In May, an incident occurred in New York City’s Central park between a bird-watcher named Christian Cooper and a woman named Amy Cooper (they are unrelated). Video footage was released by Christian’s sister and can be found here. The incident sparked nation-wide discussion, for example by Trevor Noah and covered in national headlines.
The incident is notable in that the interaction quickly was interpreted through the lens of Critical Theory and circulated as evidence of white women (“Karens”) weaponizing whiteness or white privilege in order to put the life of a black man at risk (e.g., here, here, or here). The timing also came right before the tragic killing of George Floyd, and the two incidents were frequently discussed together in the discourse of systemic racism and “white supremacy.” Some even suggested Floyd’s death is what Amy Cooper wanted to have happen to Christian Cooper, that she intentionally weaponized police bias. Others insisted that at least Floyd’s death is a reason why white people calling the police on African Americans is repugnant as a general rule. Recently, a “CAREN act” was introduced in California to “Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies.” (So, perhaps “CARENE” would be the more fitting acronym for them to adopt?)
Before unpacking the details of the incident, it is important to say that we must sort out the things we know, the things we can speculate on, and the things that may be legally actionable. It is also important to emphasize the broader implications for society. Unfortunately, in the arena of social media trials and hyperbole, these things are not always sorted out well.
During the encounter, we know that Amy had a dog that was unleashed in an area where it should have been. Christian approached her to ask for her to leash her dog. Christian has published his own account of this initial interaction before the filming began.
In Christian’s account, he is a concerned citizen who wants the dog on a leash, and proceeds to tell Amy that “If you are going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it” before calling her dog over to him. The film presumably starts moments later.
In the footage, Amy Cooper clearly warns the man that she will call the police and inform them that an African American man is threatening her and her dog. She then does so, and tells them (in what they would perceive to be a very frightened voice) that an African American man was threatening her and to send the police. She repeats this phrase on multiple occasions. Christian ends the footage immediately after he says “thank you.” It is unclear what occurred after that, if much at all; she did eventually leash the dog, and in some accounts the police arrived and “police determined two individuals had engaged in a verbal dispute. There were no arrests or summonses issued; both parties went on their way.” In others, neither Amy nor Christian were present. It may be these aren’t mutually exclusive.
Many of the events are simply matters of fact, others require varying levels of speculation (such as the popular claim that she wanted the police to murder Christian). Exploring intent and filling in the gaps is not always straightforward. Claims of racism should require an additional layer of consideration. For instance, how would she have handled the incident had Christian been, say, a white male instead? Likewise, how would the encounter have been reported on?
Critical Race Theory is one lens to interrogate this issue, although CRT sees racism and power dynamics in every multi-racial interaction (see the work of Robin DiAngelo, for example). “Whiteness” is seen to permeate public and private life at all levels. Analytic attention centers on “the production and reproduction of dominance rather than subordination, normativity rather than marginality and privilege rather than disadvantage” (Frankenberg, 1993, p. 236). As observed by critical education theorists Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg, “Even though no one at this point really knows what whiteness is, most observers agree that it is intimately involved with issues of power and power differences between white and nonwhite people.” There is broad agreement among those covering the Amy and Christian Cooper story that she weaponized whiteness against his blackness. Christian Cooper also has insisted that Amy’s act was unmistakably racist.
However, did we all see the same version of events on the camera footage? Do we understand the full context of the events that we did see? Can we agree on the counter-factual scenarios of how the event may have played out with a white man? As the saying “get the record straight” implies, there is a difference between truth and popular narratives, and recognizing and correcting for this difference matters if we are to fully describe the event, and, as will happen, it will matter more when the case proceeds in the court of law. It may also be important for future cases where a racial component can potentially insert itself.
To give some sense of how far narratives (the record) can veer from the truth, below, I will provide bulleted points covering a range of possible scenarios that can be stretched over the known facts, some of which may be true or false (and possibly unknowable). I will also provide my own speculations at times. Each of these is a potential record attempting to narrate various aspects of the true story of the incident, and, as is clear, the available interpretive range is quite broad.
- Overt racism with racist intentions: Amy Cooper was malicious, racist, and wanted to call a “hit job” on a black man for inconveniencing her in the dog park.
- Racist without racist intentions: Amy Cooper is a racist, and consciously or unconsciously emphasized the “African American” description, but also legitimately thought she was in danger due to his statements. She called the police for protection and not to place him in danger.
