Central Park, he is recording me and threatened myself and my dog,” is what she said. This was either the truth or not far from it. If there is a social transgression here that ought to be punishable by the destruction of Ms. Cooper’s reputation, I fail to see it. Mr. Cooper later insisted on CNN that by uttering these words, “she tried to bring death-by-cop down on my head.” Wrong. Phoning the police does not constitute attempted murder. Mr. Cooper is simply redirecting focus away from his own actions here.

A charge of racism is the quintessential weapon of our age because it gives those who deploy it such an immense feeling of righteousness and because it’s impossible to disprove. No evidence Ms. Cooper can adduce can clear her name. “I voted for Obama twice!” “I have lots of black friends!” “I bought Ibram X. Kendi’s book!” Ms. Cooper’s goose is well and truly cooked. After the video went viral and she became the world’s designated hate target of the day, her only option was to grovel, which rarely works and didn’t this time. “I’m not a racist. I did not mean to harm that man in any way,” she told the media. Harm that man? She did Mr. Cooper no harm. He encouraged her to call the police as he was filming her. He, on the other hand, threatened to harm her dog, then his sister posted the video on Twitter in order to upend Ms. Cooper’s life. She even lost her dog after social-media users Karened on her for “choking” it in the video. But the dog is trying to get away from her, and she is holding it back, not choking it. As far as she knew, it was crucial to restrain the dog to save it from being poisoned.

Just a day after the incident in the park, Franklin Templeton, the financial firm at which Ms. Cooper served as head of portfolio management, tweeted out this:

Franklin Templeton is a deep-pocketed firm that publicly damned Ms. Cooper as obviously a racist after taking very little time to weigh the facts, in a post that has generated hundreds of thousands of likes. This was tantamount to announcing that any other firm that might be interested in employing Ms. Cooper in the future was a haven for racism. What is she supposed to do with her life now? If I were Ms. Cooper, I would be focused on one potential source of income only: Suing my former employer for its libel and demanding a hefty sum.

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