When I was 12 years old, I created a rule to preserve my sanity: I don’t watch videos of Black people dying.
I came to this decision at breakfast in the lobby of a LaQuinta Inn in New Mexico. There was a TV in the corner blasting Fox News coverage of the police shooting of Michael Brown. They kept on showing the same reel of his body just lying in the middle of the street, blocked off by police tape.
I remember mindlessly stuffing pieces of syrup-soaked waffle into my mouth, staring at the dark outline of his back on the pavement, and trying to figure out why I felt like I was suffocating. I’ve avoided videos like it for the rest of my life. It’s not like I’m missing anything; they’re all different, but they’re all the same.
On May 26, there were two videos going viral on Twitter. The first was the murder of George Floyd, which I didn’t watch. The second depicted an encounter in Central Park, which I did watch, mostly by accident, because a friend texted it to me with the addendum: Why is this lady literally choking her dog? I opened it.
“I’m taking a picture and calling the cops!” a white woman, Amy Cooper, yells, voice slightly muffled by her mask.
A disembodied voice responds. “Please call the cops.”
“I’m going to tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life.”
“Please tell them whatever you’d like.”
At this point I almost close it, disgusted, but I stop myself. Amy Cooper moves backwards a few steps, pulls down her mask, and puts her phone to her ear. She speaks rapidly. “I’m in the Ramble and there’s a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet, he’s recording me and threatening me and my dog.”
Beside her, true to my friend’s description, her dog, which she’s holding by the collar, does indeed appear to be choking. It makes a loud gagging noise and she finally sets it down. Her voice rises in intensity. “There is an African American man recording me in Central Park. He is threatening myself and my dog. I am being threatened by a man in the Ramble! Please send the cops immediately! I’m in Central Park in the Ramble, I don’t know!”
“Thank you,” Christian F. Cooper ’84 says, calm, with only the slightest hint of irritation. The video ends. God, what a horrible woman, I remember thinking. And then I realized, from my reaction alone, that this particular video would be received very differently from the others. The black man didn’t die, and the white woman who called the police on him was obviously not the victim.
The encounter in the Ramble, a dense woodland area in New York City’s Central Park, changed the trajectory of both Amy and Christian Cooper’s lives. By the time the police arrived, the pair had left the park. By lunch that day, Christian Cooper had posted the video on Facebook and his sister, Melody, had reposted it to Twitter. From there it began to spread, racking up tens of millions of views and garnering attention from major news outlets.
It’s perfect outrage-bait: Years after the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, a white woman weaponizes race on camera to sic the police on a Black man. A trick that might ordinarily work in Amy Cooper’s favor doesn’t, probably because it was recorded. She has been embedded in the national consciousness as a villain.
Meanwhile, miraculous details of Christian Cooper’s life circulate social media: He is a Harvard alumnus, an avid birder, a board member of the New York Audubon Society, a former editor and writer at Marvel Comics. He walks around Central Park in hiking boots, Star-Trek t-shirts, a bandana, and what he describes as “little round nerdy eyeglasses,” clutching a pair of binoculars. He gives dozens of media interviews in the wake of the encounter and answers questions flawlessly. Inevitably, pundits highlight his demeanor in the moment, how calm he remained while facing Amy Cooper. Articles written about him list his accolades — “Christian Cooper, a 57-year-old, Harvard-educated science editor,” — as if they were a distillation of his essence.
On July 7, Christian Cooper told the New York Times that he would not assist in Amy Cooper’s prosecution. “Bringing her more misery just seems like piling on,” he said at the time.
When I first spoke with Cooper over an hour-long Zoom call from my kitchen, I was really trying to understand this choice.
Eventually, I came to the following conclusions: It’s not that he thinks that Amy Cooper shouldn’t be punished — he does. He’s not an abolitionist. And he’s certainly not interested in reconciling with her.
