Two weeks ago in these pages I wrote about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man gunned down in cold blood by a trio of south Georgia rednecks in a town near my old high school. As I noted, the murder was horrific enough, though not surprising, as it was part of a long and vile history. But the real outrage was the blithe decision of the local authorities not to charge the killers until public outcry forced a reversal. (One of the accused was affiliated with the local DA’s office.)
As if by design, this week saw two other incidents that join Ahmaud’s murder in a damning triptych.
The first, improbably, was an encounter in Central Park between a woman walking her dog and a birdwatcher.
DOGS AND MASTERS
Here is Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker, describing what happened:
A white woman named Amy Cooper called 911 and told the dispatcher that an African-American man was threatening her. The man she was talking about, Christian Cooper, who is no relation, filmed the call on his phone. They were in the Ramble, a part of the park favored by bird-watchers, including Christian Cooper, and he had simply requested that she leash her dog—something that is required in the area. In the video, before making the call, Ms. Cooper warns Mr. Cooper that she is “going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” Her needless inclusion of the race of the man she fears serves only to summon the ancient impulse to protect white womanhood from the threats posed by black men. For anyone with a long enough memory or a recent enough viewing of the series “When They See Us,” the locale of this altercation becomes part of the story: we know what happened to five young black and brown men who were falsely accused of attacking a white woman in Central Park.
That last point is especially striking. For those who don’t recall, at the time—1989—a loudmouthed young real estate developer and running Spy Magazine punchline named Donald Trump was so incensed that he took out a full page ad in the Daily News calling for the “Central Park Five” to be given the death penalty. (Trial optional.) Even after the five men were belatedly exonerated by DNA evidence and the jailhouse confession of the real rapist, Trump to this day still insists they are guilty.
Oh, by the way: he is now President of the United States. That ought to give you a clue about the state of race relations in the USA.
If you watch the video, Ms. Cooper’s hysteria is absurd, given how calm and reasonable her alleged antagonist was, and how snotty and aggressive she is. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean. Even her mention of Central Park when speaking to the emergency operator seems calculated to summon the ghosts of the infamous 1989 crime.
In fact, her performance is so hackneyed that the video almost looks fake. (IT’S NOT FAKE. I WANT TO BE CLEAR THAT I AM NOT ALLEGING THAT. Her behavior is merely so clichéd, in that way that real life is often more artless than cinema.)
Christian Cooper is a Harvard grad, a former editor for Marvel Comics, and a birdwatcher. Amy Cooper was this terrified by this guy? Since when is “Please obey the rules, ma’am, and leash your cocker spaniel” equivalent to “I’m gonna kill you”?
But as Samuel Getachew points out in the Washington Post, a recitation of the victim’s resume ought not be necessary to excuse him from oppression:
It’s a cycle that repeats itself over and over: Often, when a black person is harassed, or worse, well-meaning people try to illustrate their humanity and harmlessness by highlighting a résumé, trying to draw out evidence of the black person’s innocence by noting their education and talent, rather than emphasizing that simply being human should be enough.
Cooper has been fired from her job as a VP for the investment firm Franklin Templeton, put under consideration for arrest on civil rights charges and/or making a false report to 911, accused of stalking, and subjected to a torrent of abuse and even death threats. (Shades of Justine Sacco, the woman whose texted joke about AIDS and race while on a flight to South Africa went viral.)
She even had to give up her dog to a shelter. Check out how in the course of all this she damn near chokes the thing.
But before we cry a river for Amy, consider what consequences her actions might have had for Christian. A little worse than some bigot-shaming. Mensch-like, he called the attacks on her abhorrent and begged that they stop.
Ms. Cooper has been dubbed “Central Park Karen,” which is funny yet frivolous, given the potentially lethal repercussions of a call like hers: there but for the grace of God, Christian Cooper could have wound up like Amadou Diallo, or Sean Bell, or Freddie Gray. More to the point, it trivializes the broader issue.
It didn’t help that her apologies have rung a bit hollow, shockingly trying to minimize what she had done, focusing on her own suffering, and reflecting the white fragility that likely got her in this position in the first place. “I’m not a racist,” she said in a statement to CNN. “I did not mean to harm that man in any way. (My) entire life is being destroyed right now.”
