Media acts like Westboro Baptist Church in its condemnation of Amy Cooper

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Amy Cooper is possibly the internet’s most famous “Karen” — the pejorative used for a demanding, entitled white woman.

In a video that went instantly viral last year, the Central Park dog walker summoned law enforcement to protect her from a black birdwatcher, whose race she mentions three times in a matter of moments: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

The video flooded social media alongside a second one filmed that same day: the horrifying footage of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a man named George Floyd. The conflation of these two stories in the public imagination began almost immediately — and not without cause. The Central Park video looked really bad. 

The New York Times ran a dozen stories, letters, and Op-Eds in the first week alone. A rattled Gayle King said it felt like “open season” on black men. Trevor Noah said that Amy “blatantly knew how to use the power of her whiteness to threaten the life of another man and his blackness.”

By the next day, Amy Cooper had been doxxed, had lost her job, and had surrendered her dog, issuing a half-hearted defense and then an abject apology. Birdwatcher Christian Cooper (no relation) would go on to become a minor celebrity, heralded across the media and even by Joe Biden, who declared, “You made an incredible contribution at a very important moment.”

Though I know neither of the Coopers, this scenario felt uncomfortably familiar to me. I was born and raised in a culture of public judgment: the Westboro Baptist Church, also known as the “God Hates Fags” people. My grandfather founded the church, and I was among its most passionate evangelists.

Megan Phelps-Roper was born and raised in the Westboro Baptist Church, which her grandfather founded.
Getty Images

More than 20,000 of my own tweets catalog my misdeeds — most egregiously, public celebrations of tragedy outside the funerals of American servicemen, victims of natural disasters, and anyone who spoke out against my church’s message. “God Is Your Enemy” and “You’re Going to Hell” were two of my favorite protest signs. I often held them while dancing atop an American flag.

I left the church nearly a decade ago, after becoming convinced that the religion I’d been taught from birth was destructive and cruel. Twenty-six years of loudly attacking the “sins” of others — only to realize that my own had often been worse — taught me that life was far, far more complicated than I’d been raised to believe.

So when I encounter viral moments like the one involving the Coopers — the angel and the villain so neatly laid out — my first instinct is to ask: What context am I missing here?

Here the answer was: an awful lot.

For starters, there was the Facebook post Christian shared when he uploaded the original video, which his sister posted on Twitter hours after the encounter. In his post, Christian recorded his contemporaneous account of what happened in the moments before the camera started rolling. “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,” Christian recounted himself saying to Amy. He also shared that he’d pulled out “the dog treats I carry for just for [sic] such intransigence.”

He threatened her, I thought, stunned. He says himself that he approached her  a woman alone in a wooded area. He tried to lure away her dog. How was this the first time I was reading these details? Had I just missed them in the other stories I’d read?

Washington Post article summarized the conflict this way: Christian Cooper “approached the dog’s owner early on Monday with a request: Could she leash up the canine, as the park rules required? Amy Cooper said she would be calling the police instead.” And even though the article included a link to Christian’s Facebook post, the text of the article failed to mention the threat at all.

Then I read a 2,500-word report from the New York Times purporting to be “the inside story.” Its opening paragraphs offered a detailed account of the conflict — until it came to Christian’s threat. Instead of quoting him, they summarized with: “They exchanged words.” I wondered if they were even aware of what Christian Cooper had said. Then I found it buried in the story’s closing paragraphs, long after most readers would have moved on. 

Kmele Foster, co-host of The Fifth Column podcast, has spent the past several months reporting this story and uncovered important context, including a May 2020 testimony provided by Jerome Lockett, a black man who said Christian had “aggressively” threatened him in the park. Among the details: “If I wasn’t who I was, I would of [sic] called the police on that guy too.” Lockett also said: “My two fellow dog owners 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.”

Like the media, members of the Westboro Baptist Church have a slanted view on the world — and condemn their targets.
Like the media, members of the Westboro Baptist Church have a slanted view on the world — and condemn their targets.
REUTERS

At first blush, reexamining this conflict seems like a meaningless hill to die on. Amy Cooper, at least in that video, seems an easy figure to revile. (And attacking Christian, who later said of Amy, “I don’t know if her life needed to be torn apart,” isn’t my purpose here.)

Rather, to tell this story is to expose a different set of problems — hallmarks of my Westboro past.

Among them: our collective intoxication with public shaming. The assumption, based on a scrap of video, that we understand an entire narrative without knowing all the facts. And the mercilessness shown to those at the center of these storms, often leaving them suicidal and broken.

Finally and most importantly, the media’s complicity in perpetuating public judgments. This break in my faith — in this case, with the media organizations I’d trusted most — is what returns me most powerfully to Westboro. America’s distrust in the media is a massive and growing problem. Yet unlike my former church, the press isn’t a small, relatively powerless community from which we can simply walk away.

This piece originally appeared on bariweiss.substack.com

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