Washington - They checked out of their Airbnb rental. They loaded their suitcases into the car. Then they found themselves surrounded by police.
Moments before, a neighbour had watched the three black women carry their luggage out of the Rialto, California, house. She didn't recognise the guests as homeowners, so she called the police about a possible residential burglary in progress, police said. Police responded as they typically would to a report of an in-progress burglary, sending six police officers and a helicopter to the scene with the goal of surrounding the house's perimeter, making it difficult for the criminals to escape, Rialto Police Lt. Dean Hardin told The Washington Post.
The April 30 incident is the latest example of law enforcement summoned by a business or individual to deal with minorities who had simply been going about their day. Last month, two black men were arrested for trespassing in Philadelphia after a Starbucks employee called police because they hadn't purchased anything. Last week, two Native American brothers were pulled from a Colorado State University tour after a parent told a 911 dispatcher that their behavior was "odd" and that their dark clothing had "weird symbolism or wording on it."
A video of the Rialto incident went viral this week. On Monday, police said in a news release that they were served with notice of a lawsuit on behalf of the guests: Donisha Prendergast, a filmmaker and a granddaughter of Bob Marley; Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, also a filmmaker; and Komi-Oluwa Olafimihan, an artist. The group was visiting Rialto for an event.
The Airbnb guests and police tell different stories of what occurred after police arrived to the house on West Loma Vista Drive around 12:36 a.m. But both recorded the encounter. The guests captured it on their phones and subsequently posted the videos to social media. Police say officers wore body cameras, which provided footage that was "accurate and unedited," and say the department is confident that the officers involved treated the guests with "dignity, respect and professionalism," according to the news release.
But Prendergast wrote on Instagram that she and the guests "got surrounded by the police for being black in a white neighborhood."
"I'm sad and irritated to see that fear is still the first place police officers go in their pursuit to serve and protect, to the point that protocol supersedes their ability to have discernment," she wrote.
Olafimihan wrote on Instagram that "over 700 people that look just like me did not walk away alive from a situation like this last year."
Fyffe-Marshall wrote on Instagram that when police arrived, they demanded the guests put their hands in the air and informed them that a helicopter was tracking them.
"They locked down the neighborhood and had us standing in the street. Why? A neighbour across the street saw 3 black people packing luggage into their car and assumed we were stealing from the house," she wrote.
Fyffe-Marshall wrote that about 20 minutes into the encounter, the misunderstanding escalated "almost instantly."
"Their Sergeant arrived," she wrote. "He explained they didn't know what Airbnb was. He insisted that we were lying about it and said we had to prove it. 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. . . they detained us," Fyffe-Marshall wrote, adding that officers investigated the incident as a possible felony for 45 minutes. She added that the neighbor had called the police because the guests had failed to wave at her while loading their luggage into the car.
Fyffe-Marshall did not respond to a request from The Post for comment. Prendergast's manager, Patricia Scarlett, told the Mercury News that requests for interviews will be delayed until Prendergast's legal counsel can issue a news release and a longer version of the viral video.
Hardin, the police lieutenant, said that once officers arrived to the house, they "recognized quickly" that there was no burglary in progress. He said officers canceled their request for a helicopter, and spent a total of 22 minutes verifying that the guests were staying at the rental lawfully.
"After that, we sent them on their way," he said. "We felt our officers acted professionally. We thought it was a good outcome for everyone involved. We didn't detain anyone in handcuffs. . . we didn't restrict their movement, they were allowed to walk around. We detained them just enough to figure out if they were lawfully in that house. No force was used."
Hardin confirmed that the guests were asked to show officers their hands in case they were carrying weapons, and confirmed that one of the officers didn't know what Airbnb was, but was "quickly educated by the officers." He added that officers learned the residence was an unlicensed Airbnb.
But Rialto police don't believe the April 30 encounter had anything to do with race.
"Unfortunately, when we receive a phone call for something of this type of significance - a burglary in progress - we have to respond," Hardin said. "As far as the racial aspect, I don't believe that's even a factor in this call. We're responding to what we're being told. And we will be neglect if we didn't respond."
The owner of the Rialto home where the guests stayed, Marie Rodriguez, told the Mercury News she was shocked at how the encounter has been portrayed online.
"They're making it sound like it's racially motivated, and it has nothing to do with that," she said. "It's all over social media."
Airbnb in the past has faced problems with discrimination, but those concerns typically involved the people renting out their properties. The company in 2016 released a 32-page report on its plans to crack down on discrimination and has worked to service more minority communities.
"The fact that this neighbour was not a member of the Airbnb community doesn't change the fact that what happened to our Guests is unconscionable and a reminder of how far we still have to go as a society," Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas said in a statement to The Post Monday.
He said the company has reached out to the guests to express its sympathy and support.
"While we do fundamentally believe in the power of travel to break down historic barriers and have faith in our fellow humans, we will continue to do all we can to make sure our Guests feel like they belong when they travel to different communities around the world," Papas wrote.
Fyffe-Marshall in her post about the incident called it traumatic.
"We have been dealing with different emotions and you want to laugh about this but it's not funny," she wrote. "I've been angry, frustrated and sad. I was later detained at the airport. This is insanity."