The "Central Park Karen" and the Problem of Viral Racism Videos

A podcast adds new details to the Amy Cooper story. But the bigger problem is the trend of convicting people of racism based on out-of-context clips.

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In May 2020, Amy Cooper gained instant infamy as the “Central Park Karen”—the ultimate symbol of toxic white womanhood—when a viral video showed her telling a black fellow New Yorker who had asked her to leash her dog that she would call the cops and say that “an African-American man is threatening me.” But is there another side to the story? Recently, two journalists from the “anti-woke” counterculture, Bari Weiss and Kmele Foster, explored this on Weiss’s podcast, Honestly with Bari Weiss.

The case for Amy Cooper is that she really did feel threatened—and that Christian Cooper, an avid birdwatcher given to hassling leash-avoidant dog owners in the park, was knowingly bullying her. One fact highlighted in the podcast is fairly well-known: when Amy wouldn’t leash her pooch, Christian—according to his own Facebook post—told her, “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 then tried to lure the dog with a dog treat (which he carried for just that purpose). While the intro on Weiss’s newsletter notes that a Washington Post article omitted this fact and a 2,500-word New York Times piece buried it near the bottom, at least some mainstream outlets did include it.

But other relevant details have remained virtually unknown until now, except for some mentions in the coverage of Amy Cooper’s lawsuit against her former employer this past May. There is, for example, Christian Cooper’s pattern of hostile confrontations with leash scofflaws in Central Park. He had discussed it himself in a Zoom community board meeting days before his run-in with Amy, mentioning that he had been physically assaulted on two such occasions that spring. (Is it victim-blaming to hold this against him, since he was the one assaulted? Well … if your self-appointed park policing results in two assaults in two or three months, maybe you are at least partly the problem.) There’s also a statement from a man named Jerome Lockett—who is black—about his own run-in with Christian Cooper in the park; Lockett says that Christian “aggressively” threatened him and that he could see how Amy Cooper would fear for her life.

(Lockett’s statement, sent to the media last year but roundly ignored, offers some interesting if depressing commentary on modern racial dynamics in America. He wrote that he too would have called the police on Christian Cooper “[i]f I wasn’t who I was”, i.e., a black male wary of cops. But he also added that two other dog owners he knew “have had similar situations with this man, but don’t feel comfortable coming forward because they’re white. They think they’ll be seen as some ‘Karen’ or whatever.”)

Finally, there’s Amy’s demeanor during her 911 call, when she twice repeated that her alleged assailant was “African-American” and grew frantic and hysterical even though Christian wasn’t doing anything. This has led to accusations that her distress was a sympathy-seeking performance—“white woman’s tears” weaponized. But an audio of both sides of the call shows that both the repetition and the escalating panic were due to the call breaking up and the dispatcher saying she couldn’t hear her. For what it’s worth, Amy claims that Christian was the one performing distress—that, once he started recording, his demeanor changed from dominant and loud to “almost this victimized voicing.”

So where does that leave us? I’m quite willing to believe that Cooper v. Cooper involved Very Obnoxious People on Both Sides. I think Amy Cooper, a small woman approached by a large, belligerent man in an isolated area of Central Park, probably did feel intimidated. (Whether Christian Cooper’s race played a role—perhaps subconsciously—is anyone’s guess.) I’m even willing to believe that her mention of race in the 911 call was, as she claims, descriptive. (Her exact words: “There’s a man, African-American, with a bicycle helmet, threatening me.”) But it’s hard to get around Amy’s reference to race when talking to Christian, and I don’t think she adequately explains it when Foster asks; her reply seems to go primarily to the issue of what she said to the 911 operator.

Foster concludes that we can’t “crawl into Amy's head and give you just what her intentions were”: simply countering Christian’s perceived threat with the threat of law enforcement, or “trying to evoke this specter of racist police who will hurt him.” I think Kmele (an American of African descent who does not self-identify as black) is being a tad generous; it seems clear to me that Amy’s words to Christian invoked the threat of police racism. Not necessarily “they’ll kill you or hurt you”; maybe just “they will take me seriously when I tell them you’re black.” Whichever way you slice it, that’s ugly, regardless of Amy’s fear—and of whether she was personally racist or simply trying to “weaponize” perceived racism against a black man.