- Racism ambiguous, identity factor descriptive: Amy Cooper simply used “African American” as a description, much like “wearing red pants.” This is possible, although difficult to reconcile with her using that description to him, so maybe she is a racist and wanted to emphasize that fact to everyone involved. That would be unfortunate, but not illegal.
- Racism unconscious and possibly slight, identity factor descriptive: In a variation of the above, maybe Amy Cooper is unconsciously racist to some degree and simply pointed out an unnecessary description, much like “my friend, he happens to be gay, has a nice bike.”
- Racism indeterminable, motivator was suspicion of a potentially menacing stranger: Amy Cooper, whether racism is involved or not, was afraid, being isolated in the woods, that a strange man approached her saying, “you won’t like what I do,” proceeded to call her dog, pull out a treat, and then begin video recording. She held onto her dog tightly to avoid its possibility of running to Christian. Some have suggested that Christian was simply being friendly, although this is difficult to reconcile with his preceding statements, and even if he was, she may not have interpreted the situation that way. Very few people encounter men in the woods who say “you won’t like what I do,” pull out dog treats, and begin filming them.
- Racism indeterminable, motivator was genuine fear: Amy Cooper was truly afraid for her life after Christian’s comments and being isolated. Some have contended that a truly panicked individual would run away, and not approached him, but it is not obvious how different individuals react when a larger and more athletic person makes a credibly perceived threat. See e.g., Flight-or-fight response.
- The prototypical “Karen”: Amy Cooper is an overly dramatic individual, the same type of person who would make a public scene at the coffee shop if someone looked at her the wrong way. This personality trait manifested itself in the confrontation with Christian.
- Camera changed the dynamic: Amy Cooper reacted more severely than she would have otherwise, whatever that might entail, because of her awareness of being filmed and her actions being put on social media (which may have induced additional stress or panic).
It is impossible from the known facts to determine which sets of motivations were applicable in the scenario. People have taken tremendous liberties at filling in the relevant blanks in all of these ways and have, despite the existence of the others, often displayed incredible certainty in their preferred narrative.
These interpretive modes have been reinforced by further assumption-making, such as the following speculations.
- Race mattered centrally (Amy Cooper is racist): If Christian Cooper were a white man, she would have just put her dog on a leash, let him feed the dog, and no incident would have occurred.
- Racism didn’t matter (racism indeterminable): If Christian Cooper were a white man, she would have reacted the same, and may or may not have mentioned “white man” to him and to the police. The journalistic narrative would have been that “women are always afraid,” he should have minded his own business with the trivial offense of an unleashed dog, and that absolutely no one should tone police the reaction of women who live with the daily fear of being attacked by a stranger. Perhaps he should go to jail for the threat against a woman.
Moving to the phone call with the police, there is even more capacity to speculate and build a narrative:
- Histrionic behavior (racism indeterminable): Amy Cooper did not feel threatened and she knowingly acted hysterical on the phone, weaponizing the police against a black man. This is possible, although it is not clear that even a strong racist that was acting fully rationally would choose to escalate the situation to this degree over simply leashing the dog and getting away.
- Panicking and fear (racism indeterminable): Amy Cooper felt threatened and said incorrect things on the phone; perhaps she was never in real danger, but did not know that.
- Better safe than sorry (racism indeterminable): Amy Cooper simply felt the escalating situation required taking steps for her own protection and, rationalizing that “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” overacted in the situation, even if the hyperbole was intentional.
- Escalation of camera (racism indeterminable): Amy Cooper reacted more performatively in any of the above ways knowing she was being filmed.
As we can see, there are many possible interpretations that can be fitted onto this story. These narratives form a kind of record that may or not be reflective of reality. In a society that values truth, fairness, and the due process of law, however, it is crucial that we value “setting the record straight” and thus aligning the narrative-based record with the truth to the greatest degree possible. In our current social-media age, this seems—and may be—legitimately difficult, if not impossible, which defines a significant problem in need of a solution for our times.
If you believe Amy Cooper should go to jail for a racially motivated false police report, consider that there may be a 50% chance your interpretation was wrong. Or 80%. Or 20%. Or even 5%. If you can admit this, what is the threshold you are willing to accept for imprisoning people, or even destroying their private life and reputation.
