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.
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 cellphone and dialing 911.
Less than 24 hours later after a video of their exchange went online, she has lost her dog, her anonymity, and 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 this spring to peek at the wildfowl seeking 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 New York’s busy dog runs in April. Authorities wanted to ensure pets’ humans were staying six feet apart, and the Ramble — already an occasional target for loose hounds — became a canine playground.
On a nearly daily basis, Cooper had seen unleashed pooches digging up the soil, ruining the delicate habitat and disturbing the birds, he said. He had often asked unaware owners to restrain their pets, sometimes on camera. Monday morning was no different.
Around 7:30 a.m., he spotted rowdy, 2-year-old Henry grazing through the brush, as his owner, an investment manager in leggings and a face mask, was standing right by a sign saying all dogs must be leashed.
When Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper 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 no choice but to keep filming. “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 to 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 in a public apology on Tuesday, she said she had “reacted emotionally and made false assumptions” about Christian Cooper.
“I was the one who was acting inappropriately by not having my dog on a leash,” she wrote. “I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause... I hope that a few mortifying seconds in a lifetime of forty years will not define me in his eyes."
For most people, however, it appeared to be too late.
As of early Tuesday, the video had been viewed nearly 20 million times. Amy Cooper gave Henry up to the animal shelter where she had adopted him. Her employer, the investment firm Franklin Templeton, said later in the day it had terminated her, “effective immediately.” As some on social media called for an investigation into her past work with black colleagues, #AmyCooperIsARacist was trending on Twitter.
At @FTI_US, At @Citi before that.— Franklin Leonard (@franklinleonard) May 26, 2020
How many times has she already done this when it wasn’t on video?
How many Amy Cooper’s do you have working at your company? In your community? How much damage have they done?
Are you an Amy Cooper? How much damage have you done?
Amy Cooper made a choice. Not a mistake. Not an error in judgment. A choice. She chose racism, fully and deliberately chose to attempt to put a Black man in harm's way for the "offense" of asking her to obey leash laws. She was going to try to ruin his life, if not take it.— ❄Mikki Kendall❄ (@Karnythia) May 26, 2020
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 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 any of them were arrested.
But Christian Cooper also said things have already gone too far. During a pandemic, he added, we all need to be kinder to one another — 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.”
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.
The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.
Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
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