Where I completely agree with Foster and Weiss is that, whatever one may think of Amy’s actions, the reaction was absurdly over the top. In a very real sense, her life was destroyed. She has left New York and is now literally in hiding, always scared, she tells Foster, of being recognized in public places. Early on, she was deluged with hate mail and phone calls urging her to kill herself.

It is also true that much of the reporting was egregiously one-sided. The media ran with the narrative—and they still do. The Daily Beast write-up of the Honestly episode, for instance, states that the “Central Park Karen” called the police “on a Black birdwatcher who was not menacing her, though she told police he was ‘threatening my life’” and that “Christian Cooper offered her dog treats while holding a bike helmet”—with no mention of his intimidating remark or other complicating details uncovered in the podcast.

A story by Rae Alexandra on the website of KQED, the public broadcasting station in San Francisco, is even more egregiously wrong:

Foster spends some time establishing that Christian Cooper was sick of dog walkers in the birding areas of Central Park. There is an audio clip featured in the podcast of Christian Cooper speaking at a community meeting on the matter. Foster also says he found two other people who Christian Cooper had admonished for walking dogs off leash, who said they had felt threatened by him in the park. (Neither wanted to speak on the record.)

Of course, Christian Cooper didn’t just talk about being “sick of dog walkers” but about aggressively confronting them. And Lockett is on record.

Finally, I agree that, as writer and musician Angel Eduardo points out on Twitter, the situation would likely have been judged very differently with the races reversed.

A black woman who filmed a white man aggressively admonishing her for walking her dog unleashed would almost certainly be seen as a victim of both racism and sexism. A white woman admonished by a white man? Victim of male bullying. Anyone quibbling (as zealous feminist Amanda Marcotte did in this case) over the fact that the video showed Amy advancing on Christian would have been clobbered for blaming victims who act too assertively.

And so ultimately, while Foster may at times give Amy Cooper too much benefit of the doubt, the podcast is a fine corrective to the narrative. Beyond this particular case, it should raise questions about the phenomenon of viral videos of alleged racial incidents—often out-of-context snippets omitting vital details. (Remember the “MAGA kids” from Covington High School and the Native American elder on the Washington Mall in 2019?)

The Central Park story, at least, had an actual racial angle because of Amy Cooper’s references to “an African-American man.” In many other incidents, racism has been inferred solely from a conflict between a white person and a black person (or black people). And the results were often devastating to the targets.

The Other “Karens”

Sarah Braasch and “Napping While Black.” Braasch, the white Ph.D. student at Yale pilloried in May 2018 for calling the campus police on a black female grad student sleeping on the couch in a common lounge in her dorm, has probably been the most reviled “Racist of the Week” next to Amy Cooper. I first wrote about her story for The Bulwark two years ago, after an extensive investigation that included contemporaneous emails between Braasch and Yale staff.

The story is complicated by the fact that the false narrative of Braasch the vicious racist is matched by her own fantasized narrative of a vast conspiracy against her. (On Twitter, Braasch—whose longstanding mental health issues have been no doubt aggravated by her mobbing—has obsessively accused not only the Yale administration but various individuals who she believes have maligned her, including psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of trying to “get [her] killed” or drive her to suicide.)

What is true, however, is that the May 8, 2018 “napping” incident was part of a complex drama completely left out of media accounts—and that Braasch almost certainly believed that the woman, Lolade Siyonbola, was one of a group of people harassing her.

I plan to return to this story in another post, but for now, a quick recap: The chain of events went back to a prior occasion, on February 24, when Braasch called the campus police about another black grad student—Siyonbola’s friend, Reneson Jean-Louis—whom she encountered in the elevator of her dorm. As with Amy Cooper, this was a situation in which Braasch’s reaction would likely be seen as a woman’s rational apprehension about a male stranger if the man had been white: Jean-Louis was a non-resident who went up with her to the 12th floor—where she was the sole occupant and the only other room was the common lounge—and then seemed to mill about the empty hallway and the stairs. (In fact, he was looking for a soon-to-start meeting in the lounge.)

Soon after, Jean-Louis and Siyonbola wrote to a dean accusing Braasch of a racist “act of violence.” When Braasch learned about it, her anxiety escalated; her emails to Yale staff over the next two months show that her mental state was increasingly fragile, and she grew particularly preoccupied with the idea that the lounge was being used to harass and torment her. (It’s hard to say whether any of the harassment was real; some of her complaints referred simply to loud parties.)

