With the rest of the nation, we pray for the dreadful situation in the Twin Cities of Minnesota after the death of George Floyd in police custody on Monday evening.
Echoing the police killing of Eric Garner in 2014, Floyd was filmed saying, "I can't breathe" and "I'm about to die." His death follows the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky during a police raid of what seems to have been the wrong apartment. Breonna was 26 and an EMT. And then there's the cold-blooded killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot in Georgia while jogging.
But I can't help but think of George Floyd's death in relation to an incident that happened twelve hours earlier in New York City's Central Park. A white woman called 911 to report that an African-American man was threatening her. The man's crime was to have asked her to leash her dog as required by park regulations. The incident came to light because he filmed her call to the police, and the video went viral.
As it happens, the man is Christian Cooper, my Harvard classmate and fellow counselor in the same summer urban program whose campers St. Andrew's has hosted the past seven summers.
Tracked down by a
New York Times
reporter in the same woods at dawn on Wednesday morning, Chris was conflicted. After his video got more than 40 million views, the woman was fired from her high-level finance job and surrendered her dog. Chris said, "Any of us can make a mistake -- not necessarily a racist mistake, but a mistake. I'm not excusing the racism, but I don't know if her life needed to be torn apart."
George Floyd and Christian Cooper confirm how deeply racism is ingrained in our culture and in the hearts and minds of white Americans. When she reached for the race card and made that phone call to the police, it meant that Chris Cooper could have become George Floyd. All of us make racial assumptions. There aren't many African-American birdwatchers. And when a black man is seen in a half-wild section of Central Park with a metal object in his hands (binoculars), the situation is read through the filter of race, and the likes of Chris Cooper are put at risk.
Not that it stops Chris. "We should be out here," he told the
reporter. "The birds belong to all of us. The birds don't care what color you are."
Photo by Brittainy Newman,
New York Times
Sarah Maslin Nir, "The Bird Watcher, That Incident and His Feelings on the Woman's Fate"
New York Times,
27 May 2020.