Speaking to WNBC in New York, she said, “It was unacceptable. And words are just words and I can’t undo what I did. But I sincerely and humbly apologize to everyone, especially to that man and his family.”
Twice—“that man.” He has a name, Amy—YOUR OWN NAME, in fact. Wow.
And “words are just words”? Really? Some words have been known to get people killed. And she seems pretty upset abut the ones that are being leveled at her. Especially that “r-word.”
(According to WNBC’s reporting, she also stands by her allegation that Mr. Cooper was “screaming,” when the video evidence shows nothing of the sort—only her own raised voice and sharp-toned threats to call the cops.)
We’ll come back to Ms. Cooper and the incident in Central Park in a bit. But first, let us turn to its even more evil twin.
“MINNESOTA NICE” TAKES A FALL
The second incident was far more gruesome, and violent, but every bit of a piece.
In case you’ve been in a media blackout along with your covid quarantine, four officers of the Minneapolis Police Department were captured on videotape brutally killing an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd after arresting him on suspicion of passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill.
There is no evidence of him resisting arrest, let alone doing anything that justified deadly force. One of those officers, Derek Chauvin, is seen pressing his knee down on Mr. Floyd’s neck for at least seven minutes, pinning him to the blacktop and cutting off his supply of air as Mr. Floyd pleads (in a bitter echo of Eric Garner) “I can’t breathe!” Numerous onlookers witnessed the killing and shouted for the cops to stop.
When Chauvin finally gets up, Floyd is dead.
Minneapolis has had more than its share of racially-based police homicides, most prominently the killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. No charges were brought against the cops in either case, replicating a longstanding pattern of non-prosecution or acquittal in cities across the country. (See also Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Michael Brown, among others.) In one of the few police shootings in Minneapolis in which the officer was convicted, the killing of Justine Damond, that officer was black and the victim white.
But this one has exploded on the national consciousness for several reasons, chief among them, the sheer, callous brutality of the murder, not to mention the accumulated weight of so many previous episodes of violence by police, many of them lethal, and the shameful lack of justice.
(In a bizarre twist, Mr. Floyd and the police officer who killed him knew each other for many years, having worked security at the same bar.)
Protests are now into their fourth day, and not limited to Minneapolis but all across the country, including a large one going on right now in Brooklyn, half a mile away from where I am writing this, that featured some sporadic violence. I passed through that protest earlier today and can attest that the crowd was both black and white and skewed heavily young. It has the feel of a watershed moment.
There is another big one going on in Louisville, Kentucky, where last March police conducting a drug raid burst into the home of an African-American EMT named Breonna Taylor and shot her eight times, killing her. Turned out they had the wrong address.
Thus are the Central Park and Minneapolis incidents joined at the hip. Andre Henry writes that “If (Amy Cooper) were a slaveholder, or wife of a slaveholder, she might have Christian whipped in public for ‘disrespect,’ but since we’ve ‘evolved’ since the 1800s, she called armed agents of the state, whose institutional roots are inseparable from the plantation, instead.”
His point is borne out by what happened when Minneapolis’s finest arrived to arrest George Floyd.
OVER TO YOU, DON
Now let’s check in with our Dear Leader, who will surely have some profound and inspiring words to help heal the nation at this terrible time.
Asked about the video of George Floyd’s death, Trump’s response was beyond lame: “I feel very, very badly. That’s a very shocking sight. That was a very, very bad thing that I saw. I saw it last night and I didn’t like it…what I saw was not good. Very bad.”
Way to go out on a limb, Gandhi. You could see him visibly struggling to say what he knew he had to say, striving for the bare minimum of acceptable disapproval. Obviously, he had to be careful not to alienate his white supremacist base, who openly admire killer cops who murder black people.
Even as the words left his cakehole, you knew they would have the lifespan of a gnat.
Predictably, less than 24 hours later, after the burning of the 3rd Precinct police station in Minneapolis, Trump took to Twitter (natch) to suggest that the protestors—“THUGS,” as he called them, in his trademark left-the-caps-lock-on style—should be shot. He even used the “looting/shooting” trope that dates back to Miami’s racist police chief Walter Headley in the late ‘60s. He also hinted that he would consider an (unlawful) military response, whatever that means, recalling another famous and repulsive quip, Reagan’s invitation to a “bloodbath” when he was governor of California during antiwar student unrest in 1970.
