In the case widely known as involving “Central Park Karen” and the Black bird-watcher, a lot of people are disappointed that birder Christian Cooper wants to temper justice with mercy.
As you may recall, Amy Cooper, (no relation to Christian) became a “Karen” in internet chatter after she was video recorded by Christian in New York’s Central Park. He had asked her politely to put her dog on a leash, in accordance with park regulations, and she responded by calling police on him.
Why “Karen”? Despite various theories, no one seems to be certain of how this particular name was appropriated to describe women, usually white, who commit acts that are perceived to be bullying and sometimes racist, such as calling police on law-abiding Black people. But Amy Cooper quickly rose to the top of most-played “Karen” videos on YouTube and elsewhere.
“There is an African American man … in Central Park,” she shouts breathlessly into her phone while jerking her dog’s collar too hard. “He is recording me, threatening myself and my dog.”
Later police charged Amy Cooper with filing a false police report. She also was fired from her job at investment firm Franklin Templeton as her infamy circled the globe. She even lost her dog temporarily while animal rescue workers checked its condition.
Is that enough punishment? She faces an October court date but Christian Cooper has ignited a new debate by declining to participate in her prosecution. In interviews and a Washington Post opinion piece, he notes that her charges are being brought by the state, not by him.
Besides, he writes, “I think it’s a mistake to focus on this one individual,” he wrote. “The important thing the incident highlights is the long-standing, deep-seated racial bias against us Black and brown folk that permeates the United States.”
Which is precisely the reason why some other folks believe an example should be made of Amy Cooper. They include his sister, Melody Cooper, as she wrote in a New York Times op-ed May 31.
She loves and understands her brother, she says, but wants Amy Cooper to be held accountable to help everyone acknowledge the humanity of Black people.
“While my brother and I condemn the death threats that have been made against Amy Cooper, demanding some form of accountability is one of the few ways we can create a deterrent that can lead to real change,” she writes. “We live in a country where a white person breaking rules feels confident and comfortable calling the police to threaten a Black person doing nothing wrong. This has to stop, whether through more discussion to raise awareness of the issue, or better enforcement of laws against false 911 reports.”
Who’s right? They both are. It’s not hard to see virtue in both siblings’ arguments. Cooper has paid a high cost for her ill-considered attempt to use the other Cooper’s skin color against him.
But it’s also not hard to imagine what might have happened to Cooper had he not video-recorded the whole episode. Think of what happened to another suspect the same day as the Central Park episode: the video-recorded death of George Floyd, a Black man who died with the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer on his neck.
In her apparent panic, Amy Cooper embodies the quintessential “Karen” episode, the 1955 death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was murdered by white thugs on the word of a 21-year-old white woman who claimed he had whistled at her.
Some human-rights activists are reluctant to rely on a justice system that they see as deeply flawed in providing anything close to equal justice. But flaws need to be corrected. That’s a job for all of us Americans. The tragedy of George Floyd and the farce in Central Park have awakened what has been called a racial reckoning. We are more aware than ever of the maladies. Now we need to work for a cure.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.