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One year ago, a police call in Central Park set the stage for a racial reckoning

The Amy Cooper incident didn’t end like George Floyd’s later that same day, but it is no less critical to understanding race and policing in America.

One year ago, a police call in Central Park set the stage for a racial reckoning
[Image: msan10/iStock; Pixabay]
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Before May 25, 2020 became the day George Floyd was murdered, it started out as the day a white woman got canceled.

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Considering that Floyd’s death inspired a vast social movement not seen since the 1960s, it’s understandable that Amy Cooper, who notoriously called the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park, has been relegated to a footnote in the story of America’s reckoning with everything from Black equality to the role of police in upholding white supremacy. A year later, however, both events still feel tethered together in a way that helps explain some of what’s happened in America since.

Just about every average day online has a main character. On this particular morning, that person was Amy Cooper, who got into a dispute with birder Christian Cooper (no relation) over his objection to her keeping a cocker spaniel off leash in an area of the park that forbids it. The dispute escalated, as such things do, but ended up in a sinister place: Amy Cooper promised to call the police and report that “an African American man” was “threatening” her.

Had Christian Cooper’s video of the incident ended with this threat, it would have been bad enough. What followed was worse. She made good on her word, reporting to the police an “African American” menace, raising her voice to an upper register of emotionality that had been missing prior to the call. Once the video surfaced, Amy Cooper briefly became the most famous person in the world to millions of people. In short order she lost her job, had her dog briefly taken away, and eventually got charged with filing a false police report. (The charge has since been dropped.) At first, she seemed like just the latest in a long line of entitled white people to earn internet-fueled ignominy, joining the ranks of BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, and Corner Store Caroline. Media outlets even referred to her as Central Park Karen, as though she were just another “I’d like to speak with your manager” type, a walking avatar of white privilege.

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Then the video of George Floyd’s death also surfaced.

Both moments unfolding on the same day felt like a cosmic one-two punch, too heavy-handed a lesson to be penned by reality. But of course it happened. People become hashtags in both ways all too often; it was only a matter of time before they both did on the same day, making their interrelation undeniable. Taken together, the two moments revealed not just another deadly example of the disproportionate nature of police brutality, but also an awareness among white people of how to harness and wield it.

George Floyd’s death was considered by lots of white people, including then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, to be “a wake-up call” about racial discrimination. (Many Black Americans were quite vocal about already being more than well acquainted with it.) What the Amy Cooper video clarified, however, is the extent to which white people were also already aware of it, whether they admitted so or not.

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Cooper removed the veil of white ignorance about how police respond specifically to Black citizens. She almost certainly did not want Christian Cooper killed, of course, but her call nonetheless projected a pernicious awareness that it could happen. She might not have considered the historical context of what happens when a Black man threatens a white woman—from the slave era to the Jim Crow South and beyond—but her actions were rooted in that ugly lineage.

One element that binds the two incidents is the necessity that they be filmed. Without phone-captured evidence, the official story of a police incident is the one that gets enshrined in history. Who knows how many similar cases of brutality went unrecorded and subsequently unbelieved? Without Christian Cooper’s video, the official record of the Central Park interaction almost certainly would have been Amy Cooper’s version of events, no matter the outcome. Without Darnella Frazier’s video, George Floyd’s death would have just been standard procedure, based on the now-infamous initial police statement. Soon enough afterward, video would also vindicate several people protesting on George Floyd’s behalf, when their version of events clashed with the police’s.

In the year since May 25, 2020, one of the biggest through lines in American politics has been Republican opposition to critical race theory—the title given to journalistic works like the 1619 Project that use new information to correct accepted history. Somehow, after witnessing in real time how new information can drastically complicate the official record on race-related issues, a great many white people have a vested interested in legally prohibiting the spread of more new information about the past.

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At the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, the past year has also seen a steep rise in talk about “cancel culture,” the mechanism that cost Amy Cooper her job and reputation. Just as in the #MeToo movement, or any time outrage leads to more consequences, certain people start warning about the dangers of “ruining” someone’s “life.” But the Amy Cooper incident and George Floyd’s murder together paint a stark contrast between what people like right-wing Senator Josh Hawley consider ruining someone’s life and what it actually means to ruin a life.

It is sadly telling that for some Americans in 2021, what happened to Cooper has come to represent the greater lurking threat to freedom. You might come back from being canceled, as many do, but you can never come back from being killed.