(Allegations of looting are already overstated, but as David Sirota writes on BillMoyers.com, “In this Orwellian era, working-class people pilfering convenience store goods is called ‘looting,’ while rich people stealing hundreds of billions of dollars is deemed good ‘public policy.’)
As Jelani Cobb pointed out on MSNBC on Thursday night, contrast the militarized cops in Minneapolis—in riot gear, firing tear gas—with the almost superhumanly calm and restrained behavior of the cops in Lansing, Michigan, in ordinary patrol uniforms, even when confronted nose to nose with heavily armed MAGA militiamen spitting in their faces.
In Trump’s world, the angry white people in body armor, bearing AR-15s, waving Confederate flags, and screaming insults as they storm the governor’s office are “very responsible people” with whom Gretchen Whitmer should negotiate. The protestors in Minneapolis, meanwhile, deserve a bullet in the chest.
That would be bad enough if Trump’s vile view was solely his own, but he is president in large part because millions of American agree with him. Weaponizing that bigotry and hate is the backbone of his entire political career.
Meanwhile, polite society and the mainstream media continue to bring a feather duster to a nuclear war. Reporting his threatening tweet, the New York Times’ headline read, “Trump suggests protesters could be shot, and Twitter says the president violated its rules.” Gee, ya think?
Anyway, it was a big week for Karens, as Trump was labeled the Karen-in-Chief for demanding to speak to the manager of Twitter. (Please spare me your angry comments about how “Karen” is an epithet on a par with the n-word.) Maybe it’s a coincidence, but Trump’s increasingly aggressive attacks on the media seem to be having the chilling effect he no doubt intends. In addition to Twittergeddon, his lawyers this week threatened TV stations not to air an anti-Trump political ad or risk losing their FCC license. In Louisville, police brazenly fired pepper bullets directly at a local NBC news crew, also on camera, as they were filming. Live on MSNBC from Minneapolis, Ali Velshi was repeatedly followed and harassed by a man shouting at him, “You’re part of the problem!” (He might have easily been from the far left as the Trumpian right.) Also in Minneapolis, CNN’s Omar Jimenez and two colleagues were arrested on camera and briefly held, despite identifying themselves as press, or perhaps because they did. (The governor quickly expressed regret.) Not for nothing, Jimenez is black. A fellow CNN reporter, who is white, reported that he was similarly confronted by the police, but immediately allowed to go about his business as soon as he identified himself, the same way Jimenez and his crew had. Aberration or no, it’s impossible to disassociate an incident like that from a climate in which racism in law enforcement is the very issue, and the head of state routinely rails that the press is “the enemy of the state.”
As with the pandemic, this is a moment when we could really use some national leadership. Pity.
As many noted, when Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder went to Ferguson, MO in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder and the ensuing outrage, it was seen by the community as a sign that the federal government was taking the matter seriously. Trump and Bill Barr bring with them no such cred. Donald Trump did not put his own literal knee on George Floyd’s neck, but his administration has fanned the flames of hate in this country and put a metaphorical one on the Africa-American community. Lest we forget Trump’s numerous urgings that police be rougher with “criminals” and protestors? Even his craven abdication of the fight against the coronavirus seems predicated in part on the fact that it is disproportionately ravaging communities of color—a strategy that the public health activist (and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow) Greg Gonsalves suggests rises to the level of deliberate genocide.
So while black people get killed in cold blood by the cops, and the Grim Reaper of the pandemic claims its 100,000th victim in the US, and Minneapolis burns, Trump spends his time accusing Joe Scarborough of murder, trying to shut down Twitter, and playing fucking golf.
HANGIN’ WITH MR. COOPER
“I’m not a racist,” Amy Cooper told the press. I don’t know her from Adam (or Eve), but I’m sure she believes that. In fact, it would not surprise me if she prided herself on absolutely not being a racist. (“I don’t see color.” “Some of my best friends….”)
Therein lies the crucial misunderstanding of the term.
“Racism” is not anecdotal, personal prejudice: it is institutionalized oppression. Part of that is subconscious, deeply inculcated socialization that causes whitey (like me) not even to recognize our own privilege or bias.
