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Birding While Black: Christian Cooper on NYC Audubon Society’s New Name & Racist Central Park Incident

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New York City’s chapter of the Audubon Society has officially changed its name to the New York City Bird Alliance as part of an effort to distance itself from its former namesake John James Audubon, the so-called founding father of American birding. The 19th century naturalist enslaved at least nine people and espoused racist views. Christian Cooper is a Black birder and a longtime board member of the newly minted New York City Bird Alliance. In 2020, he made headlines after a white woman in Central Park called 911 and falsely claimed Cooper was threatening her life. He joins Democracy Now! to discuss Audubon’s legacy, which “put North American birds on the map” yet “was funded by the trafficking [of] other human beings,” and the significance of the birdwatching community’s efforts to detach Audubon’s association with the pastime. “We’re trying to diversify birding, which traditionally has been a very, very white activity,” says Cooper, who also discusses the 2020 park incident, which occurred on the same day that George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

New York City’s chapter of the Audubon Society has officially changed its name to the NYC Bird Alliance. John Audubon, the founding father of American birding, was a 19th century French American naturalist — and a slaveholder who espoused racist views. In March, the National Audubon Society voted to retain the Audubon name. That set off a revolt among leaders of local chapters of the society.

On Thursday, Democracy Now!'s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to Christian Cooper, longtime board member of New York City Bird Alliance. He's also a longtime LGBTQ activist and served as co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD in the 1980s.

In May of 2020, Christian Cooper made national headlines after a white woman in Central Park called 911 on him, falsely claiming that Cooper, who’s Black, was threatening her life. The woman, Amy Cooper — no relation to him or me — made the call after Christian Cooper asked her to follow park rules and put her dog on a leash. They were in an area of the park popular with birders. Video of the incident went viral, in part because it happened on the same day that police in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd.

Christian Cooper went on to write a memoir titled Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World. The paperback has just come out. He also hosted the National Geographic episode series Extraordinary Birder, for which he just won a Daytime Emmy Award in the Outstanding Daytime Personality category.

I began by asking Christian about the NYC Bird Alliance’s decision to drop the Audubon name.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: So, there’s a couple of things you have to know about the Audubon name as sort of background. There’s the National Audubon Society, of which the organization I am in is a chapter. But there are many, many organizations that use the name Audubon, and they’re not necessarily all affiliated with each other. So, you know, there’s various Audubons that have nothing to do with National Audubon. So, there’s that.

And then, the other thing you need to know is that when the name Audubon was first assigned to a North American birding organization, it was a bunch of — by a bunch of ladies who lunch, who decided to create a bird conservation organization, which is great, but Audubon was 50 years dead. He had nothing to do with the founding of the organization. It was these ladies who said, “Yeah, we’ll name it after him,” because he was a major part of North American birding and making it so visible. So, his name being attached to the organization really didn’t have anything to do with the organization itself.

And then there are lots of different organizations that use the name Audubon. So, National Audubon decided not to change the name. And a lot of us chapters said, “You know what? We’re going to go and change our names anyway.” So, it’s been sort of almost like dominoes. A lot of chapters have sort of settled on the name Bird Alliance, which is wonderful, because it means that, at least on the ground, the network is changing bit by bit and settling on a common name. So, I know —

AMY GOODMAN: But tell us more about who John Audubon was.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Oh, yeah. Well, first of all, what you can’t take away from him is that he put birds, North American birds, on the map. And that was principally through his amazing art. We’re lucky enough to be in New York City, where the New York Historical Society has the original Audubons — not the original prints, the original paintings. And I was lucky enough to see those at the New York Historical Society. And they are astonishing. They’re gorgeous. You can’t take that away from the guy.

You do have to put an asterisk on it, which says, “Yeah, and his work was funded by the trafficking in other human beings.” And it’s that part that makes it very difficult for us, looking forward, when we’re trying to diversify birding, which traditionally has been a very, very white activity, in the most diverse city in the world, or certainly in the country. So, this name became an impediment to our efforts to diversify. And because we’re trying to look forward, we’re like, “Yeah, we’ve got to ditch it. We’ve got to lose it. We’ve got to get a name that doesn’t present a barrier to everybody’s participation.” We’re throwing the doors open for everybody and saying, “You’re all welcome in birding.”

AMY GOODMAN: But the National Audubon Society has not decided to go this route. What are the chapters, some, like Seattle?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Right. Seattle has picked a new name. Wisconsin, a couple of Wisconsin chapters have picked a new name. Illinois has picked a new name, or Chicago has picked a new name. I lose track. There have been so many that have changed names. And a lot of us, though not all of us, have settled — oh, Georgia picked a new name. But a lot of us have settled on Bird Alliance as the new name. So we are now the NYC Bird Alliance.

