How 2 Lives Collided in Central Park, Rattling the Nation

By Sarah Maslin Nir

Christian Cooper began his Memorial Day like most of his May mornings, searching for Blackburnian warblers, scarlet tanagers and other songbirds that wing their way into Central Park.

In his Lower East Side apartment, Mr. Cooper, 57, slung on his prize possession, his Swarovski binoculars — a pricey 50th birthday present from his late father. Leaving his boyfriend asleep in bed, he biked three miles away, to the semi-wild section of the park, the Ramble.

Around the same time, Amy Cooper, 40, who is not related to Christian Cooper, left her apartment on the Upper West Side at the edge of the Hudson River. She was with her dog, Henry, a blond cocker spaniel she had rescued and whose romps around the city she chronicled on a dedicated Instagram account.

It was in the Ramble that the two Coopers’ lives collided, an encounter that was brief but would reverberate in New York City and beyond, stirring anguished conversations about racism and hypocrisy in one of the nation’s most progressive cities.

Only a few hours later, George Floyd would be killed in Minneapolis when a police officer pinned Mr. Floyd’s neck under his knee. The two Memorial Day incidents captured on video two facets of entrenched racism black people experience: one the horrors of police brutality, the other the routine humiliations and threats in daily life.

Just before 8 a.m., Mr. Cooper was startled from his quiet birding by Ms. Cooper, who was loudly calling after her dog, he said. He asked her to leash Henry, as the park rules required. She refused.

They exchanged words, and as he recorded on his phone, she threatened to report that “an African-American man is threatening my life,” a false accusation. Then as Mr. Cooper continued to film, she called 911.

The video clip shows that before and during the 911 call, she referred to Mr. Cooper as “African-American,” three times. Mr. Cooper’s sister later posted the clip to Twitter, where it has been viewed more than 40 million times.

Their lives have gone in drastically different directions since then. Amy Cooper was fired from her high-level finance job, temporarily surrendered her dog and has been vilified as the embodiment of racism and white privilege. Christian Cooper has appeared on “The View” and has become such a celebrated figure that a congressional candidate in the Bronx publicized Mr. Cooper’s endorsement.

His experience has also been highlighted by prominent black politicians, from former President Barack Obama to the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, during the protests over Mr. Floyd’s death.

Mr. Cooper said the encounter touched a nerve and evoked a long history of racism. “It’s not about her,” he said in an interview.

“What she did was tap into a deep vein of racial bias,” Mr. Cooper added. “And it is that deep vein of racial bias that keeps cropping up that led to much more serious events and much more serious repercussions than my little dust-up with Amy Cooper — the murder of George Floyd, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and before that Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice.”

Before that day, Mr. Cooper and Ms. Cooper were both successful professionals with prestigious degrees and a love of animals, which drew them to that haven in the city, Central Park. But a deeper look at their lives shows that their encounter was to some extent a telling reflection of their personalities.

Mr. Cooper warmly embraces serious nerdiness, memorizing bird song and learning bits of the Klingon language from Star Trek. But he also has an activist’s bent, bristling at society’s injustices.

He once set up his own nonprofit group to help elect Democrats, and he used his love of comic books to break barriers by creating one of the first gay Star Trek characters.

Among Central Park’s birders, he is considered to be a mentor — even to those who disapprove of his preferred tactic to protect the birds’ sanctuary: He deploys treats to tempt unleashed dogs so that their owners tether them. (During the Central Park encounter, he pulled out one such treat for Ms. Cooper’s dog.)

Ms. Cooper, an immigrant from Canada, can be sensitive and caring, according to her friends, but also seems to have a more contentious side. Neighbors said she had a tendency to get into personal disputes.

Her personal life once spilled into court. A few years ago, according to a lawsuit she filed, she had become involved with a married man and had lent him $65,000. When he did not leave his wife for her, she filed the suit in Manhattan to get back the money, before settling.

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The footage shows Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper in Central Park after he asked her to keep her dog on a leash. The video was posted to Twitter by Mr. Cooper’s sister.

Though Ms. Cooper issued an apology to Mr. Cooper after their encounter, she has not since spoken publicly. The authorities are reviewing whether she can be charged with filing a false police report.

