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Central Park incident highlights ‘daily dangers in outdoor spaces’ for African Americans

Central Park
A stone arch in Central Park’s Ramble. Photo by John A. Anderson/Shutterstock

A well-publicized incident between an African American birder and a white dog walker on Monday in New York’s Central Park is shining a spotlight on how white people treat people of color in public outdoor spaces.

On Monday morning in the section of the park called the Ramble, birder Christian Cooper asked a woman to leash her dog because in that area of the park, dogs are required to be on leashes. He told CNN that part of the attraction to birding in the Ramble is that ground-dwelling birds are present, because plants in the area aren’t over-run by pets. The dog he saw “was tearing through the plantings,” he said.

When the woman, Amy Cooper, refused to put a leash on her pet, he prepared to give the dog a treat.

Christian Cooper keeps dog treats with him, he told CNN, to get dog owners to leash their dogs “because, in his experience, dog owners hate when a stranger feeds their dog treats and immediately restrain their dogs afterward.”

Christian Cooper wrote on Facebook that after he pulled out the treats, Amy Cooper screamed “Don’t you touch my dog!” That’s when he started video recording her with his iPhone.

“I’m taking a picture and calling the cops,” she says in the video. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” In the video, she calls the police and claims she is being threatened by “an African American man.” While on the phone, she drags her cocker spaniel by its collar, and the dog yips and struggles to free itself. The video ends when she attaches the leash and Christian Cooper says “Thank you.”

Christian Cooper posted the video on Facebook and his sister Melody Cooper posted it on Twitter, where it has been seen millions of times.

On Monday evening, Amy Cooper voluntarily surrendered her dog to the cocker spaniel rescue group that she adopted it from, and on Tuesday, she was fired from her position as a vice president at the investment company Franklin Templeton. In a statement, the company said “We do not tolerate racism of any kind at Franklin Templeton.”

Statements of support

The National Audubon Society and the American Birding Association issued statements of support for Christian Cooper.

“Black Americans often face terrible daily dangers in outdoor spaces, where they are subjected to unwarranted suspicion, confrontation, and violence,” said Rebeccah Sanders, a senior vice president for Audubon. “The outdoors — and the joy of birds — should be safe and welcoming for all people. That’s the reality Audubon and our partners are working hard to achieve. We unequivocally condemn racist sentiments, behavior, and systems that undermine the humanity, rights, and freedom of Black people. We are grateful Christian Cooper is safe. He takes great delight in sharing New York City’s birds with others and serves as a board member of the New York City Audubon Society, where he promotes conservation of New York City’s outdoor spaces and inclusion of all people.”

The ABA wrote on Twitter: “The American Birding Association is saddened by the situation documented by Christian Cooper in the Central Park ramble on May 25, 2020. We believe that all birders should be able to participate in their hobby free of harassment and bigotry, and we acknowledge that this is frequently not the case for birders of color. We urge all birders to learn from this — to defend fellow birders when they can and to call out bigotry when they see it. Inclusion and equity are core ABA values; fear and intimidation should never be part of birding culture. Access to outdoor spaces without fear must be a right for all who seek to enjoy and protect wild birds.”

Christian Cooper, a graduate of Harvard and a past president of its campus ornithological club, is a senior biomedical editor at Health Science Communications. He previously worked as an editor at Marvel Comics. In 2019, he was featured in the premier episode of Jason Ward’s Birds of North America (shown in the tweet below) and in 2012, he was among the Central Park birders who were interviewed for the documentary film Birders: The Central Park Effect.

‘A weapon against him’

Many comments on social media and in commentaries noted that by calling the police, Amy Cooper threatened Christian Cooper due to the long history of police violence against minorities.

“What was clear in her words and how she used them was that she didn’t actually feel physically threatened ― rather, she was wielding her privilege as a white woman with the knowledge that accusing a Black man of violence was a weapon against him,” writes Zeba Blay, a senior culture writer for the Huffington Post.

“The clip of Cooper sneering ‘I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life’ highlights this truth about race in America: White people are far more aware of the structure of the thing than they care to admit.”

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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