But his decision not to assist the prosecutor in pressing charges complicates the binary of villain and victim to which the United States has clung amid this “racial reckoning.” To single her out specifically for more punishment, to make it seem like her behavior was particularly anomalous, misses a deeper point about the terror that police inflict on Black Americans. According to his July op-ed in The Washington Post, it “lets white America off the hook.”
Christian Cooper, who has been intimately involved with movements for social justice his entire life, who has lived 57 years as a Black man in America, has always understood that a Harvard degree and a penchant for birdwatching can’t always protect him. In fact, he would probably view that observation as rather mundane. He would much rather focus on creating a system where he doesn’t need protection in the first place.
Christian Cooper’s father had a saying: “I’m not gonna let anybody tell me where I can or can’t go.”
Both Cooper’s mother and father were teachers. Every summer, they’d set out on long road trips around the U.S. and Canada, piling into their Volkswagen Westphalia Camper with their family dog, an English cocker spaniel. They knew that a Black family wouldn’t be welcome everywhere they went.
On one of these trips, somewhere in the middle of the country, the family stopped for food at a diner. They walked in, sat at the counter, and waited. And waited.
A white couple walked in past the Coopers and was served immediately. The Coopers sat and watched, humiliated.
“My dad was livid,” recalls Melody Cooper, Christian’s younger sister. “He’s like, ‘Excuse me, we were here before they were and you haven’t taken our order yet.’ And the waitress was like, ‘Well, you’ll just have to wait.’”
Then, a surprising turn: The white couple refused to pay until the Coopers had been served. The waitress wouldn’t budge, and both the Coopers and the white couple walked out.
That experience wasn’t out of the ordinary for the Coopers. They lived in the newly-integrated town of Uniondale, near Long Island’s lily-white planned communities. Christian and his sister were schooled very early in activist movements; his parents were active in their area chapter of the Coalition for Racial Equality.
One winter, Long Island received a particularly harsh snowstorm, piling several feet of snow on the ground. The city refused to plow the Black section of town. Furious, Cooper’s father organized a group to block traffic on Jerusalem Avenue, the town’s color line, until snowplows came into their neighborhood.
Throughout Christian and Melody’s childhoods, their parents took them to protests in Jersey City over racial injustice. “There’s pictures of them on post-civil rights protest marches with me in a stroller and my sister toddling along,” Christian? Cooper says, smiling. “It just sort of formed this ethic that if you see something wrong in the world, it’s your personal responsibility to do something to fix it. So you don’t get to throw up your hands and say, ‘Oh, isn’t this terrible.’ You have to take action.”
The Coopers also grew up with a deep connection to the natural world — Cooper’s father was a biology teacher. At ten years old, his parents made him enroll in a woodworking class where he built a bird feeder; ever since, he’s been hooked.
He doesn’t even have to see a bird to identify it. For Cooper, to be outside is to be automatically attuned to the birdsong around him. He has trained himself to filter out other sounds to focus specifically on bird calls, learning the differences in their cadences and pitches, the patterns in how they communicate with each other. He identifies birds without consciously knowing he’s doing it.
“It’s like a sixth sense, almost,” he said in an interview with PBS’s NOVA. In that same interview, the hosts play him a series of bird calls to test his skills. He gets every single one right. “There’s a myth that I have the best ears in the park,” he told the New York Times. “It’s a myth.”
Cooper seems like he’s most comfortable when he’s talking about birds — his face lights up as he makes a gesture or mimics a sound. “They just capture the imagination in a way that few other creatures can, principally because they can fly. I mean, that absolute freedom, that ability to go up to a place that is normally beyond reach,” he says. “They have a whole new axis of physical perception of dimension of movement. How amazing is that if your brain worked in that way?”
Then, he grins. “They're also cool because they’re dinosaurs,” he adds.
He’s protective of the Ramble, and other places where birds live and breed. “I just have no patience for people who have no regard for the other living things that we share the planet with,” he says.
