As always, I speak for myself and not for my office. See the disclaimer on the sidebar? Now, with that out of the way:
When Amy Cooper, a white woman, called 911 from an isolated patch in Central Park where she was standing with her unleashed dog on Memorial Day, she said an “African-American man” was threatening her life, emphasizing his race to the operator.
Moments before Ms. Cooper made the call, the man, Christian Cooper, an avid bird-watcher, had asked her to leash her dog, and she had refused.
On Monday, Ms. Cooper was charged with filing a false report, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, the latest fallout from an encounter that resonated across the country and provoked intense discussions about how Black people are harmed when sham reports to the police are made about them by white people.
That framing loads the dice nicely! The article assumes her report was a “sham” and constructs a narrative that the only issue is how we react to that sham.
Before we discuss why her phone call may not have been a sham at all, some throat-clearing is in order here, in this era of mob reactions and a total lack of reason. So here goes. I do not approve of the way either party handled this incident. I think Ms. Cooper made a racial thing out of it when, as far as I can tell, race should have had nothing to do with it. She should have had her dog on a leash. Sitting comfortably in my living room chair watching the video, my reaction is that I personally don’t think she ought to have felt threatened or that she should have called 911. And I think her threat to tell the police that an African American man was threatening her was despicable and, again, injected race into the situation when it shouldn’t have been.
But now that Ms. Cooper has been criminally charged it’s time to look at the other side of the coin. And it begins with looking at how people react when they are told: “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.”
Kyle Smith at National Review presented the other side on May 27, and while I do not agree with his overall view of the case (that it was “Covington 2.0” which would make Ms. Cooper entirely innocent and the wholly wronged party) nor with several aspects of what I am about to quote, it seems beyond dispute that it sets forth some uncomfortable facts about the way Mr. Cooper behaved by his own admission:
News accounts have repeatedly characterized Ms. Cooper as having “threatened” Mr. Cooper. That is the opposite of what happened. We know this because of Mr. Cooper’s helpful Facebook post on the matter, from which I quote:
ME: “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it.”
HER: “What’s that?”
ME [to the dog]: “Come here, puppy!”
HER: “He won’t come to you.”
ME: “We’ll see about that.” . . . I pull out the dog treats I carry for just such intransigence. I didn’t even get a chance to toss any treats to the pooch before Karen scrambled to grab the dog.
Possibly it was an overreaction for Ms. Cooper to call the police. Then again, when citizens feel threatened, calling the police and letting them sort it out is what is supposed to happen. What Mr. Cooper said to her was unmistakably a threat. It was reasonable for her to be scared. “I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it”? That’s a menacing thing to say. He then called the dog over while offering it a treat. He meant her to think he was going to poison her dog to motivate her to leash the animal. By his own admission, he said something calculated to frighten her. Apparently, he does this all the time; he carries dog treats while birding “for just such intransigence.” If there were no threat linked to his offering the dog a snack, he would not have prefaced this action by saying, “You’re not going to like it.” He didn’t say, “Look, let’s be reasonable here, I’ll even give your dog a nice snack to show I mean well.” Mr. Cooper intended to scare Ms. Cooper, he succeeded, and in her fear she called the cops.
I assume that Kyle Smith is accurately quoting the Facebook post in question; I have never seen the post itself but neither have I seen this account disputed. I actually agree that what Mr. Cooper said was “unmistakably a threat” — when you tell someone they aren’t going to like what you’re about to do, that’s a threat — but a threat to do what? My guess is: it was a threat to a) record Ms. Cooper and put the recording on the Internet, and/or b) to lure her dog to him so he could physically grab it, march it over to her, and demand that she leash it, which she should have done to begin with. I don’t think it’s reasonable to view the comment as a physical threat — but again, I say that from the comfort of my living room chair.
But I have talked about this to people — woman, particularly — who do see that language as threatening. And it’s not only females who see the comment as threatening. Kyle Smith clearly does.
And I suspect that Ms. Cooper did at the time.
And, by the way, it takes the New York Times until literally the end of their article — the last two paragraphs — even to allude to the arguably threatening language used by Mr. Cooper:
She added that when Mr. Cooper said she would not like what he was “going to do next” and then offered her dog treats, she assumed he was threatening her. Mr. Cooper said the remark was merely meant to signal that he planned to offer the treats.
“I assumed we were being threatened when all he had intended to do was record our encounter on his phone,” Ms. Cooper said.
There is a part of me that wants to say: I don’t think she found it as terrifying as she seems to portray it in the call, or she would likely have run away. But I’ve learned through long experience that you never know exactly how people are going to react in moments of stress, and forming opinions that person x cannot possibly have felt emotion y because every human who experiences emotion y inevitably reacts by committing action z … life doesn’t work like that.
But the bottom line is, if you are going to say to a woman in an isolated area: “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it” and then you try to lure her dog from her, you can’t really be shocked if she finds that a bit threatening.
And proving beyond a reasonable doubt that she had a criminal intent to deceive the police? In normal times, I would say: good luck trying to prove that! (In fact, I did say that tonight on Twitter.) But maybe the mob mentality is enough to get her to plead guilty, or even to convince an irrational jury to ignore the full context and do what the mob demands. Who knows any more?
If this case were brought to me, either as a threats case against Mr. Cooper or as a false reporting case against Ms. Cooper, based on what I have seen in the public record, I would file no charges against anyone. I would chalk it up to a combination of less than ideal behavior on both sides, combined with a dash of racism on Ms. Cooper’s part, and a heaping helping of misunderstanding. I would tell all parties to do better in the future and go about their lives.
But in the era of social media, the mob must have its say, and it seems to me that the Manhattan D.A. is bowing to the mob. I think it’s disgraceful and a terrible overreach and an abuse of power.