Editor’s Note: Elliot Williams is a CNN legal analyst. He is a former deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department and a principal at The Raben Group, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @elliotcwilliams. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
“How is one girl accusing a guy about a phone a crime?”
It’s not. But the question, posed by Miya Ponsetto in a rambling CBS “This Morning” interview, which aired in two parts last week and on Monday, offers a window into the ways Black people – even children – still have to fight for our humanity every day.
Ms. Ponsetto, 22, falsely accused 14-year-old Keyon Harrold Jr. of stealing her iPhone in a New York City boutique hotel lobby in December. The teenager’s father, a Black jazz musician, captured the confrontation in a cell phone video that went viral, and security footage from the hotel showed Ponsetto trying to tackle the teenager. Last week, according to a Ventura County Sheriff’s Office news release, Ponsetto was arrested in California on a “fugitive warrant in connection with a recent assault at a New York City hotel.” She has been charged with two counts of attempted assault, New York police said. (A lawyer representing Ponsetto said in a statement that Ponsetto is innocent.)
She did herself no favors during the interview. In it, she meandered, failed to take responsibility for her actions, rudely cut host Gayle King off, claimed she could not be racist because she, too, is a woman of color, and also cast herself as a victim. (Her attorney at the time noted that she is concerned about Ponsetto’s mental health, saying, “Miya is emotionally unwell, mentally unfit and lacking stability to pursue these interviews.”) The performance earned her a fair amount of criticism online. Ponsetto is an easy target, but she is little more than a symptom of a bigger problem: the society that produced her and enables dangerous behavior like hers.
Even if she was not aware of it, her statement about “one girl accusing a guy about a phone” is dripping with the racial bias that Black people face daily. Yes, according to Ponsetto, she did approach others at the hotel regarding her phone, and yes, the New York Police Department is not treating this as a case of racial bias. But one cannot look at the video or her explanation of the scene and come away thinking she had any reasoned basis for believing Harrold was a thief or attaching him based on unfounded suspicion. (To be more direct: It’s always most natural to blame the Black kid.) She created scenarios that Black people have feared since time immemorial and confront daily: Of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of being accused of crimes we didn’t commit, of our freedom hinging on our word against someone else’s.
Her use of the words “guy” and “girl” also creates a false equivalence. It’s important to remember that she and the victim are not peers: She is a grown woman, speaking about a 14-year-old boy. It’s telling that she later minimizes her status, saying “I’m a 22-year-old girl,” while elevating his.
In doing so, she carried on a timeless American tradition. Research published by the American Psychological Association in 2017 found that people see Black men as bigger, stronger, scarier, and more deserving of force than White men, even when they are the same size. In 2014, a study also found that that they see Black boys as young as 10 as older and less innocent than White boys. Who can forget that terms like “menacing” were used to describe 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was gunned down by a police officer at a playground in Cleveland in 2014?
Thankfully, no one was seriously injured at the hotel in December. But it escalated to physical violence, and there is far less space between a scuffle in a hotel lobby and tragic police shootings than many people might think (or be willing to accept).
In a way, I envy her brazenness. When deputies tried to pull her over, she continued driving home and refused to get out of the car when they told her they were arresting her – behavior that would be unthinkable for many Black people. In addition, in the CBS interview, she said that she felt she needed to approach and apprehend the victim because she wanted “to do [her] part as best as [she] could” while the hotel manager was checking footage – as if a mere hunch that a Black child had wronged her gave her license to put her hands, quite viciously, on him as he tried to get away from her.
It must be an enormous luxury to go through life with the belief that you are entitled to use violent force when it suits you, and that the law and social order will shield you when you do. May the world never forget that Ahmaud Arbery, 25, is no longer alive because three White men, two of whom were heavily armed, felt empowered to get into their pickup trucks and hunt him down while he was jogging near his home. One of them thought Arbery looked like a Black man suspected of break-ins in the area, and their decision to take the law into their own hands cost Arbery his life. (All three men face malice and felony murder charges and have pleaded not guilty.)
Though the events took place on a vastly different scale, Ponsetto’s behavior also makes total sense with the backdrop of riot at the US Capitol Building last week. It takes a profound sense of entitlement and invincibility to seize the presiding officer’s chair in the United States Senate, smile for photos when stealing the Speaker of the House’s lectern, or prop a foot up on her desk and leave a threatening note. Even worse – multiple state elected officials participated in the riot.
It is an inhumanly unfair world we live in in which people, often White ones, can be so confident that they will face no consequences for such behavior, either from legal authorities or, more tragically, from voters. Their nonchalance and entitlement are as striking as their criminality.
I live blocks from the Capitol Building. Despite a decade working in law enforcement – even prosecuting cases for a period on behalf of the US Capitol Police – I still tense up sometimes when jogging past officers there. I was raised from a young age to keep my hands on the wheel and not make any sudden moves during traffic stops. The various incidents of last week, in different ways, make vividly clear that our society does not force every one of its members into proceeding through their days with such terror and caution.
It might be easy to mock or discount Ms. Ponsetto. Much about her interview, down to her baseball cap with the word “Daddy” embroidered on it, was cringeworthy at best. But she is far more a representative of America than we might care to admit.