And the hope is that — and the idea is not, you know, to erase Audubon, to cancel Audubon. You can’t. The man’s history is what it is. You know, like I said, you’ve got to give it an asterisk, but it’s there. It’s real. But that doesn’t mean you’ve got to have that name on your organization, particularly when you’re trying to take an organization that for so long has been almost exclusively white and you’re trying to get other people involved. You know, you don’t — for example, imagine you were a country club that had a history of excluding Jews. And you’re like, “Oh my goodness, we’ve got to change that. We’ve got to invite some Jews. Hey, guys, don’t you want to join the Josef Mengele Country Club?” How many Jews are you going to get? You’re not. That’s kind of — that’s kind of what we were facing with Audubon. So, it’s not a matter of erasing him. The history is still there. It comes with an asterisk, but it’s there. But looking forward and getting everybody involved.

And why is it so important to diversify? Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we have lost one-third of our birds in North America. I’m not talking about species. I’m talking about raw numbers. The populations are down, in my lifetime. I know this, because I go out there, and I bird, and I feel it, and I see it. And we all do. We have lost one-third of the birds in North America just in my lifetime, since I started birding when I was about 10 years old. And the only way we’re going to turn this around — because we can turn it around; we’ve done it in New York City, in some ways — is if we get everybody involved in birding that possibly could be interested, because the country is diversifying. New York City is already a diverse city. If we don’t have all hands on deck, we’re not going to be able to save the birds.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Christian, you exploded onto the national scene a few years ago because of an incident in Central Park. And let’s go back to that day. We’re talking about Memorial Day 2020. So, it’s in the height of the pandemic. Everyone is masked. There are no vaccines. It is, horrifyingly, also the day that George Floyd was killed. But when you were out in Central Park that morning, he was still alive. And we want to turn to what happened on that day. Describe to us what time you went out in the morning and what you were doing and then what happened.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Condensed version: I got out at 5:30, which is my usual time to hit the park that time of year. I’m looking for birds. It was a relatively slow day. There was a particular bird called the mourning warbler, which is typically one of the last warblers to come through in the migration. So, this is very late in the migration. And I’m looking for a mourning warbler. Mourning warblers are skulkers. They stay close to the ground, for the most part, hidden in the shrubs. So, I’m heading towards this patch of shrubs to look for a mourning warbler.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you know it was there?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Oh, I didn’t know it was there. I’m hoping to find it. So, I’m keeping my ears open for ”Chery, chery, chery, chweer. Chery, chery, chery, chweer.” That’s the song of the mourning warbler. And if I hear that, then I know there’s one hiding in those shrubs, and I’ve got to wait him out and look for him.

So, I’m heading for a patch of habitat of low-lying growth, where I’m likely to find one. And then I hear, “Henry!” at the top of the lungs, the way nobody would talk to a human being, so I know it’s a dog off the leash. And then I see it tearing exactly through the low-growing growth where I was hoping to find a mourning warbler. I’m like, “Well, if there was one there before, there’s not one there now.”

So, this is an ongoing problem in Central Park, particularly in the Ramble, where dogs have to be on the leash at all times. There are signs posted everywhere telling everybody that. So, this has been an ongoing war between certain dog walkers — I don’t want to tar all dog walkers with a bad brush, because there are some who actually follow the rules. But this has been an ongoing war for many, many, many years between dog walkers and birders.

And so, you know, we got into it. I’m like, “You know, look, your dog’s supposed to be on the leash. The sign’s right there. Look, all you have to do is take the dog across the road there to that other part of the park or outside the Ramble. You can have your dog off the leash until 9 a.m., and we’re all good.” She was having none of it. So, at that point, we started to get into it, and, you know, verbally, and —

AMY GOODMAN: You’re how many feet away from her?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Well, much further than you are from me. So, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re both wearing masks.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Yeah, I’ve got like a bandana over my face at that point, because we didn’t really have mask protocols yet. And she’s got a mask on. And then, so, eventually, she ends up picking up the dog by the collar.

AMY GOODMAN: Not leashing it, but picking it up.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: By the collar.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Right, yeah. Let’s not relive the whole thing. But the bottom line is, I start recording her with my iPhone, because that’s one of the strategies we have when people are breaking the rules, is to document it. It puts pressure on them, because most people don’t like to be recorded breaking the rules, and it’s documentation for us to show the Parks Department.

AMY COOPER: Please take your phone off.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Please don’t come close to me.

AMY COOPER: Then I’m going to [inaudible]. I’m calling the cops.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Please call the cops. Please call the cops.

AMY COOPER: I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Please tell them whatever you like.

AMY COOPER: I’m sorry, I’m in the Ramble, and there is a man, African American. He has a bicycle helmet. He’s recording me and threatening me and my dog. There is an African American man. I am in Central Park. He is recording me and threatening myself and my dog. And like — I’m sorry, I can’t hear you, either. I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble. Please send the cops immediately! I’m in Central Park in the Ramble. I don’t know!

