Last May, a video posted on Twitter went viral of Amy Cooper, a white woman, calling 911 on Black bird-watcher Christian Cooper in Central Park after he asked her to abide by the park rules to leash her dog. Over 45 million people watched the video posted by Christian’s sister Melody Cooper, where viewers can see Christian standing at a distance from Amy while he records her reaction. In the video, Amy tells Christian, “I’m going to tell (the police) there’s an African American man threatening my life.”
While this one incident stands out, it’s not the first time we’ve seen a white woman unnecessarily call 911 on a Black person. In April 2018, two Black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia after a woman called the police on them for loitering, according to NBC News. Protests swiftly erupted after the incident, and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson even released a public apology about the 911 call and arrest.
Other white women — “BBQ Becky,” “Cornerstone Caroline” and “Golfcart Gail” — have reached internet infamy after making exaggerated claims about Black people to the police. This is a common enough scenario that the New York Times, Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have made comedic jabs about these women and women like them.
Much like these women without the alliterative nickname, Amy represents a story too often told of white women who weaponize their racial apprehension and create imagined, hyperbolic claims about Black people they perceive as threats. In many of these scenarios, these women escape accountability, despite the harm they cause.
On Feb. 16, it was announced Amy, after being charged for making a false report against Christian, had her charges dismissed, according to the New York Times. In return for having her charges dropped, Amy was offered a deal to attend an educational program about racial bias.
After attending five therapy sessions, which focused on the impact racial identities have on people’s lives, Amy’s case was dismissed. In May 2020, Amy also released a statement apologizing about the incident. In the statement, Amy said she was “well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause …”
After witnessing how quickly and easily it was for Amy to dramatize her feelings of danger and most concerning, use her fragility as a weapon against a Black man, it’s hard for me to say how much I really believe her apology. And, after attending only five therapy sessions, I can’t help but wonder if Amy truly learned her lesson, or if this was simply a performative display to save face and punishment.
The prosecutor of the case, Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, said Amy’s deal to attend therapy was an example of “restorative justice,” a nonpunitive approach to justice which aims to repair the harms caused by a crime and encourage community healing.
Amy’s case only breaches the surface of a larger systemic issue: white privilege. While restorative justice is a worthy approach to strive for in our criminal justice system, Black people are often not privy to this outcome.
The United States holds over 2.3 million people in local, state and federal prisons and facilities, making us the world’s leader in incarceration, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization that publishes research on mass criminalization. Out of those 2 million people, Black Americans make up 40% of the incarcerated population, despite only representing 13% of the U.S. population.
Additionally, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. based research center that aims to spread awareness about racial disparities in the criminal justice system, Black people are more likely than white people to be arrested, be convicted once arrested and face harsher sentences once convicted — a disproportionality that is hard to ignore.
At the local level, racial discrimination continues to fester, including in Springfield. In 2020, from January through March, the City of Springfield and the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights made a survey available to the public to gauge how locals viewed inclusiveness in the Springfield area. Over 2,000 people completed the open-ended question survey.
One of the questions asked participants to recount the experiences of discrimination they have witnessed in the Springfield area. Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin received the most responses.
One of the responses recounted, “I witnessed a young, Black man with no criminal history be sentenced to prison by a now-retired judge. The charge was for selling a small amount of marijuana to another college student. The young man was married, worked full time and was going to college full time. The other people in the courtroom were openly shocked, including the young man’s attorney. On the same day, the same retired judge gave probation to a young white male who had pled guilty to a very serious assault.”
Another question asked respondents to share the barriers they have experienced that have prevented them from fully participating in the Springfield community.
One personal barrier someone described was, “(The) lack of accountability and consequence for a manager at a local business who threatened to call the police on me, oblivious to the fact that calling the police can have deadly consequences for Black people for reasons that should not have to be defended nor explained.”
It may be easy to ignore examples of racial discrimination like these, but they are happening in our community, whether we want to acknowledge them or not.
Black people — since the fruition of our prison system — have been branded as criminals, regardless of if they have committed a crime or not. Simply put, we would rather assume Black people have done something wrong than admit that white people, like Amy, often escalate their racial anxiety and fabricate stories that put Black people in danger. It is time we confront this reality and reject our racial biases that have fueled the racial disparities present in our criminal justice system.
After hearing about Amy Cooper’s case dismissal, I realized I am not upset that she, and many other white people like her, received a lenient and non-punitive outcome for her crime; I am upset that Black people do not get the same treatment. I am upset that restorative justice is not the standard for everyone, and it’s time we begin asking ourselves why that is.
Follow Paige Nicewaner on Twitter, @danny__devitHoe
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