On May 8, Braasch went into the lounge around 1:30 a.m. to throw out trash (and check the room, where “students had been making noise” earlier) and saw someone sleeping on the couch, completely covered with a blanket. She has always maintained that she did not know the person’s race or sex when she turned on the light and said, “You can’t sleep in here. Are you a resident?” Then, Siyonbola pulled down the blanket and asked Braasch if she was the person who had called the police on her friend. Braasch quickly concluded that this was one of her harassers “attempting to provoke an incident” and called the police.

Siyonbola live-streamed the encounter on Facebook; it was signal-blasted by Shaun King and other activists. Braasch, seen on video brusquely stating, “I have every right to call the police!”, was accused of everything from grotesque racism to attempted murder-by-cop. Once she was identified, the outrage brigades scoured her online trail for any hint of “racism” (such as an article defending a burka ban) but ignored blogposts in which she discussed her history of mental illness. Yale leadership issued statements that lamented the incident as proof of enduring “racial bias” on campus. Braasch fled the Yale campus for good; while she is still in the Ph.D. program, her agreement with Yale authorities stipulates that she must live off-campus and can visit only by special permission.

Braasch’s predicament since then has been no doubt made worse by her personal issues—the conspiracy theories, the hostile outbursts even toward generally sympathetic people (for full disclosure, I too have been conscripted into the conspiracy), and the habit of treating every media mention of the “napping” story, with or without her name, as a direct attack. On the other hand, being demonized as a racist in a deluge of global media coverage can make you sensitive to passing mentions even if you don’t have mental health problems. Regardless of Braasch’s reactions, the continued use of this story in its racial framing is lazy and factually wrong: As I documented in my Bulwark piece, a year before her encounter with Jean-Louis, Braasch had made far more paranoid claims of stalking by a white maintenance worker in her dorm.

Whatever the problems with Braasch’s own behavior, her mobbing stands out as a particularly egregious example of cruelty in the name of “social justice.”

“Crosswalk Cathy”: Much ado about parking. “White Woman Calls Cops on Black Man’s Parking Job,” blared a Portland Mercury headline on October 30, 2018. The source was a 30-second Facebook video posted by a black woman, Mattie Khan, which showed a young white woman calling to report Khan’s and her husband’s car for partially blocking a crosswalk and briefly arguing with Khan’s husband about how long the car had been there. (The couple had been picking up takeout food across the street .) Khan narrated: “So, this is another white person calling the police on a black person, ’cause she says we’re illegally parked.” Twitter dubbed the woman “Crosswalk Cathy.”

After the Portland Mercury picked up the story, other media joined in with headlines such as “#Crosswalk Cathy Calls Police on Black Man Because She Didn’t Like The Way He Parked” (from The Root, a black-oriented news and culture site). Most news organizations at least respected the woman’s request for anonymity, but social justice Twitter had no such scruples. Activists tweeted out identifying information, urged people to contact the school where she worked in data management, and bragged about writing to demand her firing. “Considering the high rate of Police Brutality (sic) in this country, it’s not hard to guess what result she was aiming for,” said one such letter.

In fact, as the Mercury eventually admitted, “Crosswalk Cathy” was not even calling the police but the Bureau of Transportation’s parking hotline—and had no way of knowing the car owners’ racial identity.

While “Cathy’s” name was apparently taken off the school’s website, a look at her current LinkedIn profile shows that she continued to work there until late last year (and now has a new job). In this case, the damage was mitigated by some media discretion. Nonetheless, “Cathy” was sufficiently scared at the time to scrub her entire online presence—a reminder that “Karening” is far from harmless.

“Barbecue Becky” gets grilled. Just days before the Yale incident, on April 30, 2018, a middle-aged white woman accosted several black people barbecuing in a park by Lake Merritt in Oakland, California and told them it was illegal to use a charcoal grill in the area. While calling the police, she was confronted by a white female activist, Michelle Snider—the wife of one of the men at the cookout—who posted a video of their interaction to YouTube. Snider insisted that using the grill was entirely legal and accused “Becky” of having a problem with blacks. The video went viral, and “Becky” became the Bigot of the Week, with caustic memes  photoshopping her into famous black history moments.

