When a woman from South Carolina told Paul she wanted to rent his upstairs on Airbnb for a “history sight seeing trip” in Washington, D.C., he had no reason to think that she was lying. His rowhouse is in Columbia Heights — about an hour’s hike from the monuments — and the back-and-forth he’d had with the ostensible tourist seemed standard. But as the date of her arrival approached, a neighbor asked him if he happened to have any information about who might be coming to town that week. It hadn’t previously occurred to Paul that his guest might be participating in the “Stop the Steal” protest. It certainly never crossed his mind that he might be quartering insurrectionists.
A longtime Airbnb host, Paul already suspected he wouldn’t have a ton of ability to vet his guests when accepting their bookings. As part of its effort to root out racial discrimination, the company penalizes hosts who renege on an arrangement after receiving a customer’s photo. He wanted to prevent a ding on his profile, sure, but also generally felt weird about canceling. After all, who was he, “a die-hard Democrat and a supporter of American democracy generally,” to say that people couldn’t come to make their voices heard?
But when the woman who called herself Melissa arrived on January 5 with seven other people, Paul kept one eye on the news and the other on the exterior cameras he’d installed around his property. Then, at 7:30 in the morning on January 6, he watched with trepidation from the rowhouse’s basement apartment as his visitors headed southeast toward the Capitol with a MAGA flag. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh fuck, I’ve got a problem,’” he said.
Everyone knows what happened next. Trump supporters — many of whom had traveled from out of town — attacked the Capitol as lawmakers voted to certify the results of the presidential election, leaving five people dead. But as millions watched the scene play out on cable news, Paul was panicking about the chaos that might soon be returning to his home. He called Airbnb customer service looking for guidance. A representative said he would give him a call back, though no one did. All he could do was stay glued to the cameras and watch one of his guests who had returned pace on the porch, pull from a Miller Lite, and, according to footage reviewed by Intelligencer, say into his cell phone:
“We stormed the Capitol, we got inside of it.”
Paul’s stomach dropped as he learned more about his guest’s true intentions in coming to D.C.: “Trump said we’re gonna march over to the Capitol Building … And we’re going to tell them what’s been happening,” the man said. “To be honest, they deserved it.”
Fearing for his safety, Paul left to go stay at a friend’s place. (He agreed to tell his story on a first-name basis owing to these same concerns for his well-being.) When he woke up, he had two messages, also reviewed by Intelligencer, from Airbnb’s support staff: the first at almost midnight requesting more information and another about an hour later saying Airbnb had closed his case since it didn’t receive a response while he was asleep. Realizing he wasn’t going to be able to get any assurances from Airbnb that his guests would be banned from using the platform in the future, he sent his footage to the FBI tip line and hoped it would arrest them. (Airbnb said it has now “suspended the guest pending a thorough investigation.” The FBI declined to comment.)
When Paul finally returned home the next day, it looked as if no one had been there except for a lone cigarette butt outside his front door. If he didn’t also have video evidence that they were insurrectionists, they would have been perfect guests, worthy of a five-star review, he said.
“As we’ve learned through media or law enforcement sources the names of individuals confirmed to have been responsible for the violent criminal activity at the United States Capitol on January 6, we’ve investigated whether the named individuals have an account on Airbnb,” the company said in a press release the following Wednesday. “Through this work, we have identified numerous individuals who are either associated with known hate groups or otherwise involved in the criminal activity at the Capitol Building, and they have been banned from Airbnb’s platform.”
Eric, another host in the D.C. area who also agreed to speak on a first-name basis, said he got a message in late December from a woman named “Lindsay” who claimed she was coming to town on January 5 to cover the inauguration as a journalist. That far out from January 20 made no sense — something that Eric didn’t quite realize at the time. But even after he started to hear news about a forthcoming protest and put the pieces together, he felt assured about the fact that his guest would at least be a woman rather than a Proud Boy.
So Eric was a little shaken when two dudes showed up at his door instead. “I’m African American and my wife is white,” he said. “When I had to go pick up my 3-year-old son from day care, I said I didn’t feel comfortable with her staying, so we went to pick him up together.”
All told, the guests ended up being outwardly respectful, though Eric said that might have something to do with the fact his house is surrounded by Biden yard signs. What he accidentally overheard was much more troubling. That night, he eavesdropped on conversations happening downstairs that led him to believe they may have been at the Capitol and that they were planning to return the following week. He still thought about flagging “Lindsay”’s profile to Airbnb but ultimately figured it would do nothing. Plus he thought he might be putting his family in danger.
“It was a question of, ‘Do you poke the bear, or do you not poke the bear?’” he said. “It’s not like an Uber where when they drive away, you’ll likely never see that person again. With Airbnb, they know where you live.”
For his part, Paul tried to take matters into his own hands when he realized Airbnb’s customer-support staff was ill-equipped to deal with a possible coup of the U.S. government. He left a strongly worded review of his guests, hoping that it might deter other people from renting to them.
“When Melissa booked my Airbnb, she claimed it was for a ‘history sight seeing trip’ but instead she and her guests made history by participating in the most horrific attack on our democracy at the Capitol building on January 6, 2021,” he wrote. “She and her guests returned after the riot and bragged in front of my house, captured on my Ring doorbell, ‘I was there … I didn’t want to get involved as much as I did but to be honest they deserved it.’ A Capitol Police officer was murdered and four of the rioters lost their lives. I wouldn’t recommend renting to Melissa.”
It was only then, Paul said, that he got a call back from the company. Soon after he posted his screed, it informed him that Melissa wanted to rescind the review that she had left for him and that the request had been granted. “So I went off on this person saying, ‘How the fuck are you gonna let her rescind her review when I have evidence of this person participating in an attack on the Capitol?’” The company gave him another number to call — the same one he’d been trying to no avail since the guests had arrived.
After the riot at the Capitol, local NextDoor groups were filled with reports of terrorized residents, including one person who said that their truck had been vandalized with a Trump 2020 bumper sticker and another who said she’d been in a screaming match with some MAGA folks who had been staying at a nearby Airbnb. Users began to crowdsource ideas on how to prevent the same scene from playing out again later in the month. “I thought these individuals would be back and using Airbnb to quarter themselves in our communities,” said Mount Pleasant resident James Benson. “There needed to be a movement encouraging our neighbors to either delist their properties for that weekend or do their due diligence in selecting who stays in their properties.” He started the hashtag #DontRentDC to pressure Airbnb to temporarily suspend business operations in the area. Other activists recruited volunteers to reason with local hosts individually and ended up reaching out to the hosts of more than 3,000 listings.
Those same people are currently putting pressure on other short-term rental platforms, such as Vrbo, to follow Airbnb’s lead and cancel D.C.-area reservations in the lead-up to Inauguration Day. But Benson, who started the hashtag, also realizes that his efforts to prevent agitators from returning to the District might be futile. “There will be die-hard doomsday believers that will show up anyway, no matter what barriers they see,” he said. “Those barriers may even further their determination to show up. If you were told that the only way to save you and your family from the hellscape you’ve been imagining is to fight back with whatever you’ve got, you would still show up, too.”