The annual train trip on the Napa Valley wine train was supposed to be an opportunity for the members of a mostly black women's book club to enjoy themselves and discuss their latest read. Instead, they say they were kicked off the train because of their race.
The 11 members of the Sisters on the Reading Edge book club, all but one of whom is African American, say the Napa Valley Wine Train ordered them off Saturday, mid-journey and that they are considering taking legal action.
As debate built Monday on social media under the hashtag #laughingwhileblack, wine train spokesman Sam Singer said train employees had asked the women to either quiet down or get off the wine train and accept a free bus ride back to their starting point.
A manager on the train repeatedly told the women they were laughing and talking too loudly, book-club member Lisa Renee Johnson told San Francisco television station KTVU.
"We didn't do anything wrong," said Johnson, who chronicled the episode via cellphone videos. On Facebook, Twitter and Yelp on Monday, defenders of the women posted videos of other, past noisy groups celebrating on the wine train, and they debated the wine train's action with its supporters.
"We still feel this is about race. We were singled out," Johnson told KTVU.
Johnson, an author from Antioch, has organized the group's annual Napa day trips for the past 17 years, she told the Oakland Tribune.
Johnson said she has not ruled out filing a lawsuit against the train company concerning the episode, which she deemed "racially charged" and "disheartening."
On social media the debate is heating up.
Wine-train employees marched the book club members through six railroad cars before escorting them off the train, the women said.
Employees of the Napa Valley Wine Train, which offers food and wine to passengers as they roll to Napa County wineries in updated Pullman cars, had asked the book club members to either be quieter or get off the train, Singer said Monday. "The book club clearly was fun-loving, boisterous and loud enough that it affected the experience of some of the passengers who were in the same car, who complained to staff," he said.
The company refunded the women's ticket money, Singer said.
The women have since been given a full refund by the train company, but continue to seek a public apology.
In a statement Sunday, Napa Valley Wine Train spokeswoman Kira Devitt told the San Francisco Chronicle that the company “received complaints from several parties in the same car and after three attempts from staff, requesting that the group keep the noise to an acceptable level, they were removed from the train and offered transportation back to the station in Napa.”
On average, Singer said, individuals or groups are asked to get off the wine train once a month for one reason or the other. "It's not a question of bias," he said.
However, a police spokeswoman in the Napa Valley town of St. Helena, which the wine train summoned Saturday, said it was the first time she recalled the wine train seeking police help removing a large group.
The 11 women, one of them 83 years old, already were off the train when St. Helena police arrived, police spokeswoman Maria Gonzalez said.
“People were looking at us,” Johnson said. “To get escorted into the hands of waiting police officers. That’s the humiliating part,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.
Wine train employees had called the police to deal with what they reported were "11 disruptive females," Gonzalez said.
Police arrived at the railway siding and found "there was no crime being committed ... nobody was intoxicated, there were no issues." So officers left, Gonzalez said.
In the past, she said, the town's police had responded to wine-train calls to offload passengers because of domestic incidents on board or for fighting.
Johnson did not immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press seeking comment Monday.