Christian Cooper was birdwatching deep in the woods of Manhattan’s Central Park when he noticed a rogue cocker spaniel digging up the shrubbery around him.
Many of the birds he spots come for the dense plants, so he approached the dog’s owner early on Monday with a request: Could she leash up the canine, as the park rules required?
Amy Cooper said she would be calling the police instead.
“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” the white woman told him, pulling out her iPhone and dialing 911.
Less than 24 hours later after a video of their exchange went online, she has lost her dog, her anonymity, and temporarily, her job – the latest incident in a long, too-familiar pattern of white people calling the police on black people for any number of everyday activities: Barbecuing. Playing golf. Swimming at a pool.
Time to add a new outdoor pastime to that list: Birdwatching.
“I don’t think there’s an African American person in America who hasn’t experienced something like this at some point,” Christian Cooper, a 57-year-old science editor, told The Washington Post in an interview. “I don’t shy away from confronting the scofflaw when I see it. Otherwise, the park would be unusable – not just to us birders but to anybody who enjoys the beauty.”
Christian Cooper – who is not related to Amy – had gotten up early on Memorial Day to head to the Ramble, a heavily wooded section of Central Park designed to resemble a wild garden. With its rocky outcrops and thick canopy, the area makes for an especially inviting stopover for birds on their northward migration, he said.
An avid birder since childhood, Cooper had been making daily trips in recent weeks to peek at the wildfowl stopping by for some refuge from the urban sprawl. In recent weeks, scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, and the especially elusive mourning warblers had all sought out the avian oasis.
The novel coronavirus shut down the city this spring along with its busy dog runs. Authorities wanted ensure their humans were staying six feet apart, and the Ramble – already an occasional target for loose puppies – became a canine playground.
On a nearly daily basis, he had seen unleashed pooches digging up the soil, ruining the delicate habitat and disturbing the birds. He had often asked unaware owners to restrain their pets, sometimes on camera, he said, and he carried around some dog treats for this very purpose. Monday morning was no different.
Around 7:30 a.m., he spotted rowdy, 2-year-old Henry grazing through the brush, as his human, an investment banker in yoga pants and a face mask, was standing right by a sign saying all dogs must be leashed.
When Christian Cooper asked her to follow the rules, she refused. He keeps dog treats on hand for noncompliant pet owners, he said, and tried to toss one to the dog.
As he started recording, she threatened to call the police.
At that point, he told The Post, he had only one option. “I can be racially intimidated and kowtow to her,” he said, but “I’m not going to participate in my own dehumanization.”
“Please call the cops,” he said on video. “Please tell them whatever you’d like.”
She did, assuming an increasingly loud voice over the phone that some on social media made her sound as if she was being physically attacked. In the meantime, she wrapped a blue leash around Henry, seemingly choking the yelping dog before clipping it on.
A spokesman for the New York Police Department told The Post that officers responded to a report of an assault in the Ramble at 8:10 a.m. Monday. When they arrived on the scene, they found only a woman and issued no summonses and made no arrests.
Amy Cooper did not immediately respond to a call and email requesting comment from The Post. But speaking to WNBC, she offered an apology to Christian Cooper and his family.
“It was unacceptable and I humbly and fully apologize to everyone who’s seen that video, everyone that’s been offended,” she told the TV station Monday evening. “Everyone who thinks of me in a lower light – I understand why they do.”
By then, however, it appeared to be too late.
As of early Tuesday, the video had been viewed nearly 20 million times. Her employer, the investment firm Franklin Templeton, said it had placed her on administrative leave. The animal rescue where she adopted Henry had taken him back. As some on social media called for an investigation into her past work with black colleagues, #FireAmyCooper was trending on Twitter.
They mentioned the case of Emmett Till, and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” both examples of false accusations lodged by white women at black men. Many, including Christian Cooper himself, pointed to the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was shot down and killed in Georgia by a group of white men earlier this year, 74 days before anyone was arrested.
But Christian Cooper also said things have already gone too far. During a pandemic, we all needed to be kinder to each other – and respect the rules.
“I’m not interested in repercussions,” he said. “It’s unfortunate what happened. There was definitely a lapse in judgment. But she put the dog on the leash, and I don’t need to see anything else happen to her.”