Central Park photo by Phil Whitehouse
This is a story about a man, a woman and her dog, whose paths crossed early one morning in a park.
The man and the woman are each successful in their chosen fields. Had they met under other circumstances, they might have become friends. Or perhaps he – the older of the two – could have been her mentor. But that would be a different story. It is not the one that really happened on Memorial Day in New York’s Central Park.
It was one of the first truly springlike days in what has been a dreadful, homebound spring in New York City. The man had come to a secluded area in the middle of the park, known as the Ramble, to do some bird-watching. The woman came to the same place to give herself, and her dog, an outing. The dog’s name is Henry. I choose not to name the man and the woman here, so as not to become part of the online rabble that thinks it knows all it needs to know to judge the lives of strangers. You may well already know their names. Otherwise, if you care, you will have no trouble learning their identities if you follow the links in this post, or if you enter any relevant query into your browser or search app.
Central Park rules require dogs to be on a leash while in the Ramble. Yet the woman let Henry (a small cocker spaniel from a rescue shelter) off his leash. She refused to leash him, or take him to another part of the park, when the man asked her. The man was entirely right to ask her to respect the park and its rules, and she was wrong not to comply. Many would view her behavior as entitled and selfish.
But it is possible to be right and to be a bully about it at the same time. The man crossed that line, and our story thus took a series of unfortunate turns.
According to his own account on social media, the man next pulled out the dog treats he carries “just for such intransigence,” indicating that he came prepared for this sort of confrontation. (As he subsequently explained, unleashed dogs scare away ground-dwelling birds; he has found that owners generally leash their dogs to prevent them from taking a stranger’s treat.) He summoned Henry with the treats and began recording the video. Since he is the one offering the treats and holding the camera, viewers of the video – and there have now been a great many – cannot see that the woman is reacting not only to the fact that she is being recorded, but to a stranger who is trying to coax her dog away from her. So she calls the police.
When we look at the man’s video after the fact, from the safety of our own screens and knowing who these people are, the woman clearly overreacted. The man is a prominent comic book writer and editor, a former president of the Harvard Ornithological Club (according to his Wikipedia entry) and a senior biomedical editor at a health science publisher. He is in his late 50s. It is obvious – to us, now – that he was never any threat to the woman or to Henry. His strategy was to coerce the dog owner to leash her dog after she wouldn’t respond to his initial request.
But the woman’s first reaction was to be annoyed, which is how people generally react when someone calls them out for being wrong. Her second reaction was to be afraid, as she struggled to restrain Henry while simultaneously trying to manage her cellphone in a 911 emergency call.
In the emotion of the moment, she committed the offense of identifying the man by three factors: his gender, his headwear and his race. The significant offense was in the last point. “I’m in the Ramble, and there’s a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet. He’s recording me and threatening me and my dog,” she told the 911 operator in an evident state of near panic.
I expect the man was offended and perhaps bemused. The white woman assumed away his many achievements and his moral rectitude, and overlooked his age and his polite initial demeanor. She hastened to call the police to protect her from an African American man who confronted her with her own bad behavior. Whatever his reaction, I would guess it comes after a lifetime of similarly misguided assumptions and thoughtless slights. I am not black, so I can only try to imagine his experiences; I have not shared them.
I am not a woman either. But I know that being a woman carries its own set of experiences in dealing with men who feel free to act in certain ways with women that they might not with men. We can only wonder whether the man in this story would have pulled out those dog treats if the dog owner had been a professional football linebacker and the dog had been a mastiff or German shepherd. Regardless, if someone had called the police in that case, it probably would not have been the dog owner.
But here was a woman, alone in a relatively secluded area early in the morning with a small dog, approached by a stranger who had evidently come prepared with dog treats (and no dog of his own). She was frightened. Men of any race and any age – but especially the age that this man has attained – should know that you don’t go around frightening women who don’t know you. Not even if they are wrong and you are right, and not even if your race is, wrongfully, a contributing factor to their fear.
While on the phone with 911, the woman got Henry onto his leash. As she restrained and leashed him, she dragged him by his collar and he yelped once or twice, as recorded on the man’s video. Once the dog was leashed, the man thanked her and ended the recording. When the NYPD arrived, neither party was present.
The story might have ended here, except that the man chose to continue the encounter online. He posted the video on Facebook and referred to the woman as a “Karen,” a term that I did not previously know due to my age-related condition of uncoolness. A Karen is a white woman who summons police to deal with an African American man who is doing something innocent, such as barbecuing in a park or jogging through a neighborhood. I’m not sure that offering a pet treat without the owner’s consent to coerce the owner’s behavior exactly qualifies – even more so when the parties are alone in a wooded area, the party doing the coercing initiated the encounter, and the party being coerced is a woman.
For the avoidance of doubt, no party in this story is actually named Karen. All of us, it seems, fall back on stereotypes sometimes.
The man’s sister, who is of some prominence in the entertainment industry herself, piled on. She tweeted her brother’s video, commenting, “Oh, when Karens take a walk with their dogs off leash in the famous Bramble in NY’s Central Park, where it is clearly posted on signs that dogs MUST be leashed at all times, and someone like my brother (an avid birder) politely asks her to put her dog on the leash.” Then, of course, the online mob followed suit. A candidate for Manhattan district attorney joined in with a discourse about how African American men in this situation end up sitting in the Riker’s Island city jail for failure to make bail. The candidate was just as guilty as the dog owner of stereotyping. The man in question was never going to sit in Riker’s Island due to inability to make bail for anything related to this encounter. And Mayor Bill de Blasio, who seldom wastes an opportunity to misjudge a situation, tweeted without evidence that the woman called the police “BECAUSE” the man confronting her was black.
The consequences for the woman in our story have been dire. After an outcry from a public that knows nothing about her or her treatment of Henry, she voluntarily returned the dog to the animal shelter from which she adopted him several years ago. Her employer, a major investment management firm, put her on administrative leave pending an investigation. The firm explained on social media that it does not “condone racism of any kind.” (I can’t imagine how it would test for racism “of any kind” among its workforce, or how much of a workforce it would have if it could.) Yesterday afternoon, the firm announced that it had terminated the employee in question. The woman herself issued an abject public apology, noting that she is “blessed” to be able to view the police as a source of protection.
As a husband and father of daughters, I don’t want the women close to me to ever hesitate to call police if they feel unsafe. Our goal as a society is to make everyone feel equally secure in the presence of law enforcement, not to take that feeling away from everyone. The communities where people avoid calling on law enforcement are not the safest ones.
I can’t see a happy ending in what has been written of this story so far. Not for the woman who lost her pet and her job, a price in no way commensurate with the offense of having her dog off its leash and then overreacting to a confrontational stranger. Not for Henry, who has lost his home. (I suspect there have been multiple adoption offers, but I hope the shelter to which he was returned will give him back to the woman who has raised him if it finds no reason to believe she routinely mistreats him.) Probably not even for the man whose righteous indignation led him to engage in his own form of comic-book vigilantism.
In a city that is in desperate need of kindness right now, this man illustrated that you can be right, wronged and a bully, all at once. But humans are fallible, and we can afford to forgive one another most of our mistakes. Maybe Henry can come home, wear his leash, and meet the man in Central Park to get that treat – by mutual consent.