Here’s the catch: technically, “Becky” was correct. Charcoal grills in that area are banned, and the Oakland police has occasionally threatened to issue citations because of complaints about charcoal dumped in the bushes and in the lake. This relevant fact was missing from virtually every media account.

Was “Becky” an annoying busybody? Sure; but there is zero evidence of a racial motive. (Two of the men later claimed she used racial slurs before Snider showed up, but no one brought it up on camera when “Becky” denied being racist.) Ironically, her real motive may have been environmental zeal: “Becky” is an air quality and climate change specialist (with a Stanford Ph.D.) who has worked on environmental projects and probably considers illegal coal-burning a big deal. Maybe she was even a white female counterpart of Christian Cooper the Central Park busybody.

If one doesn’t assume that “Becky” is a racist, the video should be painful to watch: Snider relentlessly badgers and harangues the increasingly distraught older woman who seems like an oddball and may have an emotional disability. (The police dispatcher thought she was mentally unwell.) When she tries to take refuge in a store, Snider follows her and denounces her for harassing black men. “Becky’s” tears when the police showed up were mocked as a sympathy ploy, but the video clearly shows she was very anxious and near tears long before that.

The vindicated “Chipotle racist.” video that showed a Chipotle manager in St. Paul, Minn. telling several young black men they had to pay upfront to be served—while a white customer was served with no such conditions—sparked outrage in November 2018. The manager, Dominique Moran, was vilified as a “racist bitch” and lost her job.

Then, an internet sleuth who sensed there was more to the story—Moran mentioned prior run-ins with the men—did some digging and found social media posts in which the “victims” bragged about their exploits as dine-and-dash thieves. Opinion shifted in Moran’s favor, and there was a petition for her to get her job back. (Chipotle offered to rehire her, but she declined.)

The Karening That Failed. A particularly cruel “Karen” video went viral in June 2020, about a month after Cooper vs. Cooper. It showed a cowering, crying, shrieking woman being taunted and berated by man who claimed she had cut him off in traffic and insulted him. And he was supposed to be the good guy.

The video maker, a black entertainer named Karlos Dillard, claimed that the woman used a racial slur—though he only mentioned it when rebuking her would-be defenders, not when confronting her. His post was boosted by several black-focused websites (“Seattle Black man films hysterical ‘Karen’ who falsely claims she is being attacked”). Yet even some Black Lives Matter supporters had doubts: one pointed out that Dillard seemed far more upset about being cut off than about the supposed slur.

There were more red flags, such as other clips in which Dillard accused white or Asian women of racist verbal abuse which always happened off-camera—and a damning video in which he and his husband Kris discussed “laying traps for racism” by making false accusations.

Did the “Karen” in this case, apparently named Leah, do anything wrong? Hard to say. Maybe she was a rude driver and Dillard blew up a routine traffic spat into a racial incident; maybe it was all a self-promoting stunt. (As soon as the video went viral, Dillard tried to literally cash in by selling T-shirts.)

In any case, the tide quickly turned against Dillard even on black and social justice Twitter (partly, perhaps, because of his political eccentricities such as having voted for Donald Trump in 2016). The “karening” of Leah never picked up full media steam and her identity was not publicized (not for lack of trying by Dillard, who pointed out her license plate and home address). If nothing else, this repugnant incident shows that the prospect of becoming the “star” of a viral racism video has become genuinely terrifying for many people. Leah’s breakdown may have been over the top, but she could probably see herself becoming the next Amy Cooper.

Some viral videos of bigots in action (e.g., a homeowner berating a Hispanic landscaper and his mother for being “Mexicans”) can be a useful reminder of racism’s continued and ugly existence. But the practice of putting everyday conflicts with a possible racial angle on blast—often involving a person with mental health disabilities, often without the full context—is pernicious. The most recent example is a media-amplified Tik-Tok video in which an elderly “Karen” (who may well have dementia) gripes to a black neighbor about the “tacky” Tigger flag in her yard and makes a vague comment about “rules”—though in that case, at least, the woman’s identity was not revealed.

The second look at the Amy Cooper story by Weiss and Foster should, at the very least, prompt media self-scrutiny about (1) getting the facts right and (2) abetting public mobbings. One need not excuse all of Amy Cooper’s actions to see that.