Eleven women in a San Francisco-area book club — 10 of them black — who were kicked off the Napa Wine Train in late August for “laughing while black” have filed a racial discrimination lawsuit worth $11 million — or $1 million each.
They allege that staff kicked them off during a meeting of their Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club not for being loud, as the company alleges, but because of their race.
“This is 2015, this can’t be happening. It just can’t happen again,” club member Lisa Renee Johnson said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The incident immediately went viral, thanks to the #laughingwhileblack hashtag, but also because someone from the company posted an official statement about the incident on Facebook. That statement accused the women of “verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff,” which required police intervention.
“Many groups come on board and celebrate. When those celebrations impact our guests, we do intervene,” the spokesperson explained.
Two of the 11 plaintiffs believe they were fired because of that post, which was quickly deleted. After the incident, Allisa Carr, 48, was let go as a manager at a local bank, and Debbie Reynolds, 49, was fired from her nursing job, SF Gate added.
The one white woman in the group, Linda Carlson, recalled that her 5-year-old granddaughter even heard news reports of what happened and told her grandmother, “You were… very disrespectful to those people.”
“I truly believe from the moment we got on the train we were singled out. I truly know what it feels to be a black woman these days and to be discriminated against.”
Afterward, they said they fielded criticism from strangers and family members alike.
After the episode went viral, the company apologized. They deny the black women were removed because of their skin color and noted that guests are regularly kicked off for rowdiness — and not all of them are black.
The lawsuit goes into further detail about what happened that afternoon. It was a Saturday, and book club member Sandra Jamerson’s birthday. Before the wine train even left the station, they were warned to quiet down. As the trip began, they sipped wine, ate cheese, took pictures, and enjoyed themselves. Then an employee told them to “tone down your noise level because you’re being offensive to other passengers,” the lawsuit alleges.
Johnson said she told one of the crew members who’d approached the ladies to complain that they were being singled out because of their race. The staff member denied that accusation and countered by saying she was Latina.
Two hours later, they were approached again and told to leave.
Then came what Johnson described as the “most humiliating experience I ever had in my entire life.” They were ordered to get off the wine train, escorted in front of passengers — who “snickered” as they passed — in six cars, and handed over to police.
Some of those passengers, identified as white, were “inebriated and acting boisterous” but allowed to stay, the suit states.
“We had to stand in the hot sun and have people… look at us as if we were criminals,” said member Tira McDonald
To win their suit, the women will have to prove in court that they were singled out because their race, not because of their behavior. The company that now owns the wine train (it was sold in September) has hired a former FBI agent to investigate the matter.
For the women’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy, the incident reveals that “blacks are still being treated differently in America.”
[Photo Courtesy YouTube Screengrab]