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Removal of black women from Napa Valley Wine Train sparks outrage

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The Napa Valley Wine Train remained embroiled in controversy Monday following a weekend incident when staff on the luxury train kicked off a book club of 10 black women and one white woman, saying they were noisy and disruptive.

The incident, coming at a time when race relations and the treatment of black Americans are increasingly a live wire, quickly became a flashpoint, with the women and their supporters charging that they were treated poorly and differently because they are black.

“It was clearly about race. It was about entitlement,” said Lisa Johnson, 47, of Antioch, a book club member who has emerged as the voice of the group, which included one 83-year-old grandmother.

Wine Train spokesman Sam Singer on Monday said the events were “an unfortunate incident that’s not about bias, but really a misunderstanding.”

He said that the women were given the choice to leave or quiet down after being warned three times. Johnson said there were two warnings, the first of which took place just as the train was departing the Napa station.

The group was happy and laughing, said Johnson, when one woman — who she said was white — spurred the confrontation, saying, “This isn’t a bar.”

“We were like, ‘What? This is a bar, the bar is right there, we are looking at a bar, we are ordering wine from a bar,’ ” said Johnson.

Singer said there is not a bar in the train car, but there is a wine station where wine is poured for customers who order it.

Johnson said the Wine Train maitre d’ also told the group that when they laughed, other patrons were uncomfortable and “she could see it in other people’s faces.”

Johnson said that when she replied, “It feels like we’re being singled out,” the maitre d’ said, “ ‘This can’t be racial because I’m Latina,’ and I was, like, ‘That doesn’t even matter.’ ”

Johnson, a fiction novelist and avid social media user, chronicled the Saturday episode on Facebook with photos and written accounts as it took place. Outrage spread virally across social media — on Facebook, Twitter and Yelp — spearheaded by the hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack. Reaction was overwhelmingly critical of the Wine Train.

Johnson said the women want an apology.

“It was about another customer’s feeling that they had the entitlement to be on the train, and we did not,” she said.

Wine Train officials said they believe that proper procedures were followed in asking the group to leave, but they are trying to reach out to the women.

“We would like to apologize to them for their experience and listen to their concerns and complaints,” Singer said.

Asked why the company would apologize if it had done nothing wrong, Singer said: “It wants to make sure that everyone feels respected — and if these book club members feel they were disrespected, then that’s not right, and that’s why the company is reaching out to them.”

The women exited the train at St. Helena, where they were met by St. Helena police officers and the Wine Train’s own sworn police officer, who had requested the officers wait there until he arrived, St. Helena police dispatcher Maria Gonzalez said.

“We were assuming there would be something criminal, but there wasn’t,” Gonzalez said. The officers left once the women arrived and there was nothing to do, she said.

“The only reason we get called out is to help with a criminal matter — but it was a civil matter,” she said. “I don’t recall being called out before to remove people from the train (for a) civil matter, but without checking my records I can’t answer that question.”

The women were driven back to Napa and given a full refund. They were treated very well at the station, Johnson said. “We were heartbroken and traumatized,” but that would probably have been the end of it, she said.

Then, a posting that afternoon on the Wine Train’s Facebook page came to their attention.

The post, which was quickly taken down after Johnson called the company, said, in part: “Following verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved.”

That catapulted their objections and offense to a new level, Johnson said.

“It hadn’t escalated to that point,” she said, “but that just set it on fire.”

Singer attributed the post, which he described as “incorrect,” to “a junior staff member who was unaware of the actual circumstances.”

“That did not in any way describe the situation,” he said.

The incident took place during a trip the book club planned a year in advance. Originally, Johnson said, the reservations had been for 17 people. She said four of the women there on Saturday don’t drink alcohol and that the others had been drinking small tastes.

“If all 11 of us laugh at the same time, it’s going to be loud,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about that. We were never treated as customers.”

The Wine Train’s “policy is to remove guests who are disruptive, and the staff takes the responsibility seriously,” Singer said. He added that people are asked to leave the train about once a month.

The incident takes place during a renewed national conversation about race, fueled by police shootings of black men and, to a lesser degree, women, but more broadly touching on issues of how black Americans are treated and perceived in general.

“We’re right now living in the most race-conscious time since the early ’70s,” said Mike Ezra, a Sonoma State University professor who specializes in the black civil rights movement and modern race relations.

He emphasized that he could not speak to the specifics of the incident because he wasn’t there, but suggested that in a largely white environment, as the Wine Train was that day, a large group of black people could have attracted extra attention because people who aren’t black can be discomfited in certain circumstances by people who are.

“African-Americans can become hyper-visible to whites who are not fully comfortable with integrated social situations, and thus subject to greater scrutiny,” he said.

“When I look at this, I can’t find anything other than we were singled out because of the color of our skin,” Johnson said.

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