It was that principle that brought him into conflict with Amy Cooper in Central Park. She had left her dog unleashed in the underbrush of the Ramble, potentially disturbing nesting habitats for birds. Aware that this was a common problem, Cooper and other birders had started recording people who violated the leashing policy to encourage the city to enforce it.
“That’s not an option in my family — just sit there and do nothing,” Cooper says. “You’ve gotta do something to fix it.”
Christian Cooper says that the primary reason why he decided to go to Harvard was because, “I’m fucking smart.”
But I wonder if there were any other factors in his decision. Like Cooper, I grew up in a segregated suburb of New York, which at times has given me an unhealthy preoccupation with what white people think of me. I knew that I had to subvert their expectations before they projected them onto me; going to Harvard, I intuited, would be helpful to this goal.
Sometimes, I thought I saw that line of thought in Cooper. “There’s a reason why I never wear contact lenses,” he told Gayle King in an interview with CBS. “Because people react differently to Black men who wear little round nerdy eyeglasses and to one who doesn’t.”
So I ask him about it. He acknowledges that he probably felt something similar, albeit subconsciously. “[Harvard] is what makes us safe. It’s a guarantee of our non-menacing-ness. Because all Black men are menacing unless we have little round glasses or we have Harvard degrees, right?” he says sarcastically.
Not that this always works, at least upon first encounter. “People will ask, ‘Where did you go to school?’ And I’ll say ‘Harvard’ and they’ll look at me and say, ‘Howard?’ And I’m like, ‘no’.”
Cooper arrived at Harvard thinking that he’d study Government and become a lawyer, influenced by the activists in his family. He quickly changed his mind about law, but he stuck with Government, even though he never felt that it really called to him. “I was just getting through college,” he says. “I didn’t even write a thesis.”
“It was his routine to do whatever work had to be done in the eight hours before it was due,” says one of his then-roommates and close friends, Mike M. Phillips ’84. “I don’t know how he did that. That would have made me insane. But he always did that. And I assume to this very day does that.”
His favorite classes were in ornithology and English. He has particularly fond memories of a class he took in modern literature. “I’ve always had this storytelling urge and so it was intriguing to see what other people had done with that urge,” he says. “Plus, the professor was hot.” The professor, it should be noted, was a man.
Throughout his first semester at Harvard, Cooper had been keeping a secret: He was gay. But by his first reading period at Harvard, he had reached a breaking point. It was January, and Cambridge was bitterly cold. The sun rose late and set early. “I always go into a mini-depression in January or February,” he says.
He had known that he was gay for a while before then, but in the seventies, “it was death to be out in high school,” he recalls, so he initially kept it to himself. When he saw the Gay Students Association listed as a club in a Harvard admissions packet, he was hopeful that that might change. “I clung to this idea that when I got to Harvard I would be free!” he says.
That didn’t happen right away, though. He very quickly became close with his suitemates in Hurlbut. But initially, he wasn’t sure if he could come out to them.
“I was an idiot,” Phillips says. “We were so stupid. I remember we were at the student union, and we went by the gay students table, and I said something like, ‘Gosh I’m glad you’re not sitting there, Chris.’”
Phillips seems to wince through the phone as he tells me this. “I’m sure it was a hard thing for him to hear me say,” he continues. “If I could rewrite the script, I would not say that.” Cooper himself never brings up this particular anecdote, which Phillips says, “is an act of kindness.”
“Finally, reading period came and I was like, I can’t take it anymore,” Cooper says. Over the course of a single night he came out to all of them.
“The shock of that lasted about four seconds and then we’re like, ‘Oh, okay.’ And that was pretty much it,” Phillips recalls. “And then, you know, Chris took us to a gay dance club or something.” he adds. “We were just a really compatible group through all four years of college and Chris was the heart and soul of that.”
This month, Cooper published a comic with DC called “It’s a Bird,” about a Black teenage birdwatcher named Jules who is given a pair of magical binoculars. When Jules points the binoculars at a bird, he sees not just the bird, but also dead victims of police violence. It’s supposed to be a reminder of the stakes of the fight for racial justice — if we don’t change, more people will die.
