Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as a “wild garden” within New York City’s Central Park, the Ramble has long been appreciated as a sanctuary offering a quiet respite from the big city since its opening in 1859. Beloved by people drawn to its winding paths, forested landscape, and lack of roads and bridle paths, the Ramble is exactly the kind of green space many of us need to refresh body, mind, and spirit. (I’ve written about the various salutary effects of nature walks in previous posts; see here and here.) Among the many visitors who enjoy a stroll through its 37 acres are birders who have spotted over 230 bird species there over the years, and dog owners who have enjoyed using the park as a wonderful area to explore with their pets, an activity fully approved by the Central Park Conservancy (but with certain restrictions). All of this suggests that because of the Ramble’s intended purpose as a forest refuge, you wouldn’t expect it to be a place of racial conflict. But it was.
On May 25th, Memorial Day 2020 (the same day George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis), Amy Cooper, a White woman walking her rescue cocker spaniel Henry, encountered Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man engaged in birding, something he did often in this part of the park. Seeing that the dog was off leash, Mr. Cooper asked her to put him on leash, in other words to follow the rules. What followed has been widely reported in the media (CNN’s report here), and the video recording by Mr. Cooper of the exchange went viral. She immediately interpreted his request as a threat and called 911 for help, describing him as an African American three times.
Although no one was physically hurt, news of Amy Cooper’s reaction went viral as one more example of racism in this country. Ms. Cooper perceived Mr. Cooper as a potential mugger, not as a fellow visitor enjoying the Ramble’s peace and quiet, and certainly not as an expert of any sort who could be there to study some aspect of the Ramble’s wildlife. But Mr. Cooper, a one-time president of the Harvard Ornithological Club, and currently on the Board of Directors for NYC Audubon, was there on one of his frequent bird sighting walks.
During this time of racial turmoil, many Americans of European descent (myself included) have become more deeply aware of how racism or implicit bias affect their perception of Blacks. The unfortunate confrontation in the Ramble that day would not have happened if Amy had seen Christian not only as a Black man but as fellow human who loved nature and the restorative peace of the Ramble.
We have seen how commitment and persistence are necessary to deal with the climate crisis despite climate change denial. Similarly, commitment and persistence are essential for dismantling racism. We need to see all persons as members of a common humanity as urgently as we need to see all beings as members of the earth community. In both racism and climate change the root cause has been exploitation – exploitation of human beings as slaves and an underclass and exploitation of natural resources. I hope and pray that the memory of the terrible events of May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis and New York (just two of the myriad acts of racial violence in our recent and not so recent history) will keep stirring us to work on creating the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. After all, we’re all in this together.