NEW YORK >> His binoculars around his neck, Christian Cooper, an avid birder, was back in his happy place on Wednesday: Central Park during migration season. He was trying to focus on the olive-sided flycatchers and red-bellied woodpeckers — not on what had happened there two days earlier.
That was when Cooper, who is black, asked a white woman to put her dog on a leash. When she did not, he began filming. In response, the woman said she would tell the police that “an African American man is threatening my life” before dialing 911.
On Tuesday, the video went viral on Twitter and garnered more than 40 million views, setting off a painful discourse about the history of dangerous false accusations against black people made to police.
The birds were a welcome distraction from thinking about what had happened next: By that day’s end, the woman, Amy Cooper (no relation) had surrendered her dog and had been fired from her high-level finance job. As he wandered the park’s North Woods on Wednesday shortly after dawn, Christian Cooper said he felt exhausted, exposed and profoundly conflicted, particularly about her fate.
“Any of us can make — not necessarily a racist mistake, but a mistake,” he said, “And to get that kind of tidal wave in such a compressed period of time, it’s got to hurt. It’s got to hurt.”
A gray catbird darted around his hiking boots.
“I’m not excusing the racism,” he said. “But I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart.”
He opened his mouth to speak further and then stopped himself. He had been about to say the phrase, “that poor woman,” he later acknowledged, but he could not bring himself to complete the thought.
“She went racial. There are certain dark societal impulses that she, as a white woman facing in a conflict with a black man, that she thought she could marshal to her advantage,” he said.
“I don’t know if it was a conscious thing or not,” he added. “But she did it, and she went there.”
At length, he turned his eyes away from the tops of the London plane trees and continued where he had left off:
“If this painful process — oh, a Baltimore oriole just flew across!— helps to correct, or takes us a step further toward addressing the underlying racial, horrible assumptions that we African Americans have to deal with, and have dealt with for centuries, that this woman tapped into, then it’s worth it,” he said, setting his binoculars down on his chest.
“Sadly, it has to come at her expense,” he added.
On Tuesday, Amy Cooper was fired by her employer, Franklin Templeton, where she had been a head of insurance portfolio management, according to her LinkedIn page.
On his birding walk Wednesday, Christian Cooper said he had read her apology.
He called it “a start.” He said he was not interested in meeting her or in any face-to-face reconciliation.
What he was interested in were birds, like the sighting in 2018 of a rare Kirtland’s warbler that led him to sprint from his office in Midtown Manhattan to the park to catch a glimpse.
Cooper, who now works in communications and lives on the Lower East Side, has fed his passion with birding trips to Central Park and around the world, and he is on the board of the New York City Audubon Society.
He has developed a virtuoso’s ear for their birdsong, and can identify them by chirp. (“There’s a myth that I have the best ears in the park,” he said. “It’s a myth.”)
As he has pursued his passion, he has been keenly aware of the fact that there appear to be few other African American men invested in the hobby, excluded by the same subtle messaging he gets when he is followed around in shops, he said.
And he is aware that the image he cuts — as a man often shuffling the undergrowth after a rare bird, with a metal object, the binoculars, in his hand — can read differently for a black person than for a white person.
It doesn’t stop him.
“We should be out here. The birds belong to all of us,” he said. “The birds don’t care what color you are.”