Growing up, Cooper loved comics. Throughout college he frequently visited a comic store called The Million Year Picnic, which still stands in the Square today. “I discovered all sorts of wonderful, fantastic, crazy, nutso worlds and stories in that wonderful little place,” he says.
His sister says Cooper has always used comics to express his vision of justice. “He saw that the whole idea of being able to fight the bully, fight the wrong, was not just in something that my parents taught us,” she says.
Right out of college, Cooper became an assistant editor at Marvel Comics, which he says was “the one time it might have almost hurt” to have a Harvard degree. “They looked at my resume and they said, ‘You’re way overqualified for this job.’ I said, ‘I don’t care! I will Xerox ‘til my fingers are bloody! I just want to be in the place.’ Fortunately, they looked past Harvard on my resume.”
While working at Marvel, Cooper edited Alpha Flight, a series about a group of Canadian superheroes. There, he helped introduce Marvel’s first openly gay superhero, Northstar.
“It’s funny because I had read Alpha Flight from its first issue at Harvard in freshman year,” he says. “And [there’s] nothing explicit but by the end of the first issue I was like, ‘Northstar is gay.’”
So when a new writer for the series suggested that Northstar should come out, Cooper and another editor thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea.”
They had no idea that they’d started a controversy. “Marvel completely shut us down,” Cooper says. “They couldn’t stop the issue coming up, but they wouldn’t let us talk about it.” Cooper began to receive hate-mail from readers, including from a comic book store owner in Texas who complained that he’d now be forced to put Alpha Flight in the adult section and wrap the cover in paper. “I’m like, ‘Really? It’s not Playboy; it’s Alpha Flight.’”
In 2012, two decades after Cooper helped establish him as a gay character, Northstar was given the first same-sex wedding in Marvel history, in the series “Astonishing X-Men.” In contrast to 1992, the issue was not played down by executives; in fact, the event was depicted on the front of the comic. “Times change,” Cooper says wryly.
In 1999, Christian Cooper spent a night in The Tombs.
The Tombs is a nickname for the Manhattan Detention Complex, an imposing 15-story brutalist structure with slits for windows near Chinatown. It’s a jail that usually holds men who can’t make bail, and has a long history of violence and corruption. Cooper remembers being put with several other men in a small room with a toilet in the corner. “They wake you up at 3 a.m. to throw you Wonder Bread with a slice of baloney between it to feed you,” he says. “It’s just a vile experience.”
Cooper had been protesting the killing of Amadou Diallo, a Ghanian immigrant who was shot by the New York Police Department 41 times on his own doorstep. New York was consumed with protests — “Black Lives Matter before they called it Black Lives Matter,” Cooper says. Thousands took to the streets. “Some cop came up and smacked the sign out of my hand and grabbed me and carted me off,” Cooper says. “And that’s the one where I ended up in The Tombs.”
This was actually the third time something similar had happened to him. “There’s a family joke that you’re not a Cooper unless you’ve been arrested at a protest,” he once said in an interview with CBS.
The second time was also at an Amadou Diallo protest a few weeks earlier. For two weeks in March of that year, thousands of protestors sat in front of police headquarters carrying signs reading, “I'm Afraid of the NYPD” and, “Adolf Giuliani” (a reference to the harsh law-and-order tactics of then-mayor Rudi Giuliani). Eventually, more than 1,200 people were arrested, including Cooper and his father. “That was actually actually a very bonding experience, to be arrested with my dad,” he says.
The first time was at a protest against anti-gay violence. Around the same time Cooper was at Marvel he was also active in the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which was formed at the height of the AIDS epidemic to counter homophobic media narratives. GLAAD frequently protested outlets like the New York Post and persuaded the New York Times to use the term “gay” instead of “homosexual.” Eventually, Cooper became co-chair of GLAAD’s board of directors.
