By Steve Hall
Let me tell you a story about Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper. They are not “The Coopers”, in fact they are unrelated in a host of different ways, but they share a surname and a recent incident in Central Park, New York.
Christian is out bird watching. He has a bicycle helmet attached to his belt and looks like he regularly works out. He has a neat pair of steel-rimmed spectacles and peers into the foliage of this protected, iconic park known as The Ramble. Christian is ticking off a list of the 230 bird species found in this inner city haven. The Ramble is thirty-eight acres of ‘wild garden’ and was set aside in 1857 by the Greensward plan as a refuge from carriage drivers. For over 160 years people have wandered (and wondered) through this natural area without disruption from all forms of traffic (including cyclists). It is a peaceful, open and inviting place for all people. Apart from the standard rules and regulations which govern this cosmopolitan playground, The Ramble has one particular request – dogs are to be leashed at all times.
Enter Amy Cooper. With her dog. And no leash.
Christian lowers his Swarovski-lens binoculars and politely asks Amy to put her dog on leash. She says the other runs are closed and the dog needs his exercise. He suggests some other areas. She says they are too dangerous. He repeats the rule and points her to the obvious signage around the park. She gets a bit more heated. He begins to video record her reaction as she loses the plot completely.
In a dramatic, ninety-second display of desperation, Amy is eventually on the line to 911. Her life and the well-being of her dog is being threatened by a man in Central Park. Christian stands his ground and continues to record her with the steady hand of a birdwatcher. Amy’s dog tries to stand his ground too, but most of his legs are airborne as she holds him by his collar in her broadway-esque theatrics. The scene escalates into fury and frustration. Meanwhile, a hundreds of miles away on the same May day in Minnesota, George Floyd is killed.
Amy’s dramatic and frantic behaviour is unleashed and fueled by social media. Her moment of distress eventually evolves into a comedic rant.
Except that it isn’t all of it.
Christian is black. Amy is White.
Maybe all the superiority she exhibited in that random meeting in The Ramble is depicted in that short sentence.
lowercase black. Uppercase White.
I wonder if she had just stopped long enough to greet this man whether she might still have her job. I wonder if she had just apologized and put the lead on her dog whether she wouldn’t have a case against her for issuing a false report. I wonder if she had just noticed for a second, his magnificent set of Swarovski binoculars, whether she might have taken a look through a truly superior set of lenses. But perhaps that is a step too far for a non-birder?
If I am to change my behavior, I have to look through different lenses. I need to see that the world is not always unfriendly when someone of a different race approaches me for anything, let alone to obey the law. I need to see that there is more than one way of seeing, and that there is no way to solve the polarity between equality and superiority other than by embracing the higher order of uniqueness. I need to know that we are infinitely connected, and that defaulting to calling the police or just writing more policy will only keep us more separate and disconnected.
Change needs new pictures. If I only see one road, I only have one destination, and with only one map, I am robbed of the very thing which makes me Human. Choice. How do I choose a different response if I consult a single script?
If we could look through the unique lenses we each carry, we might be swept up in the excitement of the sighting of a Red-tailed Hawk in The Ramble.
I hope that I meet Christian Cooper, and that when I do, we will not be Black or White.
We will simply be Birdwatchers.
With lots to teach and maybe a whole host more to learn? And isn’t that exciting? For what we teach, we probably know already, but what we learn is up to that moment, as yet undiscovered.
Christian, please come birdwatching in South Africa…
… and don’t forget to bring your binoculars!
P.S. This story reminded me of the simple acronym KAREN:
K Know your rights
A Accuse everyone
R Request a manager
E Escalate to Authority
N Neglect reason
With these as your only set of pictures, it may explain why we end up losing our job, our dog and our minds?
I wonder if we could choose this KAREN?
K Know your neighbor
A Appreciate everyone
R Respect opinion
E Embrace uniqueness
N Never stop learning
It might result in a better world?