On Saturday, a book club composed of 11 Black women from the Bay Area was escorted off an excursion train to a group of waiting police officers, allegedly for nothing more than the crime of laughing too loudly. The local book club, Sistahs on the Reading Edge, had scheduled a day trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train, where riders can enjoy local wine and snacks while touring through the Northern California vineyards. Group member Lisa Johnson posted a few pics on her Facebook page of her and her friends smiling and toasting glasses of red wine while nibbling on plates of cheese and grapes — the usual ladies’-day-out kind of stuff. But their trip took a wholly unexpected turn when the women (including an 83-year-old) were kicked off the train in St. Helena, where police officers were waiting. Johnson told the San Francisco Chronicle that, early on in the trip, the train manager had approached the women, asking them to keep it down. Apparently, most of them did lower their voices — however, Johnson added that they weren't behaving any differently from other patrons on the train, and that they certainly were not "obnoxious or intoxicated." Photos she posted also show the women taking pictures with other riders, some of whom approached them to talk about the romance novel the group was reading for the trip. But it seems that certain other patrons made complaints about the group members, at which point "they were removed from the train and offered transportation back to the station in Napa," according to a statement by Napa Valley Wine Train spokeswoman Kira Devitt. The statement makes no mention that the women were herded off the train by officers from both the Napa Valley Railroad and St. Helena police departments. It was that public "walk of shame," as Johnson describes it, that was the most galling part of the experience: "To get escorted into the hands of waiting police officers. That’s the humiliating part."
No one was arrested, and the company gave refunds to the group, but the book club is still seeking an apology for what it believes was a racially motivated incident. Of course, it is possible these women were being disruptive (Devitt added that train management has to remove passengers about once a month), but it is hard to ignore the apparent racism in this case. One other passenger who was present on Saturday posted a review on Yelp saying, "I watched in disbelief as staff harassed a group of people who were merely drinking wine and laughing. I'd like to think it wasn't a racially motivated act, but given the fact that other, non-Black guests were behaving in the same way and not removed, I can only conclude that it was discrimination." Johnson and her friends found the police officers perfectly friendly, and the group was evidently ready to put the whole incident behind them — Johnson didn't take to social media until the Napa Valley Wine Train did first, posting a (now deleted) statement accusing the group of "verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff." That's when Johnson jumped in to set the record straight, using a hashtag to alert others of her book club's "crime" of #laughingwhileblack — but thus far, the Napa Valley Wine Train hasn't responded, save for its initial statement. "The train is set up to be with your friends, to drink wine, and have a good time," said Johnson. "We were thinking, 'Who are we offending?'"