This column is an opinion by Phillip Dwight Morgan, a Toronto-based freelance writer of Jamaican heritage. He is a director of the Conn Smythe Foundation. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
You may have seen the recent story about 22-year-old Miya Ponsetto falsely accusing a 14-year-old Black boy, Keyon Harrold Jr., of stealing her phone in the lobby of New York’s Arlo Hotel.
When hotel management asks to see the phone, the boy’s father denies the baseless request. As Keyon Jr. is seen walking away from the scene in a video that went viral, Ponsetto yells “No! I’m not letting him walk away with my phone!” before tackling the innocent boy to the floor.
It wasn’t Ponsetto’s phone, she’d left hers in an Uber and the driver later returned it to the hotel. Nevertheless, a theft did occur at the Arlo Hotel that day — the theft of Black childhood.
The assumptions by Ponsetto and the hotel’s management, their false accusations and the physical confrontation were all an attack on Keyon Jr.’s vulnerability and innocence, and on the self-confidence young people need in order to find their way in the world.
And while viral videos of the confrontation may lead us to believe that this was an anomalous act that could never happen in Canada, the reality is that Black childhood is routinely stolen here, too.
As Canadians, we cannot be so smug or naive as to believe that what we saw in that video was unique to our neighbour to the south.
The same week that Ponsetto accused Keyon Jr. of stealing her phone, the Ontario Human Rights Commission awarded a Black family $35,000 ($30,000 in damages plus $5,000 to cover counseling costs) for a 2014 incident in which Peel police handcuffed a six-year-old girl by her hands and feet. The officers maintained that the girl posed a threat to her classmates and to herself.
On Dec. 27, 2020, Ottawa Police stopped five Black teens who had gathered in the parking lot of a mall to discuss plans to film a music video for a local artist. Chris Simba, one of the teens present, recounts being surrounded by police cruisers, having guns drawn and pointed at him, and watching police take his friends to the ground before handcuffing them. They were released without charges.
Last February, a 15-year-old boy in Halifax was also tackled to the ground by police after objecting to being questioned on the sidewalk. Police detained him, releasing him later that day without charge.
He sustained injuries, and as community activist Rocky Coward told a reporter, the incident was “indicative of the meagre-minded, thug, bandit-type treatment that specifically young Black people have been subjected to over the past 40 or 50 years.”
These unfortunate events managed to break through and receive national news coverage where so many others do not.
In a piece for the Washington Post, Dr. Stacey Patton writes that, “America does not extend the fundamental elements of childhood to Black boys and girls. Black childhood is considered innately inferior, dangerous and indistinguishable from Black adulthood.”
The same can be said of Canada.
Patton adds, “Black children are not afforded the same presumption of innocence as white children, especially in life-or-death situations.”
The presumption of guilt is evident in the hotel management’s request to see Keyon Jr.’s phone. In Ponsetto’s now-viral Jan. 8 interview with CBS This Morning, Ponsetto says: “So basically, I’m a 22-year-old girl … how is one girl accusing a guy about a phone a crime?”
Later she adds, “He’s 14? That’s what they’re claiming? Yeah, I’m 22, I’ve lived probably just the same amount of life, like honestly, I’m just as much a kid at heart as he is.”
In a few simple sentences, Ponsetto is infantilized and Keyon Jr., conversely, is rendered an adult. His childhood — and, with it, his innocence and vulnerability — are stripped away.
Whether at the hands of police or private citizens, there are numerous examples of Black children being construed as threatening. The physical and emotional risk posed to Black people by false allegations is immense.
For Black youth, this theft of their childhood can leave long-lasting impacts. According to Harrold Sr., Keyon Jr. is traumatized by the experience.
Chris Simba, the teen in the Ottawa parking lot, also reports being traumatized.
The mother of the six-year-old Black girl shackled by police issued a statement in which she says that she, “can now focus on what lies ahead, which is making my daughter whole.”
Unfortunately, there are many steps that must be taken in the United States and Canada to allow Black children to have the freedom to explore, play, and ask the questions that are a normal part of growing up. To allow them the simple joy of being children. Perhaps the obvious first, small step, is to refuse to abide narratives wherein a 14-year-old Black boy becomes “a guy” and a six-year-old Black girl becomes a threat to herself and others.
- This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.