This piece was originally published on LinkedIn on June 4, 2020.
Central Park in New York. Last week, May 25th, 2020. Amy Cooper. Dog walker in the Ramble – fine if the dog is leashed. Christian Cooper. Bird watcher in the ramble – just fine. Amy Cooper. White woman with a dog off its leash. Christian Cooper. Black man with a smartphone in camera mode. Cue action. Amy Cooper doesn’t like being filmed breaking the rules of this part of Central Park; Christian Cooper seems adamant that he will film her as long as she is breaking the rules, i.e. not leashing her dog. So Amy ups the ante of the confrontation directly to “kill-mode”: she says she will call the cops and “tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Bold – dare I say, ballsy, “do-you-feel-lucky-punk” – Christian eggs her on to call the cops. She calls, and she follows through with her threat: she tells the 911 operator that “there’s an African American man, in Central Park, he’s recording me and threatening myself and my dog.” She even raises her voice feigning breathless panic as she repeats the claim.
Of course a video with this sort of action is perfect to go viral: it is short, it is low on needing context – the major elements of the situation are undeniable and undenied by the two parties – and it captures the essence of an initially mundane conflict that reaches an astonishing climax. Crucially, as Trevor Noah explains in his thoughts on the video, it demonstrates within it the two parties’ implicit understanding of the systemic nature of relations between black people (particularly men), white people (particularly women) and the police.
All that ground is already well trodden.
I want to point out an aspect that has been glossed over, far as I can tell, and it is not to be glossed over. CNN and others are quick to point out that there is “no relation” between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper. This effortless, apparently uncontroversial assertion is one of many small quirks of language we take for granted all over the world. I take major issue with it because it is said so easily and because it conceals so much. I also take issue with it because it is simply false. It is dangerously and colossally false. It ignores some of the most obvious things about the situation, and about Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, and about human beings.
First, a trivial complaint. This story is (now) the relationship between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper. Two simple facts relate them: (1) they are both New York residents and (2) they both apparently enjoy spending time in Central Park. I can appreciate that the editor who allows “no relation” to pass muster is rolling their eyes at me right now. As I said, trivial complaint.
Less trivial: in North America, the old English name Cooper is more than likely a name that has belonged in generations past to slave-owners, who would have branded their slaves with the same name. Many black Americans who are descendants of slaves acquired their surnames in this way. So, assuming that both Amy Cooper’s and Christian Cooper’s forebears can be traced to the North America of two or three centuries ago, it is quite likely that they share a surname because of a relationship forged through slavery. The point, therefore, is that there is a “relation” between the two: this relation is of a substantial spiritual sort, perhaps a bit more nebulous if my speculations about their family trees are off. The tentacle-like shadows of the history of slavery and emancipation, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement reach deep and wide into the present. Amy understood instinctively (maybe even consciously) that the power dynamics of this relation would weigh heavily and decisively in her favour when she called in the representatives of the State, steeped as they are in a history of abuse, oppression and repression of black people like Christian.
Lastly, and most importantly: the sooner we realise and recognise that in fact human beings are not only actually all related, but literally part of a single human family – that there is only one human race – the sooner we will all start to take full stock of what it means to harm another human being. This statement – about our relatedness – is one that some people make some of the time, either for political points, or for shock value, or to make some smart scientific point. But this statement has moral and normative value, as well as being demonstrably true. Go back far enough (and it will not need to be as far as you might think) and you will find that Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper have the same human ancestors. This commonality has been lost and forgotten in time: the consequences of conflict, the challenges of survival, the vagaries of geographic dispersal and the inconsistencies of cultural transmission have all conspired against this memory of real and recent common descent. This is not the post to elaborate on the scientific, theological and philosophical bases for this assertion, but I accept the need to do so at some point.
So, Amy (meaning “beloved”, BTW) Cooper called the police to sort out a conflict with her brother Christian (meaning “little [follower of] Christ”, BTW) Cooper, because she didn’t see him as a fellow New Yorker with whom she could resolve an issue; because she couldn’t accept that he could rightly criticize her for doing the wrong thing; because she arrogated to herself (with the help of history) the power to distort the situation into one in which she was the righteous victim and he the wicked aggressor; because she did not for a second believe that he is her brother, and therefore that there is a bond of kinship and obligation between them. What we believe about who is “relation” and who is “no relation” directly impacts what we see, what we decide and what we do. With potentially life-and-death impact, as events in Minneapolis – on the same day as the Cooper incident – have shown us.