An Avid Birder Talks About His Conflict In Central Park That Went Viral

May 26, 2020
Originally published on May 26, 2020 10:16 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Christian Cooper, a black man, was out birdwatching in Central Park this weekend, and he asked a white woman to put her dog on a leash. And then he shot a video of the dog owner threatening to call the police on him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY COOPER: Sir, I'm asking you to stop.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Please don't come close to me.

A COOPER: Sir, I'm asking you to stop recording me.

C COOPER: Please don't come close to me.

A COOPER: Please take your phone off of me.

C COOPER: Please don't come close to me.

A COOPER: Then I'm taking your picture and calling the cops.

C COOPER: Please call the cops. Please call the cops.

A COOPER: I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life.

C COOPER: Please tell them whatever you like.

CHANG: Well, Christian Cooper joins me now.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

C COOPER: Thanks.

CHANG: So can you just start out by telling me what exactly happened just before that tape we heard, when you came upon this woman and her dog was off-leash? Just describe the scene for me.

C COOPER: The vast majority of the park, you can have your dog off-leash until 9 a.m. But in very specific areas - protected areas of the park which are important areas for wildlife; for example, the Ramble, where I was birding and where a lot of people go to bird specifically for that reason - because...

CHANG: Right.

C COOPER: ...It is a protected area...

CHANG: Yeah.

C COOPER: Dogs have to be on the leash at all times. So this dog was tearing through the underbrush. And, you know, I said, ma'am, dogs on the Ramble have to be on the leash at all times. The sign is right there. She was standing right next to the sign. And, you know, she said, oh, well, the dog runs are closed, and he needs his exercise. And I said, well, that's just great, but all you to do is take him across the drive to this other part of Central Park outside of the Ramble, and you can let him run off the leash to your heart's content until 9 a.m. No, no, no. That's too dangerous. And I'm like, OK. And basically, it sort of devolved from there and went back and forth.

CHANG: Well, at this point, according to your Facebook post, didn't you say something like, look; if you're going to do...

C COOPER: Yeah.

CHANG: ...What you want, I'm going to do what I want, but you're not going to like it? That's - I'm reading directly from your Facebook post.

C COOPER: Yes. Exactly. Yeah. I basically told her, look. If you're going to do what you want, I'm going to do what I want. And then at that point, I pulled out a bag of treats that I carry - dog treats.

CHANG: And why do you carry dog treats while you're out birding?

C COOPER: Because when I'm out birding - exactly. Why would I, a non-dog walker, carry dog treats? Because over the years, that has proven the most effective way to get a recalcitrant dog owner to put their dog on the leash because they don't like it when a stranger feeds their dog treats.

CHANG: Well, since this all happened, the woman at the center of this - she's been identified as Amy Cooper. She has said that she - I'm going to quote her here - that she, quote, "did not mean to harm that man in any way," that man being you. And she said that she is not a racist. How do you respond to her?

C COOPER: I can't tell you whether or not she's a racist. I can tell you what she did in that moment, and it was a moment of, you know, stress and of confrontation and of, you know, probably spectacularly poor judgment. But in that moment, what she did was definitely racist. Now, should she be defined by that, you know, couple-of-seconds moment? I can't answer that. I think that's really up to her and what she does going forward.

CHANG: So you've been a birdwatcher for many years, I understand. And I'm curious. As you're moving through public spaces like Central Park, do you have sort of an additional layer of awareness around you because you are a black man, moving through the park as a black man, even though all you're curious about at that point is watching birds?

C COOPER: Yeah, 100%. Yes. It has occurred to me many times that I, as an African American, crouching down and peering through a shrub with a metal object in my hand will be perceived by authorities likely completely differently than a white birder doing exactly the same thing when we're both trying to do the same thing, which is see that rare bird that's, you know, hidden in that shrub or whatever.

CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.

C COOPER: You know, the simple fact of my skin color means that I run the risk of being perceived as a menace or a threat despite the fact that I'm doing the exact same thing as anybody else in that park.

CHANG: Christian Cooper, thank you very much for your time tonight.

C COOPER: No problem. Thank you.

CHANG: And NPR has reached out to Amy Cooper for comment. We have not heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.