A Tale of Two Coopers

The impulse to react with the power that we hold to punish others, when we don’t like what they say to us, is something we all share.

I know it’s been a long summer already (and we’re only halfway through), but if you search your memory you may remember back to Memorial Day weekend and the story of “the Central Park Karen.” It may not seem like the most important story of the last few months, but I think it is a significant example of the power that individuals have to do harm or act justly.

The early rumblings of the coming summer of protest and public discourse over racism began in Central Park, when a white woman, Amy Cooper, tried to threaten a black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), with police force because he asked her to put a leash on her dog. Ms. Cooper told Mr. Cooper that she would tell the police “an African American man is threatening my life,” an accusation that is clearly false according to the video.

When the video of the confrontation went public, the backlash against Amy Cooper was swift and public. She lost her job and was thoroughly publicly shamed for her actions. The incident took on greater significance as George Floyd was killed hours later in police custody and the nation erupted in protest. Now, the Manhattan District Attorney is bringing charges against her for filing a false report, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail.

Ms. Cooper has been “canceled.” The nation watched her hostility toward Mr. Cooper (and her cocker spaniel) in the video, and her life was then dissected by ever major media outlet. She has become a symbol of white privilege and a lesson in the ugly impulses of human nature.

Some of this is deserved. Amy Cooper did a nasty, potentially dangerous thing, and her promise to ‘tell police an African American man was threatening her’ demonstrated that she knew what she was doing and the power she wielded. Yet the most striking feature of this whole ordeal is not how Amy Cooper behaved, but how Christian Cooper responded. He has expressed concern (while not diminishing the racism) that the backlash against Ms. Cooper is disproportionate and he refuses to cooperate with the DA in bringing charges against her.

The impulse to react with the power that we hold to punish others, when we don’t like what they say to us, is something we all share. There are many lessons one can take from this story, but that is the lesson that strikes me every time I look at this story. It’s easy to “cancel” Ms. Cooper and decry her actions publicly and join the pile-on. It’s not so easy to think about the fact that we all have the potential, in our worst moments, to do something similar. And we should hope that if we do, we are met with the proportionate justice of Christian Cooper. Maybe we can exercise more balanced justice ourselves when we are faced with situations and people that offend us.