Turning our attention to the specific question behind the “CAREN” Act, here has been much emphasis in popular discourse on why calling the police is inherently harmful, or why any ”false” report should be legally actionable. However, these analyses are not compelling for several reasons.
First, despite the terrible George Floyd death that was coincident with this story, there are many tens of millions of police encounters every year. Fatal police shootings are in the range of many hundreds of people per year. Most of these are armed victims (there were 9 unarmed black people killed in 2019, at least by on-duty officers). In absolute numbers more white people are killed, although after weighting by population (but not by rates of participation in violent and other crimes) there is a disproportionate number of black people killed, but these still require comparing very small numbers. In either case, the probability of death of an unarmed civilian is infinitesimally small. At the very least, the narrative that calling the police on a black person is inherently a death sentence, or at least dangerous, is indefensible.
Second, concerning “false reports,” if I decide to call the police at this moment on neighbors that I have never met and claim they threatened my life, this is clearly unethical, irresponsible, and should be legally actionable. However, the spirit of the law requires intent, and we cannot imprison people for people who may be frightened and call the police and either say incorrect things, or it is discovered later that the fear is misplaced. Furthermore, people call the police all the time for trivial matters, such as people playing music too loud, a campfire slightly too big in their backyard, or noticing a stranger walking around in a dorm room or on the front lawn. One can argue these are petty, and result from nosy neighbors, and in some cases irresponsible, but they are not criminal phone calls.
Third, and more fundamentally, billions of individual human encounters occur every day. The type of people in these encounters partly consist of folks who are reasonable, unreasonable, argumentative, unfriendly, paranoid, creepy, dramatic, nosy, evil, introverted, well-intentioned but lacking in social grace, having a bad day, confused, stressed, mentally well or unwell, distraught, etc. A healthy society does not require public shaming, mob interpretation, mob justice, or trending social media and national news headlines concerning every encounter that goes wrong, where people argue, and especially where mixed interpretations exist—even, or perhaps especially, given the present cultural sensitivities to the issue, when those awkward encounters are cross-racial. Disputes, even ones in which the police are called for perhaps illegitimate reasons, do not require criminal sentencing or being fired from jobs. People need to be allowed to be nosy, to be overly dramatic, to not mind their own business, to argue amongst themselves, and even to be wrong. Legally, they can even be bigots.
The Amy Cooper case sets a dangerous precedent. A law like CAREN would likely require considerable mind-reading (achieved, in practice, by potentially cynically misinterpreting everyday encounters for any whiff of masked or coded bigotry), and potentially dissuade countless people (particularly the vulnerable) from calling the police in truly dangerous or potentially dangerous situations. This would clearly cause much more harm than the false reporting it intends to eliminate. If you are women who feels threatened for your safety at night, you may not under such and act call police unless you are 100% sure the threat is credible and danger is already imminent, especially if a black man is involved. Furthermore, if you do call the police, you must use the correct language. You must also act in the moment in a way that Twitter can agree you were actually scared. This is an unreasonable standard.
Even if we reject “commonsense” approaches to understanding why the CAREN Act is poorly conceived, it is also “problematic.” This is quite a departure from what most of us would consider reasonable legislation in line with the more reasonable requests by feminists for equal access to enjoy a relatively safe society. It is a substantial leap away from the less reasonable and yet recently fashionable “Believe All Women” feminist slogan. How this problematicity is being overlooked in the haste to do something in the instantaneous moment is unclear, but it seems indicative of the kind of responses we’d see in a moral panic, not sane and levelheaded approaches to crafting good and effective legislation.
A reliable result of these circumstances is that racial bias will be read into more multi-racial situations as Critical Social Justice spreads further into culture, emphasizing power dynamics, hidden or unconscious motives, incentives for Whites to maintain “the status quo,” weaponize their whiteness, etc., in every conceivable situation. When these ideas become part of the law, the consequences will be profound. If people can go to jail for run-of-the-mill park arguments where the police are called due to perceived threat, or malicious intent inferred in all interactions, mass incarceration will occur at a scale never seen in this country. All of this points to a simple and almost undeniable fact: we, as a populace, are overreacting in haste to highly interpretive narratives around circumstances that we do not fully understand and seem not to want to fully understand. It is crucial we take a stand for setting the records straight.