By now, everyone should be familiar with the incident in Central Park, when a white woman named Amy Cooper confronted a Black man named Christian Cooper (no relation) and called the police on him, claiming that he was threatening her. The incident was captured on a video that went viral, and the retribution to Amy Cooper was swift. She was excoriated on social media, fired from her job, temporarily had her dog taken from her (the same dog she refused to put on a leash), and now, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing for the enactment of a bill popularly known as the “Amy Cooper” bill, first introduced in 2018 by Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, which could deem a false 911 call based on race a hate crime.
Although public attention has turned to the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, what transpired in Central Park deserves analysis, because racism in the U.S. manifests itself in instances like the one in Central Park far more frequently than it does in police killings of unarmed Black people. Amy Cooper effectively put the intricacies of the country’s racial history on classic display.
When Christian Cooper refused to stop recording her, Amy Cooper threatened to call the police and tell them “There’s an African American man threatening my life.” These were not “just words,” as she tried to claim later; this was an acknowledgment of a history that has deemed Black males to be threats. From slavery to the present day, Black males in the U.S. are wholly considered dangerous and criminally minded. It is this lingering and persistent imaging that has justified the horrors that Black men have endured for centuries, and it is used to excuse police brutality today. Every time police have gotten away with killing an unarmed Black person, the reason was always the same: that the Black person made the officers fear for their safety and mandated that they extinguish the threat by lethal force.
History also tells a horrific tale when Black men have stood accused of offending white women. From slavery on down, white men have had a morbid fear of Black men being romantically involved with white women, and have acted violently if they even think their fears might be realized. Many of the Black men who were lynched after slavery were murdered because of allegations that they improperly approached white women. Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago teenager visiting relatives in Mississippi, was kidnapped, mutilated and shot in the head. His crime? Allegedly whistling at a white woman; and it turns out, that allegation was as false as Amy Cooper’s claims. Amy Cooper undoubtedly had a passing awareness of this history when she threatened Mr. Cooper, and then followed through on her threats.
Also at play is the role of police in maintaining the racial hierarchy of this country. White Americans know that a de facto function of the police is to keep Black people in check; and when they have called the police, it was a given that the officers would side with them against Black people. This is exactly what happened to Christopher and Jerry Tate, two African American brothers who were falsely arrested in St. Louis, Missouri, in August 2017. A white man named Patrick John Owens attempted to rob them at gunpoint, shooting one of them in the act, and then ran to the police and claimed that the brothers tried to rob him. The Tates tried to explain to the police that the man had tried to rob them, but the police ignored them and believed Owens — until video surveillance surfaced in February 2018 that validated the brothers’ account of what transpired. Hallway Harrys, Barbecue Beckys and Permit Pattys have always existed in U.S. history; social media is merely exposing them now.
Social media is also exposing perhaps the most basic power of all, articulated by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his groundbreaking work, Between the World and Me: the power of white people over the bodies of Black people. In the first half of the 20th century, white civilians could kill Black people without fear of a trial, and sometimes they still can, absent video. Ahmaud Arbery showed us that; the two white vigilantes who killed him in February were not even arrested until video evidence came out in May. More frequently, however, they exercise that power through the police force. It is no coincidence that white support for police has consistently remained high, despite times when the media was saturated with story after story of unarmed Black people being slain by law enforcement. The police have true power over the bodies of Black people. This is evidenced by stop-and-frisk, gang policing, contempt of cop charges and, of course, assaults and murders.
In times past, Christian Cooper would have been jailed or worse, and Amy Cooper would have gone on with her life as if nothing happened. But social media has allowed for something uncommon in U.S. history: white people being held accountable for their racism. And in a society where white comfort has been prioritized over Black life itself, accountability is unfamiliar territory for people like Amy Cooper. It shows in her insincere apology, which was more of a lament of the consequences of her actions than an authentic admission of wrongdoing. Certainly, it could not be her fault why her life was ruined when the video of her behavior went viral.
And so, even when confronted with clear evidence of racism, Amy Cooper, like white America, persists in denial. In slavery, white people argued that Black people were “savages” that needed Eurocentric “civilizing” and bondage; now, white people fault the contemporary conditions of Black people on the degeneracy of their “culture” and a lack of personal responsibility. In her “apology,” Amy Cooper minimized her actions while blaming the victim, alleging that Christian Cooper said something she reasonably perceived as a threat. Of course, this does not explain why she angrily approached him, threatened him and stood within feet of him while calling the cops — all of which occurred after she heard something that scared her.
Amy Cooper is the American next door. There are lots of Amy Coopers in the U.S. They are in the Democratic and Republican parties; they are in liberal and conservative institutions; they are everyday people who walk their dogs, go grocery shopping, take yoga class, live in apartments in gentrifying neighborhoods. They work in schools, in hospitals, in the courts, on the police force. And their privilege and sense of entitlement makes life in the U.S. hell for Black people.