Cooper is a believer in street activism and protests, though in recent years his work has mostly been concerned with the “less sexy” aspect of enacting change — what he calls “political maneuvering.” When the New York State Senate was still held by Republicans, he created a political action committee (PAC) called “No More R.E.P.T.Y.L.s.” R.E.P.T.Y.L.s — pronounced “reptiles” — stands for, “Republicans toying with your life.”
The PAC was meant to support challengers of Republican incumbents with the goal of flipping the State Senate. This was particularly important to LGBTQ+ New Yorkers; the state had yet to pass anti-discrimination protections or legalize gay marriage, despite the fact that states around them had. “No More R.E.P.T.Y.L.s” itself wasn’t particularly long-lived — “I was never very good at fundraising”, Cooper says — and later became an email list which he used to solicit donations for important races in New York.
In 2012, Democrats won a numerical majority in the New York Senate — though they wouldn’t gain an actual majority until 2018 — a moment that fills Cooper with pride.
I’m sure my jaw was hanging open as he told me all of this. In all my research, this part of his background never came up; the media sometimes vaguely referred to him as a “community activist” or brought up his parents’ activism — but never mentioned his own. The fact that he’s been doing this kind of work for years, long before Amy Cooper, strikes me as important: it makes his media appearances, and his decision not to prosecute, seem a little more deliberate. He knew change wouldn’t come by focusing on her, but by focusing on the system.
Throughout our conversation, there’s only one thing I find genuinely difficult to understand about Christian Cooper. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining that he declined to assist in the prosecution of Amy Cooper because he “suffered no harm, physical or mental,” from her actions.
The first clause of this statement is obvious, since he never interacted with the police. The second is a little harder to comprehend. How is it possible to leave an encounter that could have resulted in your murder and be mentally fine?
To this day, his sister is haunted by what could have gone wrong. “The thing that I saw [in the video] was him being held out on the ground,” she says. “And he was going to be choked.”
Christian Cooper is aware of this. But after 57 years of life where “you have the taxicab go by without stopping, you get followed through the store because you’re a Black person, all those indignities big and small, that toughens up your skin.”
This, I think, is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard. Not that I don’t get the sentiment. When the nation was consumed with protests in June, I started getting text messages from white people that basically boiled down to, are you okay? My initial reaction was always, why wouldn’t I be? If I went to pieces every time a Black person was murdered, I’d never be able to get out of bed. So, yes, I’m okay. Maybe that speaks to something deeper in me that is not actually okay.
Immediately after his encounter with Amy Cooper, Christian Cooper went to a place he knew would ground him: to the park, to go birding and reset. “I was like, I’m just not going to give this woman the power to wreck my psyche. You’re just not that important,” he says. “You don’t have the agency to comb my soul like that. I’m done with you.”
I have no idea how he manages to react this way. I ask him if this was some deliberate philosophy of forgiveness, perhaps trying to find something that I could absorb myself. Nope. “It wasn’t about ‘Oh, I’m gonna set myself free by forgiving her,’” he says. “I didn’t feel captive.”
Of course, not everybody agreed with his decision. On Twitter, and among many in the Black community, there was blowback. “This ain’t about you anymore Christian. You have to do this for the next Black person because the next one won’t be as lucky if they run into another Amy Cooper who will succeed. Stop this nonsense of forgiveness.” read one viral Tweet. Cooper doesn’t usually look at social media, but allows that “the pieces of it I saw were painful. I felt like, in some respects, I let a lot of people down.”
But he still can’t villainize Amy Cooper. “I approach it the way I do it because I was there. And yeah, she’s a deeply flawed human being who did a shitty racist thing, and may still be doing shitty racist things.” he says. “But still, I can’t help but see her as a human being because I was there.”
He and his sister, who agree on almost everything else about the Black Lives Matter movement, diverge slightly here. “He looks at it from a very personal perspective. You know, he went out birding and he was fine,” Melody Cooper says. “I said, ‘Chris, the police wouldn’t have known you went to Harvard; if they had shown up, you wouldn’t have been able to pull out your resume and show it to them.’”
