Commentary: George Floyd, killed in Minneapolis, is why Amy Cooper’s Central Park call was so repugnant

By Heidi Stevens

Chicago Tribune

In case it’s not perfectly clear why it’s reckless and repugnant for a white woman to call the police on an African American man who reminded her to leash her dog in Central Park, George Floyd is the reason.

Floyd died Monday after bystander video showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck as Floyd — handcuffed — pleads, “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe. Please, man,” before falling unconscious. He died at the hospital a few hours later.

Police said Floyd matched the description of a forgery suspect at a grocery store and resisted arrest. Four officers involved in the arrest were fired Tuesday. The FBI and state law enforcement are investigating Floyd’s death.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called the officer’s actions “completely and utterly messed up.”

“Being Black in America should not be a death sentence,” Frey wrote in a Facebook post. “For five minutes, we watched a white officer press his knee into a Black man’s neck. Five minutes. When you hear someone calling for help, you’re supposed to help. This officer failed in the most basic, human sense. … The man’s life matters. He matters. He was someone son. Someone’s family member. Someone’s friend. He was a human being and his life mattered.”

Mattered. Past tense. His life is over now. He died after gasping for air on the asphalt.

And it’s not a leap to wonder whether Christian Cooper would’ve met a similar fate, had Amy Cooper, the white woman in Central Park, gotten her way.

Christian Cooper, a bird watcher who serves on the board of the New York City Audubon Society, crossed paths with Amy Cooper on Monday in the Ramble, a wooded area in Central Park where dogs are required to wear leashes. Christian Cooper asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog and then started to record her walking toward him.

In the video, she says she’s going to call the police if he doesn’t stop recording her. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she can be heard saying before backing away and placing a call.

“I’m in the Ramble, and there’s a man, African American, he’s got a bicycle helmet. He’s recording me and threatening me and my dog,” she says into the phone.

She repeats herself and begins yelling into the phone: “I’m sorry. I can’t hear. Are you there? I’m being threatened by a man into the Ramble. Please send the cops immediately!”

The video ends with her putting a leash on her dog and Christian Cooper saying, “Thank you.” Since it went public, Amy Cooper was fired from investment firm Franklin Templeton and voluntarily surrendered her dog back to a rescue organization.

She offered an apology during an interview with NBC on Monday night: “And you know, words are just words and I can’t undo what I did. But I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone.”

“Words are just words” is a rich statement from someone who weaponized hers in a way that she knew — she knew — could bring great mental and physical harm, possibly even death, to an innocent man.

She knew the optics. She knew her power and her privilege. She knew her country’s past and present. She wouldn’t have said “African American man” if she didn’t. And she didn’t hesitate for an instant to wield all of that power and privilege and past and present — consequences to Christian Cooper be damned.

She made a split-second calculation and determined her right to flout a dog-leashing rule was more important than Christian Cooper’s right to live.

Her defenders can argue otherwise — that she didn’t intend physical harm to befall Christian Cooper. That she couldn’t have known she was putting a man’s life at risk by making that call and making up those lies about him threatening her.

Then her defenders are not paying attention. Then they’re walking around this world with their eyes and ears and heart closed to the truth and the tragedy of lives cut short like George Floyd; or Ahmaud Arbery, gunned down by vigilantes while jogging; or Atatiana Jefferson, shot and killed by police through the back window of her home; or Botham Jean, shot and killed on his couch by an off-duty officer who walked into Jean’s apartment.

Even as I write this, I know the emails I’ll get: Asking why I wrote about violence against black people, but failed to mention black-on-black crime. Wondering where my outrage is over gang violence. As though every black life has an asterisk next to it, as though the crimes of some excuse the killing of others.

I don’t get those emails when I write about white people. No one asks me why I failed to mention school shootings, which are mostly committed by white people, when I write about white people. No one wonders why I left out the mass murders at a concert in Las Vegas or the Walmart in El Paso, Texas or the bar in Dayton, Ohio, or the bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., or the Waffle House in Nashville, Tenn. — all committed by white people — when I write about other white people.

Some people can see the inherent value and uniqueness and beauty of a white person’s life, regardless of the violence perpetrated by other white hands. Some people don’t see the inherent value and uniqueness and beauty of a black person’s life.

That’s the world we live in. That’s the reality Amy Cooper cashed in on when she called the police on an innocent man and made up lies and made sure to mention “African American.”

She knew what she was doing. And if she claims she didn’t, I believe that’s just as bad. Because her panicked phone call could have cost a man his life. That’s a high price to pay for ignorance.

Heidi Stevens is a lifestyle columnist for the Chicago Tribune.