What should have been an uneventful stay for Donisha Prendergast, the eldest grandchild of Bob and Rita Marley, in the suburban community of Rialto, California, instead became an unexpected news story that has unfolded under increasingly familiar circumstances.
Prendergast was visiting southern California during the last weekend in April working as the head of documentation and live social media for Kaya Fest, a reggae festival celebrating socially conscious music, founded/presented by Donisha’s uncle Stephen Marley’s Fruit of Life Productions. At about 12:30 p.m. PT on April 30, immediately after checking out of a Rialto Airbnb property that Prendergast had rented with Canada-based black colleagues, documentary filmmaker Kelly Fyffe-Marshall and visual artist Komi-Oluwa Olafimihan, along with Prendergast’s white assistant, the quartet were in a car near the Airbnb property when they were surrounded by seven police vehicles. The cops exited their cars, hands on their guns’ holsters, and ordered the Prendergast party to put their hands up as a helicopter hovered above the scene. Law enforcement was responding to a neighbor’s call claiming three black people were “breaking into” a nearby home. The neighbor’s suspicions were further raised, she told police, when the trio refused to smile at her and wave hello.
An accomplished actress, documentarian, motivational speaker and activist who led the 2014 campaign to prevent developers from building houses on Pinnacle, a 500-acre hilltop site and Jamaica’s first self-sustaining Rastafarian community founded in the 1940s, Prendergast did not comply with the Rialto policemen’s command to put her hands in the air. She explained her actions to Billboard in an interview immediately following a May 10 press conference in New York City, which she held with her colleagues and attorneys Jasmine Rand and Benjamin Crump in front of the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building in Harlem.
“I grew up as Rastafari, knowing there was an alternative to the system. There is a lot about the system that I don’t acknowledge, so their power as policemen is subjective and I am not subjected to it,” Prendergast commented. “When I was ordered to put my hands up I looked at one of the policemen and said are you serious? From the first few minutes, they knew that they were wrong but there is no protocol to deescalate the situation. They never drew weapons and at no moment was I afraid; I just felt sorry for them because they looked like robots repeating protocol. The police got a call about a potential burglary in process and they sent seven vehicles, a helicopter and not one black officer but they knew it was three black people there. What did they expect would happen? We have to revise this protocol because it has resulted in many destructive ends; I am sure that one of the reasons why the police were so well behaved in this case is because of who I am.”
Donisha Prendergast, 33, is the daughter of Peter Prendergast, former Jamaican soccer referee and Sharon Marley, Rita Marley’s eldest child who was adopted by Bob Marley when she was a baby. Sharon and her siblings, Bob and Rita’s children Ziggy, Cedella and Stephen, formed the Melody Makers in 1979. They released 10 studio albums and won several awards including three Grammys before disbanding in 2002. From the time Prendergast was a baby she was a part of the Melody Makers’ touring entourage and she calls the experience “the most amazing years of my life. When my family was on the road it was new cities, new people, strange interactions that stimulate your mind,” she happily reminisced. “I was backstage or at the side of the stage and when they played (Bob Marley’s) “Could You Be Loved” or “Look Who’s Dancing” all of us kids would come out and dance on stage. From a very early age I overstood (understood) the empowerment that music gives you to help heal humanity; listen to my grandfather’s music, it’s that kind of empowerment.”
Attorneys Jasmine Rand and Benjamin Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, said that they are asking the Rialto Police department to conduct an internal investigation into the officers, who detained Prendergast and her party for approximately 45 minutes. “No lawsuit has been filed yet but we have put them on notice of future litigation and requested all of the documents, evidence and information. We want to investigate for ourselves exactly what happened that day and to what extent Donisha, Kelly and Komi’s constitutional rights were violated,” Rand explained at the Harlem press conference. “But that’s not enough. Under the state of California laws and the laws of most U.S. states, if a person places a false or misleading call to the police, they can be held criminally liable for endangering the lives of others. We want the Rialto police to open a criminal investigation into the woman who placed the racist call. When I heard the neighbor refer to Kelly, Komi and Donisha as suspicious, I thought it’s the same thing that made Trayvon Martin suspicious to George Zimmerman and that’s the color of their skin.”
“The police came there and said to these young people, prove to us that you are not stealing, all based on a phone call from a lady who said they didn’t wave and smile at her,” added Benjamin Crump. “In America you are innocent until proven guilty but they had to prove they were innocent because of the color of their skin. This isn’t South African Apartheid. What’s next? Will they have to have permits allowing them to be in certain places? We demand to have the 911 call made public. Then you will understand the fear of every black person accosted by the police without provocation, knowing just by having black skin could mean an indictment that could end your life. We have to hold those officers accountable to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
The Rialto Police Department held a press conference on May 8 with Police Chief Mark Kling expressing confidence that the officers involved with the situation “handled the call for service with the utmost dignity, respect, and even attempted to establish a rapport with the four individuals that they stopped. We have all learned the value of neighborhood watch over the last 30 years and someone who was vigilant saw something and reported something that they thought was out of the ordinary. That person is now receiving threats and our department is being ridiculed in the media. We utilized every tool that we could, including the diversity of our officers, regardless of their skin color, to understand how to treat people.” Further, Kling characterized a letter the Rialto Police department received from Airbnb’s Senior Advisor and Director of National Partnerships Laura Murphy, suggesting that the police’s response was dictated by the guests’ race, as “an unfair assumption. It doesn’t get us anywhere to build an assumption without the facts; this is not a racial issue, it has everything to do with building better partnerships with our businesses and we hope that Airbnb would help us to achieve that.”
Fyffe-Marshall told Billboard that the neighbor never waved or attempted to speak to them but instead watched them from a corner of her front lawn while on her phone. “This happened to the right people because Donisha, Komi and I feel like we can use this platform to stop it from happening any more. From the arrests of black men at the Waffle House to the white student who called the police on the black female student sleeping in the Yale dorm (common area) it’s like there’s nothing you can do as a black person without someone calling the cops on you,” Fyffe-Marshall stated.
With the Harlem press conference taking place on the eve of the 37th anniversary of Bob Marley’ s passing (May 11, 1981) Prendergast said she had been thinking about her grandfather’s contributions in light of the recent events. “My grandfather died for these things, for people to have equal rights, but even the legacy he left can’t protect me. His song ‘No Woman No Cry’ is so strong, so potent to me but I found it hard to say to myself that everything is going to be alright, that’s why it has taken us so long to say something about the incident,” Prendergast told Billboard, referencing the Marley classic’s poignant lyrics. “Right now, my mind is consumed with how we can heal the divisions between black and white in America. A lot of people love my grandpa’s music, black, white, young, old, so let’s have a real conversation now. ‘One Love’ is more than just a song of his that people love to sing, it’s an action, a movement, and we need more soldiers on this mission of love.”