David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 31, 2020
It’s hard to see that we are making progress.
The Minneapolis police killing of a man in custody the day after a New York Central Park racial incident involving a white woman’s hysterical 9-1-1 call threatening to activate the police against a black man while he was birdwatching is disturbing. In this era of social media, widespread use of cellphone video technology, and COVID-19-induced social anxiety, the legal and political system appear woefully inadequate.
In Minneapolis, another black man, 46-year old George Floyd, suffocated in police custody when three police officers, one with his knee on the back of his neck, pinned Floyd, who was already handcuffed, to the ground for eight minutes while bystanders urged the police to let him breath as they filmed the incident for social media. Why would police do that? They were not threatened. What were they thinking, with their hands in their pockets, all macho-like, three of them, with a fourth supervising, holding down a handcuffed man?
Not unexpectedly, violent protests in the Twin Cities ensured for several nights and were exacerbated by the county prosecutor saying it would take time to examine the evidence, and not all the evidence supported charging the four officers, who have been fired from the police department.
The Central Park unleashed dog incident, while much smaller in scale, is also distressing. Early on Memorial Day, Christian Cooper, a black man, was birdwatching in a section of Central Park when Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman, approached him with her unleashed dog, in violation of the posted requirement that dogs be on a leash so as to reduce scaring away of birds. Mr. Cooper asked her to leash her dog. Their interaction went viral on social media and is available on YouTube along with dozens of commentaries.
The incident is a textbook depiction of “white privilege,” a term I am slow to use. Watching the YouTube video, most would agree that Ms. Cooper is asserting the power of intimidation by shouting at the birdwatcher, and then at the 9-1-1 operator, that “there is an African American man threatening me and my dog.” It is impossible not to conclude that Ms. Cooper expected law enforcement to intercede on her side. What would cause a white woman to instigate such a confrontation?
Of course, the first hypotheses is that Ms. Cooper was fearful, as any women might be, when bumping into any man, white or black, on a path in Central Park. We are in a sorry state if that is true, but women, and men, should look out for their own safety. It is likely Ms. Cooper had walked in Central Park before and would have brought along pepper spray if she thought it was necessary. She most certainly would not repeatedly have moved toward Mr. Cooper as she shouted at him as he stood still.
On the contrary, I submit that Ms. Cooper took offense at being corrected by a black man, by having it pointed out that her failure to leash her dog invaded his opportunity to enjoy birdwatching in Central Park. Our prevailing culture is alert to occurrence of men threatening women, but it gives lots of leeway for whites to intimidate blacks and then implicitly claim they were afraid.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Tom’s offense was feeling sorry for a white woman; in Central Park, Ms. Cooper’s complaint was that a black man asked her to comply with the law. It is unlikely she felt her safety was threatened or she would not have advanced toward him saying “please stop filming.” She must have felt insulted that she was being corrected by a black man.
The Central Park incident is minor compared to the recent record of police killings of black men dating back to that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, but as a social problem it may be more widespread. Sadly, reader comments and reactions to major news articles about the Central Park incident give credence to black men feeling unsafe due to the potential distorted claims of white women. In 2015, during the protests on the Mizzou campus, I asked an African American graduate student if he ever felt unsafe on campus. His reply: “Only when I’m walking in a parking garage at night and about three white undergraduate women are walking towards me.”
Bad police behavior needs to be outlawed and punished. The price of the social unrest in the Twin Cities should motivate Minnesota and national policymakers to address police practices. Social media will continue to capture, and circulate, videos of police overreaction until such bad practices are stopped.
Likewise, white personal attitudes about blacks, particularly black men, need quiet reflection, examination and corrective action. Ms. Cooper states that she is not a racist. Apparently she has contributed to so-called liberal causes and candidates, yet when confronted with an uncomfortable situation, of her own making, she played the race card — she attempted to intimidate a black man by threatening to bring law enforcement, a system that Mr. Cooper likely distrusts, down on him because he asked her to comply with the law.
Part of whites’ racial reeducation certainly involves learning factual history and awareness of the African American experience, but in 2020 it requires that whites accept blacks in leadership roles such as in the Minneapolis police departments, as sports coaches, schoolteachers, doctors, judges, and as president.
Again, just like Rodney King’s question “Can’t we all get along?” after the Los Angeles 1992 violence and the calls for forgiveness for Dylann Roof, the shooter in the 2015 Charleston church murders, it was the victim, Mr. Cooper, who showed mercy for the offender. He questioned whether Ms. Cooper being fired by her investment firm employer for her racist behavior was appropriate. Now it is time for police departments to examine their behaviors taking black men’s lives. Way too often, an apology, and a legal settlement, is due.