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  • Andy Higgins

Mr. Cooper, She Hurt Us All

The following opinion piece appeared in the Washington Post today; highlights are mine:

Opinion by Christian Cooper

July 14, 2020 at 1:09 p.m. EDT

Christian Cooper is a writer and editor and a board member of New York City Audubon.

On May 25, when I was birding in the Ramble section of New York’s Central Park, I asked a woman whose dog was off his leash to please put him back on, as the area’s rules require. She refused — and, as shown in a video that went viral, she was soon calling the police and telling them an “African American man” was “threatening” her.

Now Amy Cooper has been charged by the Manhattan district attorney with filing a false police report. I’m ambivalent about the prosecution and have chosen not to aid the investigation. It’s important to remember that this case is for the DA to make, regardless of my involvement; it is not a situation where I have to press charges or else the case goes away.

I’ve said all along that I think it’s a mistake to focus on this one individual. 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 — bias that can bring horrific consequences, as with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis later the same day I encountered Amy Cooper, or just small daily cuts.

Why did Cooper so easily tap into that toxic racial bias in the heat of the moment when she was looking for a leg up in our confrontation? Why is it surprising to no one that the police might come charging to her aid with special vengeance on hearing that an African American was involved? And most important of all, how do we fix policing so that scenarios such as this are replaced by a criminal justice system that is truly just and equitable to black people?

Focusing on charging Amy Cooper lets white people off the hook from all that. They can scream for her head while leaving their own prejudices unexamined. They can push for her prosecution and pat themselves on the back for having done something about racism, when they’ve actually done nothing, and their own Amy Cooper remains only one purse-clutch in the presence of a black man away.

Those concerns must be weighed against what prosecuting the case means for us black people. I appreciate that it is important to uphold the principle of law, and that those who try to turn racism to their advantage by filing false claims against a person of color should be held accountable. But note that laws against filing a false police report are already on the books and will remain enforceable, whether applied in this case or not.

Finally, I believe in punishments that are commensurate with the wrongdoing. Considering that Amy Cooper has already lost her job and her reputation, it’s hard to see what is to be gained by a criminal charge, aside from the upholding of principle. If her current setbacks aren’t deterrent enough to others seeking to weaponize race, it’s unlikely the threat of legal action would change that. Meanwhile, for offenders who don’t suffer consequences like Cooper’s, the law is still there to exact a price.

Would I consider it fair and just if Cooper were found guilty and sentenced to anti-bias training and some form of community service? Yes. But black people know all too well that the criminal justice system often doesn’t work that way — that an ambitious DA with an election next year, in the current social climate, might seek and achieve a sentence of a year behind bars. All for an offense from which I suffered no harm, physical or mental. That wouldn’t be a commensurate punishment.

Raising the specter of what harm might have come to me as a result of Cooper’s false report carries no weight with me; I don’t find speculation useful in this situation, because it’s equally possible that, had the police arrived on the scene while I was still there, they would have done their jobs professionally. And if the fear is that the police would have done me harm as a result of Cooper’s call, then the solution is to fix policing.

So while acknowledging the principle at stake, I must err on the side of compassion and choose not to be involved in this prosecution. Let the DA do his job. He has already decided to pursue charges; if he feels my involvement is essential to the case, he can subpoena me. If subpoenaed, I will testify, truthfully and accurately. Otherwise, the case is the DA’s, not mine.

I know that some people may disagree with my reasoning, and that this decision comes as a disappointment to many who share in the struggle for social justice, and I’m sorry for that. But under the circumstances, it’s the only course I can pursue in good conscience.

First, Mr. Cooper, I applaud your position from many perspectives: not willing to add to the animus in today's society, willing to forgive and heal, your thoughtfulness and depth of reasoning in presenting your position, and your overall compassion. Your high road is laudable. Thank you for that.

However, I would call your attention to some other points, which your thoughtfulness means you very likely also considered, but which weren't included in your piece.

(Almost as an aside, Ms Cooper suffered consequences, but that is different from being punished. Laws exist for GOVERNMENTS to punish wrongdoing. Loss of employment and social status are consequences, but they are not "commensurate punishments.")

Much more importantly, Ms Cooper's actions harmed us all. Yes, the offense caused you "no harm, physical or mental" (plaudits again to your grit when faced with these circumstances). But she perpetuated racism in society. She perpetuated racism in the external stimuli to which police respond every day. (Did she re-inforce it in the minds of the responding officers? Can't go there. But she contributed to the many, many signals they have to process over the course of their careers.) Once images were captured on video, she perpetuated racism in the blogoshpere and in social media, contributing to the coarsening of our culture, something your grace and kindness is trying to soften.

These were harms to us all. And while only the second of the three (actions which affect the NYPD) are subject to the city's jurisdiction, harm did accrue.

I would also point out that her actions harmed "us white people." Anyone of European descent who does try to work across any of our country's many racial divides now faces an even wider gap to bridge. She dug the hole a little deeper and a little wider for all of us. So, I guess it means something for us white people, too.

Add these last two points together, and I think her actions make it that much harder to "fix policing." Again, this is one of many incidents to which the police have to respond, and one which might be reinforcing negative stereotypes. This incident is just one more signal that departmental training and leadership have to overcome when helping officers respond with justice for all in the next incident. When police actions are problematic there are usually issues of power and control at the core of the problem, but power and control problems are more likely to be triggered when race is involved.

Eventually, one straw does break the camel's back. Ms Cooper threw another couple of straws onto the poor beast. Let us hope that your generosity and bigness of heart help remove a few of those that have accumulated over time.

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