Eric Risberg / AP

Black women's book club ordered off California tourist train

Weekend incident in Napa Valley sparks debate on social media using hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack

Members of a book club say the luxe Napa Valley Wine Train in California kicked them off because they are black.

The 11 members of the Sisters on the Reading Edge, all but one of whom is African American, say the tourist-oriented rail attraction ordered them off Saturday, mid-journey.

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. Singer, a specialist in crisis communications, was hired Monday, local news site SFGate.com reported.

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.

“We sipped wine, enjoyed each other's company but our trip is being cut short,” Johnson wrote on her Facebook page according to The Los Angeles Times. “If we all laugh at the same time it's loud!”

On Facebook, Twitter and Yelp on Monday, defenders of the women posted videos of other, past noisy groups celebrating on the Wine Train.

“We still feel this is about race. We were singled out,” Johnson told KTVU.

Wine Train employees marched the members of the Bay Area book club 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 costs of the women's tickets, Singer said. Standard train tours cost between $124 and $234, according to the site.

Counter to what Johnson told KTVU, Singer told the Times that the group’s removal from the train “wasn’t an issue of bias. ... It was an issue of noise.” Still, the company issued an apology reported in California media Monday, the Times reported. 

Johnson refused to accept the apology, telling SFGate.com that the company had failed to “accept responsibility” for the incident.

On average, individuals or groups are asked to get off the wine train once a month for one reason or the other, Singer said, adding, “It's not a question of bias.” 

However, a police spokeswoman in the Napa Valley town of St. Helena, said it was the first time she recalled the Wine Train seeking police help removing a large group.

The women, one of whom is 83 years old, had disembarked from the train by the time St. Helena police officers arrived, said police spokeswoman Maria Gonzalez.

Wine train employees had called the police to deal with what they reported were “11 disruptive females,” said Gonzalez.

Police arrived at the railway siding to find “there was no crime being committed ... nobody was intoxicated, there were no issues” and 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.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press    

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