3 Viral Videos Spark A Debate About Discrimination Black Men Face In Public Spaces
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Christian Cooper - these are the names of black men we now know because of ugly encounters that were caught on video. Arbery was shot dead on a Georgia street while jogging in February. Floyd died after telling police he could not breathe as one officer's knee pinned his neck down on the ground. And Cooper, a bird-watcher in Central Park, was not physically harmed, but he watched a white woman call the cops on him after he asked her to leash her dog.
Each of these stories is intensifying a conversation about how black men move through public spaces. And for some of that conversation now, we're joined by Karen Attiah from The Washington Post and Jelani Cobb from The New Yorker.
Welcome to both of you.
JELANI COBB: Thank you.
KAREN ATTIAH: Thank you.
CHANG: So these are three incidents that occurred in three different locations. Tell me, what ties them together for you? Karen, let's start with you.
ATTIAH: I mean, what ties them together is yet another three more examples of the risks that we take by just being black in America and also, obviously, the power of social media and Twitter to just highlight what has been going on in this country since the country's inception. I think, you know, as we are all also contemplating just in general the value of life in this country as we're dealing with the coronavirus, it just - many of us, those of us who are black, realize that, yet again, there's so much within this country that we have not fixed when it comes to valuing black lives.
COBB: Yeah. I think that Karen is right. One of the other things I think that tie these events together is the notion of spectacle. And so there's a kind of traumatic reality check that's implicit within all of them. You know, you consume these images in order to be able to convey, you know, the specific details of them to readers. But that's not the only context in which they're being viewed. And it's difficult to watch human beings die, much less to watch African Americans die, in incidents that are connected to racism and not be affected by that in some way.
CHANG: I do want to talk about, you know, one common thread in the three incidents we just mentioned with Arbery, Floyd and Cooper. The police were involved at some level. And the relationship between the black community and police, obviously, it's been fraught for decades and decades. But what was interesting about the Central Park incident is that the police did do the right thing in that case. It's just that the woman who called the cops made it clear to Christian Cooper that she was going to specifically mention to the cops the fact that he was African American. What do you make of that piece?
ATTIAH: To piggyback off of what Jelani said, the spectacle of it all - I think, you know, in the Amy Cooper situation, precisely what made that encounter so chilling was that she knew what she was doing when she mentioned Christian Cooper's race on the phone. She knew what she was doing when she was performing, you know, almost trying to force herself into tears and hysteria.
And I think for many of us watching that, we - there's a long history in this country of how, particularly white women, have used those tears because they know precisely how white men will respond to them. And for African Americans, particularly African Americans in this country, we know the history of Emmett Till. We know what happened when false reports were made in order to assert that a black man had caused harm to a white woman. And the end result of that is white men using violence in order to assert their dominance over the black person in question. So when we see that in that video in Central Park, it's traumatizing. It's chilling because we know that when she said that Christian Cooper was an African American man, she was inviting the possibility that he could be killed, right?
ATTIAH: And so what we were seeing was an act - a threat of violence by her. What she did was violent.
CHANG: Jelani, what was it like for you to watch her make that phone call?
COBB: Yeah. So I think the thing that was striking, you know, to me about all of these incidents was a kind of malice, you know, or at least disregard for the humanity of the people who were victimized. But what stood out about the Cooper video was that it seemed intentional and insidious and calculated in a way that I didn't necessarily think the others were. There were people reacting and behaving in a particular kind of way. But she seemed to have made a calculation. And what I think made it even more damning was that she told him, you know, before she called the police.
COBB: She said I'm going to call the police and say that there's an African American threatening my life, which was a way of conveying to him, you know, without saying - the kind of context of that is you know what happens...
COBB: ...In these circumstances. And in order to say that, you would have to have some knowledge of the unfair relationship between African Americans and law enforcement. This is not a person who's making the casual presumption that every time a black person has been arrested or been assaulted by police or there's been, you know, a fatal use of force that the person did something to invite it. It seems like this is a person who knows full well about the inequality within the police and judicial systems and is going to weaponize that on her behalf all in the cause of being allowed to let her dog roam free in Central Park.
CHANG: Are either of you hopeful that change is possible?
COBB: I hesitate to answer that question. When people ask about hope or optimism, we sometimes think in the American sense that things will invariably get better. And there's a kind of fairy tale optimism that - you know, a kind of cheap optimism. You know, it is entirely possible that this situation will remain as it is. It is entirely possible that the situation will get worse. You know, I hold to the possibility that things can get better, but by no means should we kind of rest on our laurels and assume that it automatically will.
CHANG: Karen, what about you?
ATTIAH: You know, when I hear, you know, people looking to me like, but we're going to be OK - right? - we're going to be fine, I ask who the we is. And I like, you know, James Baldwin's answers from way back in the day. You know, many of us in the black community feel like we are waiting for white America to make its progress. And now so much of it is being caught on camera, is being seen, is being visible. Sure, so how do we make - turn that visibility into a more just and more fair and more democratic society? That is what requires constant work. And as long as people are willing to do that work, there is hope.
CHANG: Karen Attiah of The Washington Post and Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker, thank you to both of you so much for your time today.
COBB: Thank you.
ATTIAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.