CHRISTIAN COOPER: And at that point, you know, I had a decision to make, because it was clearly an attempt to racially intimidate me to get what she wanted, which was for her to be able to have her dog running around as she saw fit. And, you know, neither of us was really willing to budge. We were both incredibly stubborn in that moment. And I just thought, “You know, I’m not going to be complicit in my own dehumanization. I am not going to acquiesce here. I’m just going to keep doing what I would do whether I was Black, Brown, green or purple, which is record her until that dog is on the leash. And whatever happens is going to have to be on her.” So, she, you know, called the police and did all that. And then, it’s funny, because you see the video, and the second she puts that dog on the leash, I am done with her. I’m like, “Thank you.” Click. And I go on, and I go back to birding.

AMY GOODMAN: But say again what she continued to repeat on the phone, what you understood when she called 911.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Right. She said — well, she told me, first, “I’m going to call the police and tell them that an African American man is threatening my life.” And, of course, you know, I’m like, “Whoa!” You know, I’m not an idiot. I’ve grown up as a Black man in America my whole life. I know this is a world of hurt potentially coming my way. But, you know, I just — I’m not going to — I’m not going to acquiesce to this and let this intimidate me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what happened with that video then.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: You know, I put it on Facebook, because I have a tendency to put what happened that’s notable to me on Facebook after a day of birding. Usually it’s a bird. This was not a bird. But I put it on Facebook. Immediately, one or two friends called me up and said, “Can you make this public so I can share it?” And I’m like, “All right, fine.” And then my sister called me, and she was seething, understandably. And she said, “Can I put it on Twitter?” And I’m like, “OK, yeah, sure. Put it on Twitter.” And then it just kind of exploded and became a thing, and, you know, became even more of a thing because it ended up being on the same day that George Floyd was murdered.

So, you know, it was a window, I think, for a lot of people into what we African Americans know, because we live it every day. But I think for a lot of people who aren’t African American, they were able to see in those two videos, you know, the use of racial bias and how it informs policing, or people try to use it in policing sometimes, and then the actual police response, you know, against African Americans that gets us killed. So, it opened some eyes, I think, maybe, that hadn’t been open before, for a while.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Did the police come?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: They did eventually come, or, as I understand it, but, by then, we were both long gone. You know, I considered at the moment staying around to clear things up with the police. And then I thought, “No, she doesn’t get to do that. I’m here to bird, and I’m going back to birding. And, you know, and if I run into the police, fine, then I’ll tell them what happened. But, meanwhile, I’m looking for birds.” And I did that. And no police came. And then I left the park and went home.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you find the warbler?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: I did not find the mourning warbler that morning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Cyrus Vance was the Manhattan DA. Talk about what they wanted to happen, and your response, overall, and what happened to Amy Cooper.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: So, the bottom line is, Cyrus Vance wanted to — you know, it was a very public case. So, the Manhattan DA wanted to prosecute her for filing a false report, which is fine. You know, that’s his prerogative. He wanted my participation in that. And that’s where I had to make a decision as to whether or not I was going to pursue it. And I chose not to. And that was a hard decision. And I know a lot of people, especially Black people, you know, were not happy with that decision. But I had to kind of trust my conscience, and my conscience said — you know, her life had imploded. She lost her job. She was a pariah nationwide. You know, if none of that is going to send a message to people this is not the thing to do, then I’m not sure anything will. It felt like piling on, on my part. And so, I was just like, “You know what? You have the ability to pursue these charges without me. Please, you know, go ahead and do so if you feel the need. I don’t feel like I need to participate in this.” So, that was what I decided. And it was a hard decision, because I get it. You know, this was possibly precedent-setting, that — you know, when there are so many cases where Black people had been falsely accused and suffered for it, to actually get someone for doing that. So I understand why it was important, particularly to a lot of Black people. But, ultimately, my conscience said, you know, this is not the way to go.

And there was something more important, which is that — keep your eyes on the prize. You know, we can spend our time throwing Amy Cooper behind bars and pat ourselves on the back, that, “Oh yeah, we got that one.” Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is rolling back affirmative action. And, you know, Florida is changing education on Black people so that it’s, you know, a happy, happy, sunny, sunny time, you know, for 300 years. Which of these things are more important? Where should we put our focus? What should we really be changing? You know, meanwhile, the people in Washington, D.C., the largely Black and Brown population in Washington, D.C., still don’t have representation, even though there’s more people there than in all-white Wyoming and all-white Vermont, and they each get two senators. Washington, D.C., gets nothing. Which of these things should we put our focus and our energy on, is going to really make a change? So, you know, Amy Cooper, her life is hers. Let her live it as she sees fit. You know, whatever she makes of it from here on in, you know, judge her by that, and it’s up to her. But my energy was focused on eyes on the prize, you know, making real progress for us.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be back with Christian Cooper in 20 seconds.

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