April Rubin, New York Times, October 16, 2022
Eric André cleared security at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, gave the gate agent his boarding pass and was moments away from stepping onto a plane when he was stopped by officers with the Clayton County Police Department.
The officers questioned Mr. André, who is Black, about whether he was selling drugs and what drugs he had in his possession, he said in an interview and a court complaint.
They asked to inspect his bag. When he asked if he had to comply, the officers said no, and Mr. André was eventually cleared to board, he said.
During the interaction with the police, other passengers had to squeeze past Mr. André and the officers on the jet bridge, the narrow passageway that connects the gate to the airplane during boarding. He said he was allowed onto the plane but left shaken by the interaction.
“I knew it was wrong,” said Mr. André, the creator of “The Eric André Show,” a stand-up comedian, actor, producer and writer. “It was humiliating, dehumanizing, traumatizing. Passengers are gawking at me like I’m a perpetrator as they’re like squeezing past me on this claustrophobic jet bridge.”
Mr. André’s encounter in April 2021 echoed another one in October 2020 by Clayton English, another Black comedian, at the same airport.
Mr. André and Mr. English filed a lawsuit this month against the Police Department, saying they were unfairly targeted for drug checks, according to the complaint. Their lawyers said the department’s practice discriminated against Black travelers who had already been cleared by Transportation Security Administration agents.
The Clayton County Police Department runs a jet bridge interdiction program at the airport and made stops between Aug. 30, 2020, and April 30, 2021, according to the suit.
Court papers say the stops resulted in a total of three seizures: “roughly 10 grams (less than the weight of one AAA alkaline battery) of drugs from one passenger, 26 grams (the weight of about 4 grapes) of ‘suspected THC gummies’ from another, and 6 prescription pills (for which no valid prescription allegedly existed) from a third.”
In that time, a total of 402 stops were made. In cases where race was recorded, more than half of the 378 passengers who were stopped were Black.
“This type of interaction occurs frequently during our officers’ course of duties, and is supported by Georgia law and the U.S. Constitution,” a 2021 department statement said. The department added, “Our preliminary findings have revealed that Mr. Andre was not racially profiled.”
The suit maintains the police violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the equal protection clause, which guarantees racial equality and prohibits racial discrimination, said Barry Friedman, founding director of New York University’s Policing Project, and another lawyer on the case.
Mr. André lives in Los Angeles but travels through the Atlanta airport often for work and has recently taken to hiring a service that brings passengers directly to the plane after they’ve cleared security because he’s afraid of repeating his experience from last year.
“It’s not just about me or what I went through,” he said. “It’s about the community I identify with. It’s about Black and brown people being discriminated against and being treated like second-class citizens, being treated as if they’re already suspicious and they don’t belong in this country by their own government and the trauma that comes with that.”