Ms. Cooper did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I reacted emotionally and made false assumptions about his intentions when, in fact, I was the one who was acting inappropriately by not having my dog on a leash,” she wrote in her apology.

“I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause,” she said. “I would never have imagined that I would be involved in the type of incident that occurred.”

Since the video of their encounter went viral, Mr. Cooper has expressed some ambivalence about what has happened to Ms. Cooper’s life.

“I’m not excusing the racism, but I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart,” he said a day after the video went viral.

“There are certain dark societal impulses that she, as a white woman, facing in a conflict with a black man, that she thought she could marshal to her advantage,” Mr. Cooper said. “She went there.”

Credit...Alison Faircloth

Ms. Cooper’s building on the Upper West Side was once known as Trump Place, but the name was removed in a symbolic action against the president by liberal residents.

Around the building, Ms. Cooper was known for her attachment to her cocker spaniel, Henry. She was described as a constant presence on morning walks and at doggy birthday parties.

“From what I saw, she was very devoted to her animals,” said Maria Meade, 60, who lives in a nearby building. “The only thing I’ll tell you is she never spoke directly to a person. She always spoke through her dog, and in a baby voice. It was really bizarre.”

It is not possible to determine to what extent recollections of Ms. Cooper’s behavior are now shaded by news of her encounter in Central Park. Still, some residents said they held her at arm’s length because of what they described as her combative behavior with other dog walkers and the building staff.

Another neighbor, Marisol De Leon, 40, said Ms. Cooper frequently walked Henry unleashed, and became irate when told not to. “There was a sense of entitlement,” Ms. De Leon said.

Alison Faircloth, 37, a neighbor and dog owner, recalled that last winter, she came upon Ms. Cooper on the verge of tears outside the building’s lobby. A doorman had cursed at her for no reason, Ms. Cooper told her. Ms. Cooper vowed to get the doorman fired, Ms. Faircloth said.

But when Ms. Faircloth asked the doorman what had happened, he told her that Ms. Cooper had complained about a broken elevator, then cursed at him after she barged into a security booth and had to be removed by a guard.

“There’s always a narrative from her about someone who has done her wrong,” Ms. Faircloth said.

The building’s management declined to comment.

Before arriving in New York Ms. Cooper lived in Ontario, where she attended the University of Waterloo. She obtained a master’s degree at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, according to her résumé.

She has worked at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and A.I.G., according to her résumé. She spent the past five years at Franklin Templeton, rising to become a vice president of insurance portfolio management, making investments for insurance companies.

It was on that corporate ladder that she met Martin Priest, a married colleague at Lehman Brothers, where, her résumé said, she worked from 2005 to 2008.

In a lawsuit filed in 2015, when she was no longer dating Mr. Priest, Ms. Cooper sought repayment of $65,000. She said she had given him the money to help speed his divorce and pay another woman he was involved with to abort her pregnancy, according to court records.

In the lawsuit, Ms. Cooper said Mr. Priest preyed on her emotions to get the money, promising it would help them to be together.

Instead, she said she discovered that his wife, Tianna, whom he was divorcing, was pregnant — and Mr. Priest was planning to marry a third woman, who was also pregnant, the lawsuit said.

“She was naïve, devastated, heartbroken,” said a person involved in the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the settlement is private.

In an interview, Mr. Priest denied that he’d had a romantic relationship with Ms. Cooper, though he admitted to borrowing the money. He called her a “stalker” who fictionalized their relationship, then erupted when it did not go her way.

In an unusual twist, since the lawsuit, Ms. Cooper has developed a close friendship with Tianna Priest, who is now divorced from Martin Priest, after Ms. Cooper exposed his infidelity to her. Ms. Cooper and Ms. Priest now spend holidays together.

Ms. Priest declined to comment on the Central Park encounter, but praised Ms. Cooper’s professionalism.

“Work, work, work, work, work — she’s a workaholic,” Ms. Priest said. “She loves numbers, so she gets it and she’s good at it.”

To Ms. Priest’s family, Ms. Cooper is a hero, who saved Ms. Priest from a toxic marriage, said Tom Selby, Ms. Priest’s father. He blamed his former son-in-law: “Amy is just another one of his victims,” Mr. Selby said.

