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Amtrak faces pressure to explain why a conductor asked NAACP Legal Defense Fund president to give up her seat


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Sherrilyn Ifill was trying to get home to Baltimore on Friday evening when a confusing request by an Amtrak conductor that she leave her seat became a closely watched transportation saga that has yielded few concrete answers.

“I’m being asked to leave my seat on train 80 which I just boarded in D.C. There are no assigned seats on this train,” Ifill shared on Twitter Friday, directing her query at Amtrak’s account. “The conductor has asked me to leave my seat because she has ‘other people coming who she wants to give this seat.’ Can you please explain?”

Transit woes are nothing new, but Ifill’s grievance struck Twitter users as particularly ironic. At worst, the request struck many following the incident as having echoes of discrimination faced by civil rights icons like Rosa Parks; at best, it was an example of a black woman receiving inferior customer service. The incident also happened heading into the weekend that celebrates civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Ifill would be well-versed in such situations: She’s the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the leading civil rights and racial justice organization in the United States.

Through a representative with the LDF, Ifill declined to be interviewed Saturday.

Ifill’s tweets offer her perspective of the events, which she called “truly bizarre.” An Amtrak employee she identified as an “agent/conductor” said she was removing Ifill from her seat to “keep empty seats at the front,” all despite the fact that Ifill said she was getting off at the next stop. Ifill said she later spoke to the lead conductor who apologized to her and said there was no explanation for why the other employee had tried to move her.

“What really disturbs me is how someone with this authority can just entirely make up something so ridiculous and approach a customer in this way,” Ifill wrote. “I did wonder when she was carrying on — how far will I take this? And the immediate answer in my mind was ‘all the way.’”

Amtrak originally suggested the incident could have been the result of a new policy to offer assigned seating in some cars. But in a statement on Saturday, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams told The Washington Post that was not the issue.

“We attempted numerous times to reach Ms. Ifill to speak with her directly last night, but were unable to connect with her until this morning,” Abrams said. “We should have responded publicly sooner, and we apologized for the incident and our slow response. Amtrak is looking into the matter more closely so that we can prevent situations like this going forward.”

In a message directed to Ifill on Twitter, Amtrak’s official account apologized and said the train service was attempting to reach her and will investigate. Ifill indicated shortly after she was speaking to an official with the company.

The company announced last fall that it would expand its assigned seating option to passengers riding in business class on Northeast Regional trains, which include stops at Washington’s Union Station and in Baltimore. The changes went into effect Jan. 11.

Customers booking passage on the affected route are automatically assigned a seat when they reserve their ticket, according to a description on Amtrak’s site. Customers are able to select a particular seat or change their assignment anytime before boarding. It was not immediately clear whether Ifill was traveling in business class and subject to the new policy.

Ifill stressed late Friday that despite the incident, she’s a devoted customer. “This incident will not sour me on using this important public rail,” she wrote.

Ifill’s situation wasn’t the only accusation of discrimination the company faced Friday. A group of transportation policy advocates in Chicago was told it would cost $25,000 for two members who use wheelchairs to travel from Chicago to Bloomington, Ill., next week, NPR reported. The fare for that route typically runs $16.

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