It was supposed to be a book club outing, a day of bonding, wine and fun for a group of mostly-black women riding the popular Napa Valley Wine Train.
But the trip was unexpectedly cut short, they say, because they laughed too loudly.
Right after Antioch author Lisa Renee Johnson — one of the women from Saturday’s group who live-blogged the entire incident on Facebook as it kept unraveling — posted a photo of the women enjoying some reds, whites and appetizers, her next update was a photo of a woman she claims was annoyed by their laughter because the train was “not a bar.” The complaint resulted in the group of 11 — all but one of whom is black — getting kicked off the train.
"We were truly kicked out because we were 'laughing while black' ... It was racially charged," Johnson told NBC Bay Area Monday.
Johnson said Wine Train CEO Tony Giaccio had personally apologized to her Monday, but added that "it wasn't authentic."
"In order to solve the problem, you have to first admit there is one," she said. "They are apologizing for the bad experience, but not because of the role they played in the whole experience. They are not saying 'we are the bad actors.'"
Although the Wine Train refunded the group’s tickets, outrage is spreading fast on social media. "We are totally humilated," Johnson said, adding that the group is guilty of nothing except #LaughingWhileBlack, a hashtag that has caught on online, where people are reacting with both humor and anger.
"Laughing and eating cheese and grapes while Black. Damn, you're scary," Tonya Marie Amos wrote on Facebook.
"I'm white," tweeted @Theonlyadult. "I'll never get on your racist train. #laughingwhileblack"
According to Johnson, at one point, the train’s maître d'hotel came by and asked the group to tone it down so that other passengers didn’t feel uncomfortable.
"Facebook Family, we have a problem!" Johnson wrote at 12:54 p.m. "We sipped wine, enjoyed each other's company but our trip is being cut short. We are a group of 12 ... if we all laugh at the same time it's loud! When we get to St. Helena they are putting us off the train."
Her next photo showed the book club members waiting to be escorted off the train. “We are in purgatory," her caption read.
When the train reached St. Helena, four police officers were waiting by the track. “WOW! They paraded us through 6 cars and none of us are even drunk ... the police were waiting,” Johnson wrote.
A Wine Train spokesperson confirmed their removal to the Napa Valley Register, saying that at least three passengers had complained about the noise level.
"If guests are being severely disruptive, that’s when we discuss whether they should be removed,"spokesperson Kira Devitt told the paper. “We don’t make that judgment unless we receive a complaint from the people around them.” Devitt said that the Wine Train management was looking into Saturday’s incident to see if employees had violated any policies.
Johnson said Giaccio identified areas of improvement during their conversation Monday. "He said 'this is not how we want the Wine Train to be portrayed,'" she said.
A Change.org petition is demanding an apology for the book club, the Sisters on the Reading Edge, whose members include an 83-year-old grandmother who was ejected from the train as well. Video footage shows some of the women crying as they leave the train.
"A trip which was to be an enjoyable day of sisterhood, turned into a day of humiliation,” the petitioner Toni Battle wrote. "To see an elder leaning on her cane by the train as if it's 1954 Alabama, spoke volumes regarding your business practices.“
A message on the Wine Train’s Facebook page Saturday that was later taken down said: “following verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved. … When these celebrations impact our other guests, we do intervene."
Johnson told the Register that the group will decide whether to pursue a lawsuit or a civil rights campaign against the Wine Train.