The first thing Amy Cooper seemed to know is that, as a white woman, she stands above Black people in the racial hierarchy. She knows she is the image of the slave master and he the image of the enslaved, the non-Human—which might explain why she seemed to exhibit offense that a Black man had the gall to hold her accountable to the leash policy of The Ramble. In her decision to call the police, she betrays that the Black man has made the true violation. It is, after all, her prerogative as a white person to police non-white people, not the other way around.
She also seemed to know that, in America’s imagination, she’s the image of the pure, innocent damsel in the distress and that the Black man is perpetually the image of the dangerous criminal….
It would be one thing if Amy Cooper were a red hat-wearing, Limbaugh-listening Trumpette. (One wag on Twitter suggested she will soon receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.) But all available evidence suggests that she is a blue state liberal, culturally at least. (Then again, she does work in investment banking.) Which is actually far more insidious and instructive when it comes to illuminating racism in America.
White violence is not the sole domain of Trump supporters, or open white supremacists. White violence is pervasive, spreading everywhere and tainting everything. And when we overlook liberal white racism, we put ourselves in grave danger, because liberal white people often live closer in proximity to Black folks than their conservative peers….
Many believe that if we just get Donald Trump out of office and replace him with a white liberal or a white moderate, racialized violence will abate in this country. But that’s not necessarily the case. “Moderate” and “liberal” politicians have all aided in such violence becoming the norm as well. Martin Luther King Jr. himself warned of the particular danger of this type of racism. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” he wrote in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
And that lukewarm acceptance can quickly turn into threats or actual violence, when white people that their supremacy and their spaces are being threatened. Assuming that Amy Cooper is a white conservative Trump supporter desensitizes us to the ways in which even “progressive” white people protect their spaces from Black people.
REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER
Alluding to the furor over Colin Kaepernick, a sign at the Minneapolis protests read, “Oh, it’s OK when you kneel?”
On that count, we are about to experience a wave of public tut-tutting—or worse—over the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, complete with pearl-clutching over lawlessness, violence, and anarchy. The hypocrisy is head-spinning.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi of The Antiracist Research & Policy Center writes:
Police violence begets violent resistance. If you want to end the violent resistance, then end the police violence. It is coldblooded to expect any group of people who are being constantly terrorized, brutalized, and killed by police officers to never react in violent rage. It is coldblooded to demonize violent protesters and not the violent source of their rage….
However, let’s not equate violence against property to violence against people. These demonstrators primarily engaged in violence against property. By contrast, officers around the country have been primarily engaged in violence against people.
And don’t call for non-violent demonstrations if you aren’t calling for non-violent police.
Burning down a police station is an extreme step and a jarring sight. But it damn sure got the attention of the nation in a way that a strongly worded letter to the editor (or an angry blog post) somehow fails to do.
I am not advocating burning anything down, and I am actively opposed to hurting any human being—which I hasten to note, is what the MPD did, not the protestors. But the protests in Minneapolis and across the country are an object lesson in the range of options available, if necessary, as we contemplate how to push back against Trump’s efforts (and those of others in the GOP) to rig the upcoming election, among other sins.
Until recently, I have been among those bemoaning the fact that the pandemic has robbed us of the ability to get out in the streets in mass protest, the traditional way to express popular discontent. But these protests show that we can still do so, with powerful results, if the outrage is sufficient.
Then again, this civil unrest, should it continue and even expand, also offers a perfect pretext for Trump and his (selectively) “law & order” proto-authoritarianist regime to take further steps into despotism. In a bitter irony, that will only make civil disobedience and public protest more necessary. At a minimum, Trump will use it to terrify the white electorate and try to drive them into his camp.
As Dr. Kendi says, even getting rid of Trump will not be the end of this virulent hate running through the American bloodstream—a pandemic, one might say—any more than that hate began with his arrival on Planet Earth in 1947.
As of this writing, Derek Chauvin—but only Chauvin—has been arrested and will be charged with third degree murder. It remains to be seen if he walks. It also remains to be seen if that measure causes tempers to cool, and if they should.
Because one thing I know for sure is that George Floyd is not the last black man who is going to be killed by the cops.
Photo: Minneapolis’s 3rd police precinct headquarters in flames. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.
Thanks to Thomas Teufel for referring to me the article from fourthreethree.org.