A day after the video went viral, internet commenters noted that the Instagram account dedicated to Henry documented injuries that the dog had suffered. That evening, under pressure, Ms. Cooper returned the dog to Abandoned Angels Cocker Spaniel Rescue.

On June 3, the organization said it had given Henry back to Ms. Cooper at her request after its veterinarian found that the dog was in good health.

Credit...Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

On a family road trip when he was 11 years old, Christian Cooper was given a copy of “The Birds of North America” to keep him entertained. By the end of the excursion in a Volkswagen bus with his sister, Melody, and their parents, two schoolteachers from Long Island, he had memorized the entire text, he said, and was identifying the birds that flew by.

He was equally enthralled by comic books, which he parlayed into a career after he graduated from Harvard with a degree in political science.

“‘The X-Men’ was a perfect parable for the gay experience,” he told Wired Magazine in an interview in 1998. “The X-Men looked like everyone else, but they learned a deep secret in adolescence that made them different.”

In the late 1980s, Mr. Cooper served on the board of directors of GLAAD, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and set up his own political action committee to support Democrats for the New York Senate, according to a biography on “Gay USA,” a televised news show about gay issues, which Mr. Cooper occasionally hosts.

In 1998 he launched “Queer Nation,” a pioneering gay web comic that envisioned L.G.B.T.Q. superheroes fighting the scourge of a right-wing world order. It was partly inspired by his parents, he told Wired, who were active in the civil rights movement.

Mr. Cooper is now a senior editor at Health Science Communications, a public relations agency for the health care industry. But his résumé does not diminish the universality to his experience as a black man, some have pointed out.

“I have no doubt that if the police had showed up in the Ramble, a wooded area of the park where Chris had gone bird watching, my brother’s Ivy League degree and impressive résumé would not have protected him,” his sister, Melody, wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times on May 31.

In a series of posts, Marie Javins, a former colleague, tried to make sense of what happened.

“If you’d asked me ‘What do you think Christian would be famous for,’ I’d have guessed for something he’d written, a science-fiction book or maybe the Star Trek comic he used to write where he introduced the first gay character in the history of Star Trek,” she wrote.

She said she never would have expected it would be because a white woman “used the term ‘African-American man’ as a weapon.”

Credit...Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

Above all, the constants in Mr. Cooper’s life have been the thrushes, sparrows and swallows of Central Park.

Just beside the 79th Street Transverse, the semi-wild part of the park called the Ramble is a haven this time of year for migrating birds.

There, special rules to protect them — including that dogs be leashed at all times — often render it a microcosm of the city’s tensions: between nature and urban life; between solitude and socializing.

Mr. Cooper is a well-known presence there, a mentor to neophyte birders who carries gravitas as a member of the board of the New York City Audubon Society.

“He has a method of dealing with dogs. He’ll say, ‘Can you please leash your dog?’ and if they refuse he starts giving the dogs treats,” said Zach McDargh, 29, a research scientist. “Dog owners hate that.”

At about 8 a.m. on Memorial Day, as Henry bounded through the Ramble, and his owner refused to leash him as was required and as she was asked, Mr. Cooper fished in his pockets for those treats.

“Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it,” he recalled saying, in his Facebook post about the incident, before he took out his phone to film the scofflaw behavior.

The video recorded Ms. Cooper as she lunged at him, then threatened to call 911 and claimed that he was threatening her life.

Officers responded to a report of an assault that never happened. The police later characterized it as a “verbal dispute.”

“I was conscious of the fact I was now a target of the cops, and by target, I don’t mean that they are going to necessarily kill me,” Mr. Cooper said later. “That’s never a comfortable feeling when you’re black and under suspicion.”

That morning, aware that the police would most likely be arriving shortly, Mr. Cooper recalled his next steps clearly.

He picked back up his Swarovski binoculars that hung around his neck and continued to look for splashes of feathers atop the London plane trees.

“I was adamant about that,” Mr. Cooper said. “I birded my way out as I normally do.”

Nate Schweber and Alex Traub contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett provided research.