Monifah Brown and her friends thought they'd found the perfect place to stay during their Miami Beach vacation. The condo unit was right on Ocean Drive, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach. Brown, a 24-year-old from London, was thrilled to score a reservation there on Booking.com.
But things took a bizarre and virulently racist turn after Brown, who is black, took too long to respond to a message the condo's owner, Giulia Ozyesilpinar, sent her on WhatsApp. In screenshots and recordings Brown shared with New Times, Ozyesilpinar repeatedly calls Brown a monkey and a "nigger." Ozyesilpinar also sent voice recordings saying, "You're a nigger" and making monkey noises before asking, "You want banana?" She even posted a video on YouTube of Brown's ID next to a photo of a monkey.
Ultimately, Booking.com removed the condo from its website — but only after a friend of Brown's posted the screenshots on Twitter.
"I'm just so shocked," says 21-year-old Moesha Bennett, who planned on making the September trip with Brown. "I've never, ever, ever come across anything like this in my life... I don't think I still want to go to Miami."
In a phone conversation with New Times, Ozyesilpinar defended herself by claiming Brown insulted her first, though the screenshots don't reflect that, and Brown denies it. As the condo owner's messages to Brown spread across social media and people left Google reviews calling her racist, a person listed as the owner of Ocean Five Condo Hotel responded with the word "NIGGER." Those comments had vanished by Monday afternoon, after New Times spoke with Ozyesilpinar. In an earlier comment that remained online, the owner responded to a person who accused her of racial profiling by saying, "We don't like Monkeys like you with stupid questions."
In a cliched defense of her actions, Ozyesilpinar told New Times she has black friends and is a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton. She claimed some of the messages were fabricated, although the screenshots show they were sent from her phone number. She also says she doesn't regret using the word "monkey," adding that "being racist is not illegal."
"We live in a free world," she says. "We have freedom of speech. If I want to call somebody a monkey, I should be able to say that."
The dispute between Brown and Ozyesilpinar began when Ozyesilpinar said there was a problem with Brown's credit card, and Brown didn't respond for several hours. According to Brown's screenshots, Ozyesilpinar wrote, "You acting with lies gives very very bad picture for all of the black people please try to act like a lady and be a very good representation of black people and not a lying untrustable person giving bad name to black people."
Brown responded by writing, "After your recent racist messages that you text to my phone, I no longer now feel comfortable staying in your property." She added that she would share the messages with Booking.com. The screenshots show Ozyesilpinar responded, "Shut your mouth fuckin nigger." Brown says it only got worse from there, as Ozyesilpinar assailed her with racist voice recordings and emails.
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Brown says she then called Booking.com to ask that Ocean Five Condo Hotel be removed from the site. Bennett says she only posted the screenshots online after the company failed to take immediate action. "Can you believe @bookingcom are refusing to remove this property off there website?!!!" she wrote. By Monday, several hours after the tweet was posted, Booking.com responded by saying it had removed the condo. Airbnb said it, too, had taken the condo down.
A Booking.com spokeswoman did not respond to a question about why the listing wasn't deleted earlier. She sent the following statement: "At Booking.com, we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and if we find that an accommodation listed on our site engages in discriminatory behaviour, we cease our working relationship and remove them from our site, just as we have done in this case. We are also in direct contact with the customer to see how we can best support them further with their trip."
But Bennett and Brown, who say they wanted the listing removed because they worried about the safety of other black people who might stay at the condo, are disappointed it took being called out on Twitter for Booking.com to act.
"It shouldn't have been taken so lightly in the first place," Brown says. "I will appreciate now that Booking.com are trying to do everything they can to resolve it; I will say that now. But it took thousands of people on social media to get to that place."