Harvard is important to this, though, if only in the aftermath. The media framing of the facts of his life seems to be something like, how could you call the police on someone like that? Of course, this treatment itself raises some questions, namely around whether it implies that Amy Cooper would’ve been justified had he fit more easily into stereotypes around Black men.
Usually, victims of racism and police brutality are portrayed in the inverse manner — someone always takes pains to emphasize that, “they were no angel.” It happened to George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and countless others. It didn’t matter if friends described them as a “gentle giant,” or if they were about to go to college, or if their children relied on them; there was always some element of character assassination.
Maybe some of the anger directed towards him comes from frustration over this media narrative. Why does a Black man have to have a Harvard degree to be treated like a human? As his sister wrote in the New York Times, he has been perceived as a “Good Negro” — the kind of Black person who allows “white people to feel comfortable.” The kind of Black person whose forgiveness shows that he’s not a threat.
His pronouncement that he wouldn’t cooperate with the prosecution was greeted by the rest of America with headlines praising his “justice and mercy,” and approving op-eds from outlets like the New York Post (which itself has a troubling history with racist coverage). His extension of empathy to a white woman whose actions could have killed him seems to have cemented his goodness in the minds of many white onlookers..
Cooper thinks that a lot of these takes miss the point. “I’m a little bit like, great, white people love me.” He says sarcastically. “It’s like, I’m not doing this for you. Whatever I do, it’s because I want to move this conversation forward, and it’s for all of us, but in particular for Black people.”
But he also understands where his critics are coming from. “There’s a principle to be upheld here,” he says. But ultimately, he thinks that she’s already received a punishment proportionate to the harm she committed.
More than anything, though, he would rather not focus on Amy Cooper because he doesn’t think it’s about her. As he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “Focusing on charging Amy Cooper lets white people off the hook… they can scream for her head while leaving their own prejudices unexamined.” To place all the attention on Amy Cooper, to paint her as a complete villain, would make her seem like an anomaly. And as Christian Cooper knows all too well, she’s not out of the ordinary at all.
Cooper suggests instead that we direct our energies toward changing the system itself. This is where he and his sister are in complete agreement. He seems leery of some of the more radical proposals coming out of this moment, though he allows that the idea of defunding the police — redirecting funds from policing to social services to get at the underlying sources of crime — “has a lot of merit.” Police officers, he points out, are expected to perform a variety of duties that might be better addressed by trained professionals. “Defund the police is a stupid slogan, though,” he qualifies. “Turns so many people off and is easily caricatured.”
A few weeks after the incident with Amy Cooper, Christian Cooper took Good Morning America with him birding in the Ramble. In July, Central Park becomes intensely green; yellow rays of morning light filter through the trees. It’s early, just after dawn, and there are few people around. His conversation is wide ranging, from Amy Cooper to Marvel, punctuated by bird sightings — “There’s a flicker here! Great crested flycatchers!” When he at last catches a glimpse of a bird he hasn’t seen in a while, his face splits open into a grin.
This scene is perhaps reminiscent of another, several years earlier. This one took place in the winter, in the wake of Cooper’s divorce, at the Franklin Mountain Hawkwatch in Oneonta, a town in upstate New York ringed by gentle peaks. It’s one of the few places in the Northeast where golden eagles are frequently sighted. Cooper doesn’t drive, so he reserved a bus ticket and a hotel to stay in overnight. “I just thought, you know what? I’m free and I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to justify it to anybody and goddamnit I’m gonna go up to Oneonta because I’ve always wanted to do that.”
He left his hotel in a taxi before dawn, cold wind whipping his face as he stood and waited at the top of Franklin Mountain, the town spread out underneath him. And then they appeared; dozens of golden eagles, coasting in on the incoming cold front, free to roam the skies as they pleased. And that made the trip worth it.
— Staff writer Rebecca E. J. Cadenhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ibuprofenaddict.