It’s been over a month since Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog in NYC's Central Park called the police on Christian Cooper (no relation to Amy), a Black man bird-watching in the same area of the park. Christian made a video of their interaction, and it showed Amy calling 9-1-1 saying there's an "African-American man threatening my life;" the video clip soon went viral.
In it, Christian is heard repeatedly — and calmly — asking Amy to put her dog on a leash, in accordance with park regulations. Instead of doing so, Amy called the police, and lied that she was being physically threatened by "an African-American man." The viral clip was an obscene demonstration of the perverse power of white privilege and how easy it is for a white woman like Amy Cooper to inflict it on unarmed Black men in ways that could easily get them killed by police.
Although Amy faced instant fallout for her behaviour in the video — she was fired from her job and temporarily lost her dog — many people thought she should face more severe consequences, and pointed out that, by calling the police on false pretences, Amy was committing a crime. On Monday, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office announced it would be indicting Amy Cooper on misdemeanour charges. Amy has now been issued a desk appearance ticket, and her arraignment is 14th October 2020.
Many have lauded the announcement as good news. But not everyone is happy with these charges, nor do they feel the charges represent actual justice. Prison abolitionists — who have advocated for initiatives to defund the police and abolish prison systems — took to Twitter to explain why cheering for Cooper’s arrest goes against this movement, and why they don’t support it.
“We don’t have to charge Amy Cooper, and we shouldn’t charge Amy Cooper. Charging her is the easy solution. It’s the easy way out. And it reinforces the idea that justice can only be found in the disastrous carceral system we’ve created,” Josie Duffy Rice, the President of The Appeal, explained in a thread. “Our most inherent feelings about ‘what feels like justice’ have been shaped, moulded, corrupted by a criminal justice system we still have a lot of trouble shaking.”
Rice wasn’t the only person to speaking out about why charging Amy is not akin to real justice. Marc Lamont Hill and Eve Ewing asked on Twitter what the word "consequence" truly means here, and how people can't transform the system if they allow it to function as usual. "Abolition means abolition," Ewing wrote. "It doesn't mean we turn the monster against the bad people. It doesn't mean we say, 'well, kill the monster eventually, but as long as we have it....' It means we stop feeding the monster."
While it might feel impossible, at times, to break free of the commonly held idea that "justice" equals existing justice systems, abolitionists are working to amplify the ways that this mode of thinking detracts from the ultimate goal of abolishing corrupt systems.
“If we are really going to do the work of abolition, we have to begin not just dreaming of a world without police and prisons, we also have to begin to engage it in practice,” Marc Lamont Hill told theGrio after the announcement that Cooper would be charged. “That means that we can’t think of punishment and revenge as our first response to problems and crises.” Supporting the arrest of Amy Cooper goes directly against the calls to defund and abolish the police that have become the main demands of the movement in the last month, Hill explained. Even Christian Cooper said he didn’t want her to be arrested for making false charges.
“As we interrogate the oppression caused by the prison industrial complex (PIC) and fight for its abolition, we're faced with the difficult question of what to do with people who commit harmful acts of racism — whether that means people like Amy Cooper or killer cops like Derek Chauvin," Reina Sultan, an abolitionist organiser and member of the 8 to Abolition coalition, told Refinery29. "This is one of the hardest parts of abolition, because it requires us to work through our instinct of punishing someone who has harmed, and instead look at the environment that allowed this harm to happen.”
According to Sultan, abolition "requires us to ask ourselves if prosecution and incarceration would actually protect us from racism or if it would present a facade of justice, further expanding and legitimising the prison industrial complex. It is most certainly the latter."
The argument's basis is often found in the industrial prison complex, as abolitionists believe punitive measures like prison — rather than rehabilitative or restorative — are not a means for justice and do not help a people heal or stop the cycle of harm. And by that argument, abolitionists maintain that arresting people is not the answer. Demands for justice must "go beyond the prosecution of the individual perpetrators [of acts of racism],” Angela Davis explained in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.
“Instead of indicting individual people, we need to tackle these issues as systemic issues — because they are. Marginalised communities — especially those that are Black, Indigenous, trans, sex-working, and/or disabled — are much safer abolishing the PIC than they are if we arrested, charged, prosecuted, and eventually incarcerated racists,” Sultan says. “The system itself perpetuates racism, transphobia, and ableism to a degree that is only possible when it exists as an institution. Abolition is the first step to making sure we can prioritise our community's health and safety.”