written by Dorothy Sanders Wells
Christian Cooper has chosen to err on the side of compassion.
In an op-ed appearing in the Washington Post on July 14, Christian Cooper – an African American male writer and birder – says that he has no plans to cooperate with the investigation of Amy Cooper, after she was charged with having falsely reported an incident to police on May 25 when she informed authorities that Christian Cooper was threatening her life during an encounter in New York’s Central Park. Christian Cooper encountered Amy Cooper in a section of the park known as the Ramble, where owners are required to keep their dogs on-leash; Amy Cooper’s dog was not leashed, and Christian Cooper asked her to leash her dog. What ensued – fortunately, video-recorded on Christian Cooper’s phone – was Amy Cooper telling Christian Cooper that she would report to the police that he was threatening her life, and actually phoning police to report this “threat.”
No one can criticize Christian Cooper for choosing compassion for a woman who has lost her employment, temporarily lost custody of her dog, and been subjected to much negative commentary on social media as a result of the encounter; indeed, compassion is a much needed response in the world in which we live.
And while some might suggest that Amy Cooper has already suffered sufficiently for her actions that day, there really can be no ignoring or excusing what Amy Cooper has done, nor can we fail to place her actions in historical context. The charges against Amy Cooper are about more than an unfortunate encounter between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in the Ramble. Her actions in Central Park echo behaviors that have become too-commonplace in our country: To accuse a Black man of committing an act of violence is to create in our culture a credible claim which too often automatically renders the Black man guilty and automatically exonerates other potential perpetrators. Recall the nation’s immediate outrage and sympathy when Susan Smith claimed, in 1994, that a Black man had carjacked her and kidnapped her two young sons in South Carolina; Smith, in fact, had killed her sons, and she was convicted for that heinous crime in 1995. The ruse was good enough for Patricia Ripley to attempt it again in 2020, as she attempted to cover up allegedly having killed her autistic son, claiming that Black men (“drug dealers”) had kidnapped him. Smith’s and Ripley’s claims about the persons who had harmed their sons were at least realized to be false before an innocent Black man’s life could be ruined – or extinguished – for a crime he never committed.
But far too many African American men – from the Scottsboro Boys (1931) to the Central Park Five (1989) – have been accused, tried and convicted without sufficient evidence to tie them to the crimes for which they were accused, in a criminal justice system that is purportedly based upon the principle that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. A visit to The Innocence Project’s website (https://www.innocenceproject.org/) reveals some of the many ways in which our criminal justice system has failed us all – especially African American men – leaving them convicted of crimes for which there is insufficient evidence to even connect them to the crimes and allowing the guilty to remain unpunished.
By the time he was exonerated in 2009, Donald Eugene Gates had served 27 years in prison for allegedly having raped and killed a Georgetown University student in 1981. His conviction had been largely based on the expert testimony of an FBI forensic analyst who, following an internal review of the FBI laboratory, was determined, along with other FBI analysts, to have made false or misleading reports in cases all across the country. DNA testing proved that another man had committed the crimes.
Thomas Haynesworth was only 19 years old when he was arrested, convicted and sent to prison for having raped Janet Burke as she opened her Virginia daycare in 1984. Burke believed that she had gotten a good-enough look at the man who attacked and raped her to be able to identify him; she picked out the man that she was absolutely certain was behind the attack from police photos, and prosecutors moved forward with the case – despite the fact that Haynesworth did not fit the physical description of the attacker given by Burke. In 2009, the state of Virginia reviewed Haynesworth’s case; DNA testing positively identified another man in Burke’s attack. Haynesworth was exonerated in 2011 – 27 years after his conviction.
In May 2018, Gregory Counts and Van Dyke Perry were exonerated of a 1991 conviction for a rape that their accuser finally admitted never actually happened. Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence, and semen recovered from the accuser did not match that of either Counts or Perry, the two men were arrested, tried and convicted. Prosecutors relied heavily on the accuser’s inconsistent testimony about having been kidnapped and raped by three Black men. Counts asked The Innocence Project to review his case and the DNA testing. Once the case was reopened, the accuser admitted that the story had been fabricated; it was all a lie. Van Dyke Perry ended up serving 11 years in prison; Gregory Counts served 26 years in prison.
Hundreds of such accounts appear on The Innocence Project’s case list. For how long – and for how many reasons – will these travesties of justice continue? Our country’s painful history of wrongly accusing and convicting African American men must be acknowledged, and cannot continue to be swept under the proverbial rug; systems that perpetuate wrongful arrests and convictions must come to an end.
Christian Cooper cannot err by responding with compassion to the mercilessness and indifference that Amy Cooper showed him. Our world needs to be a place in which all humankind shows the same compassion to Christian Cooper as he has shown to a woman whose actions showed anything but compassion toward him. Our Christian scriptures tell of a Jesus who knew compassion for God’s people – and responded with healing touches; it is his compassion that we should seek to emulate.
But our world cannot be a world of compassion until we seek and demand justice for all of God’s people, and craft a new narrative in which Black men are no longer seen as threats and scapegoats, but are seen as humans made in the image and likeness of God and whose lives are valued.
The Rev. Dr. Dorothy Sanders Wells is a priest and pastor who loves to write. Not surprisingly, much of her writing is devoted to themes of justice and equity for all people.