Amy Cooper was not afraid. In the now-infamous Ramble video, we can clearly see her entitlement and rage. We see her losing control because her privilege to exercise unfettered autonomy was challenged by Christian Cooper, a birder who requested that she respect leash-law rules. Christian’s video revealed the falsehood of Amy’s call to the police, in which she assumes a distressed voice and begs them to help her because an “African American” man was “threatening” her.
Once exposed, Amy apologized via media interview for her behavior and insisted she is “not a racist.” She further noted that she, in retrospect wrongly, regarded the police as a cost-free “protection agency” but that she now understood that “there are so many people in this country that don’t have that luxury.”
But Amy didn’t call the cops because she was scared of Christian the birder. That much is obvious from the video. She called them to prevail in a power struggle with a black man who dared to challenge her authority to do as she wished in public. She knew that in the contest with Christian, who used cellphone video to advance his effort to get her to leash her dog, she had an ace in the hole—the ability to activate a presumptively racist police force against an “African American” man. And what an advantage that is. A Minneapolis police officer’s horrific execution of George Floyd is just the latest in a mountain of evidence that such a call can equal a death sentence.
For decades, conservative and liberal women alike have been taught that the key to empowerment against men who pose a threat, real or imagined, is to call the police. As high as the stakes were for Christian, they were nonexistent for Amy. For upper- and middle-class white women, the demographic least likely to be arrested or face state violence, a call to the police appears to be a no-lose proposition.
The modern alliance between police and white women formed in the late 1970s, in the wake of an intrafeminist debate over how to best combat domestic violence. Feminists who harbored skepticism toward the “warmongering” police at first worried about calling in the cops, but soon their desire to “activate police protection for the abused wherever possible” trumped fears over “the extension of discretionary powers of arrest so open to abuse, particularly against Third World and low-income people,” as one early activist put it. As Donna Coker, an expert on the dynamics of domestic violence, has noted, white women are “seldom aware of the degree to which white privilege protects them from police suspicion and surveillance.” As one black feminist activist observed, “I think White women talked more as if the courts belonged to us [all women] and therefore should work for us where we [women of color] always saw it as belonging to someone else and talked more about how to keep it from hurting us.”
But white women’s ability to accrue power against men, especially black men, via police enforcement has a long history. The infamous Scottsboro Boys case illustrates this. Two working-class white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, had been on a train where several black boys were “hoboing.” They subsequently fabricated that the boys gang raped them, inciting a lynch mob, to protect themselves from potential prostitution charges.
Such a ready invocation of police protection is not necessarily “feminist.” In fact, gendered police protection was historically rooted in notions of women as men’s property that could be violated or stolen by other men. In 1977, then–ACLU lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed an amicus brief in Coker v. Georgia, the case that stuck down capital punishment for rape of a woman. Ginsburg submitted the brief “on behalf of a large segment of the women’s legal community who oppose the death penalty for rape as a vestige of an ancient, patriarchal view of women as the property of men.” It argued, “Rape of white women by black men threatened the white man’s status by decreasing the value of his sexual possession, and by jeopardizing the purity of his race, and it was therefore necessary to take extreme measures to prevent this result. Lynching was one such measure; and the death penalty for rape—particularly when perpetrated by blacks—was another.”
In short, white women have become accustomed to asserting power over men, especially black men, through policing. That’s why Amy’s decision to call the police, even though it was she who broke the park rules, was sadly unsurprising. Her entitlement is all too familiar. The media has been saturated with images of similar entitlement and rage in recent weeks, as throngs of predominantly white Americans protest COVID-19 business closures and demand their states resume business as usual, knowing that black lives disproportionately hang in the balance. These white protesters, who know they have the privilege to be armed and intimidating without facing police violence, are rejecting a shared responsibility for safe public spaces. Christian Cooper’s offense was to insist that Amy Cooper, too, had a responsibility to protect a shared public space. Amy’s response demonstrated that public safety is not shared by all.