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Black Airbnb guests seek dialogue with police and 911 caller

The renters said that while they are considering a lawsuit, they would like to see policy changes so situations like theirs are handled more respectfully.
Image: Donisha Prendergast, the eldest granddaughter of reggae icon Bob Marley, speaks during an interview on a hilltop known to Rastafarians as \"Pinnacle\" in Sligoville, Jamaica, Jan. 4, 2014.
Donisha Prendergast, a granddaughter of reggae icon Bob Marley, was one of three Airbnb renters questioned by police in Rialto, California, on April 30.David McFadden / AP

The moment that seven police cars converged on four young people — three of them black filmmakers — before they could drive away from their Airbnb rental in Southern California last week didn't come as a complete surprise to the group.

One of the filmmakers told reporters Thursday that she had seen a woman on the phone across the street from the rental, located in a mostly white neighborhood in the city of Rialto, and figured out what the woman was doing.

"I joked ... 'She's gonna call the police,' " Kelly Fyffe-Marshall said during a news conference in New York.

The neighbor did, setting off a chain of events that was shared on social media as the renters were questioned for more than 20 minutes — one of the latest incidents adding to the complex national conversation about racial biases and policing.

After learning from authorities that the white woman had waved and smiled at the group as they packed up their cars — and then proceeded to call police when she didn't get a response — the filmmakers were alarmed.

"We just saw her on the phone," said Fyffe-Marshall, who also uses the nickname Kells. "We didn't see a wave and we didn't see a smile."

The filmmakers, who are being represented by high-profile civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, said they are only in the early stages of a potential lawsuit, but would like to set up a meeting with the police department in Rialto, the mayor's office and the neighbor who called 911.

Donisha Prendergast, another one of the Airbnb renters, said she hopes that some sort of policy change can come out of the interaction. She also wants more understanding in situations that, like hers, grew increasingly tense and was blown out of proportion, she said.

"What we need is more love," Prendergast, who is also a granddaughter of reggae legend Bob Marley, told reporters. Prendergast was an associate producer of a short 2017 film, "Haven," that Fyffe-Marshall directed.

In an Instagram photo taken during the April 30 episode, Fyffe-Marshall said the officers demanded that the renters put their hands in the air and were told that a helicopter was tracking them. (The Rialto police said Thursday that they had initially requested helicopter coverage in case the renters tried to flee, but canceled the helicopter when they did not.)

"At first we joked about the misunderstanding and took photos and videos along the way. About 20 minutes into this misunderstanding it escalated almost instantly," Fyffe-Marshall wrote.

She said a sergeant who arrived on the scene claimed not to know what Airbnb was and then made the renters prove that they had used the service to stay at the home.

"We showed them the booking confirmations and phoned the landlord ... because they didn't know what she looked like on the other end to confirm it was her," Fyffe-Marshall said. "They detained us — because they were investigating a felony charge — for 45 minutes while they figured it out."

A woman can be heard in the Instagram videos speaking on the phone as the owner of the home. She could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday by NBC News.

In an interview Monday with The Sun of San Bernardino County, homeowner Marie Rodriguez said she doesn't believe that the incident was racially motivated, as suggested by the filmmakers. The four people, whom she described as college kids and activists, caught the interest of the neighbor because they were leaving in a hurried manner and in an unrecognized car.

She said the neighbor smiled and waved to them, but they didn't respond, which triggered her concern.

"It was based on their rudeness and lack of good nature that caused her to call the police," Rodriguez told the newspaper. "It had nothing to do with being black."

But Prendergast said Thursday that the neighbor should not have called the police simply because the renters neglected to wave back at her.

"Do you not realize what happened because of your fear?" she asked.

"The word of a black person versus the word of a white person — I don't even need to explain it," she added, before directing her frustration toward police. "Why do I need to say one, two, three, four, five times that we were guests?"

Other cases of perceived bias have gained attention in recent weeks after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks last month while waiting for a business meeting. That arrest led to protests and the coffee chain's announcement that it will temporarily close stores for an upcoming afternoon of racial-sensitivity training.

Yale University also apologized Wednesday after campus police were called on a black student who fell asleep in the common area of her residence hall. In videos shared on Facebook, the student — who identified herself as Lolade Siyonbola — can be heard telling officers: "I deserve to be here. I paid tuition like everybody else. I am not going to justify my existence here."

A dean for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences later said, "Incidents like that of last night remind us of the continued work needed to make Yale a truly inclusive place."

And in another incident last week, police removed two Native American teenagers from a Colorado State University campus tour after a parent said she was nervous because the boys were acting "too quiet."

Responding to criticism in the Airbnb case, police officials in Rialto held a news conference Tuesday to defend the officers' actions.

"The videos speak for themselves," Rialto’s interim police chief, Mark Kling, told reporters. "Our officers handled the situation with professionalism, dignity and respect."

Airbnb said in a statement that it was "deeply disturbed" by the reports, and it would also like to meet with Rialto police and the city's mayor.

Police Lt. Dean Hardin said Thursday that the department was open to meeting with the Airbnb guests.

The office of Mayor Deborah Robertson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Crump, who has represented the families of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, both young black men killed in fatal shootings, said meaningful change will come when the burden is no longer on people of color to "prove their right" to be in a certain space.

"When black people did not show deference to [the neighbor], they must be criminals, they must be up to something nefarious," Crump said, adding that the neighbor's 911 call should be released.

"We want to prevent future fatalities of black people [by police] just because a white person felt fear," he added.