In May 2020, white New Yorker Amy Cooper called the police, falsely claiming that Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man bird-watching in Central Park, was threatening her as she walked her dog. In fact, Christian Cooper had merely asked that Amy Cooper obey park rules and keep her dog on a leash. (She would later say in an apology that she misinterpreted his intentions.) The encounter was almost entirely recorded on video. As has happened throughout history, Amy Cooper wielded her privilege as a weapon.
This incident has become a lodestone in a broader conversation about white privilege, police brutality and casual disregard for Black lives.
Systemic racism is part and parcel of United States history, but in 2020, mainstream American discourse entered a rare moment of open reckoning with it. Against the backdrop of this national soul-searching, this incident has become a lodestone in a broader conversation about white privilege, police brutality and casual disregard for Black lives.
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Amy Cooper was charged, but the prosecution lacked Christian Cooper’s support as a witness; he noted at the time that he would rather talk about how to fix the underlying issues of racism in America than “her poor judgment in a snap second.” After she participated in five therapy sessions, which included racial bias education, charges against Amy Cooper were ultimately dropped Tuesday. The prosecutor called it restorative justice.
This news ignited a firestorm of controversy. Our instinct is to ask: How is it possible for someone to evade punishment in the face of incontrovertible proof of her wrongdoing? How could this be justice?
But these are the wrong questions. What happened may not in fact be justice of any kind, but not because Cooper avoided punishment.
A true restorative justice approach challenges us to move away from retribution and move instead toward reparation and accountability. In the United States, we have lived under a system of punishment for so long that we now equate punishment with accountability. But punishment is not equivalent to consequence, accountability or justice. Punishment is simply punishment.
As interest in restorative justice grows, many are using the term to describe all sorts of projects that are not, in fact, restorative. Complicating matters is the fact that restorative justice doesn’t come with a universal blueprint. In many cases, when a harm has been committed, restorative processes involve dialogue among responsible parties, the people they have harmed and community stakeholders. Parties are more freely able to discuss what happened, what contributed to it and how they were impacted than they can in court. Restorative justice has been used in various forms in response to murder, sexual harm and incidents of hate. These processes do not all look the same or even involve all the aforementioned parties.
The common thread through all these iterations of restorative justice is the importance of arriving at accountability. Whether Cooper’s therapy program could be considered a restorative response turns on whether this outcome was reached.
When responsible parties accept accountability, they acknowledge the harm they have committed and take responsibility for it. They come to understand the impacts of their actions on others. Responsible parties should not minimize their actions, and they should make reparation for what they’ve done. Reparation can go directly to the individuals harmed or, in this case, where Amy Cooper is a willing participant in a widespread system of oppression, to a community that experiences the negative impacts of such oppression in daily life. Responsible parties must take steps to avoid engaging in such harmful behavior again.
Such an accountability outcome for Amy Cooper would involve her taking responsibility for her actions, acknowledging the impacts of her action on Christian Cooper, appropriately contextualizing her actions in light of our nation’s systemic racism, making reparation and taking steps to adjust her mindset and future behavior. Importantly, she needs to learn ways to hold herself accountable in the future, as committing to anti-racism is lifelong work. Accountability is work.
Traditional prosecution was unlikely to transform Cooper into a better version of herself. It was also unlikely to deter any future bad actors.
We have not been told very much about Cooper’s therapy program, but the limited information we do have suggests that accountability is sorely lacking. It is hard to believe that five therapy sessions would be enough to unpack what is probably a lifetime of social conditioning that culminated in this act. I have many follow-up questions. What happened in these sessions? Has she openly and honestly taken responsibility for her actions, beyond her initial apology? How will she repair the harm she has done to the community? What will her next steps be? Why is her lawyer suggesting she might sue others? Is this a way for her to displace blame?
Traditional prosecution was unlikely to transform Cooper into a better version of herself. It was also unlikely to deter any future bad actors from engaging in similar behavior. If our goal is actual positive change in Cooper, a nonpunitive approach prioritizing accountability is a better option.
Was the diversion program she completed this type of option? It seems not. But again, our response cannot be to insist on prosecution and punishment. We should be asking: Why doesn’t this program do enough? How can we make it better? How can we help Cooper hold herself accountable?
Other critiques cite white privilege, which may very well play a role in the outcome of Cooper’s case. Not because she was offered a nonpunitive outcome, but because of who is not offered such an outcome. We need to ask: Who receives the benefit of these nonpunitive options? Did Amy Cooper only have this opportunity because Christian Cooper declined to cooperate with the prosecution? To the extent that victim choice drives the decision, we should be questioning whether there is a bias in the system that reflects the victims’ own biases. Are these nonpunitive options available for other types of crimes?
These are the questions we should be asking.